23 January ~ West Bromwich Albion supporters tempted to invest great significance in today's match away to Blackburn Rovers might do well to recall a visit to Ewood Park in February 1991 for a match in the old Division Two. Both sides were in a precarious position just above the bottom three but Albion, having sacked Brian Talbot and appointed Stuart Pearson as caretaker-manager, appeared to be recovering from the FA Cup humiliation inflicted by Woking just a few weeks earlier. They eased to a 3-0 win over a dreadful Rovers side.
Things were looking up, the fans thought: Pearson would be given the manager’s job on a permanent basis and Albion’s own improved football, as well as the presence of sides as bad as Blackburn in the division, would see them steer comfortably clear of relegation.
What actually happened was that Pearson was passed over by the Hawthorns board in favour of Bobby Gould. “Barmy” Bobby then led the side to just two wins from the next 17 games and demotion to Division Three. Rovers, meanwhile, recovered from that 3-0 defeat and stayed up. They were promoted to the newly formed Premier League a year later, whereupon they started signing players like Alan Shearer.
Still, for all that one mundane looking midwinter fixture is not, by itself, going to define the campaign, today’s game does feel like an important one for Albion. This is partly because there appear to be no outstandingly bad teams in the Premier League this season, meaning that every point comes to seem vital, especially when gained against sides around you in the lower-mid-table area.
Baggies fans will also hope that the side can build on the 3-2 win earned last week against Blackpool. Pessimists, however, are quick to point out that that game was never really under control and that the result says less about Albion than the five successive league defeats that preceded it. The optimists counter with the argument that, even taking those losses into account, Albion have picked up nine points from the last eight games, a rate of accumulation which, if maintained over the next 16 matches, would see them to 43 points and probable survival.
That would maintain Paul Scharner’s record, of which he professes to be proud, of never having suffered Premier League relegation. In the lead-up to the Blackpool game, Scharner was critical of the recent poor performances and “laziness” of both himself and some of his team-mates, claiming that bad habits had begun to set in following the discontinuation (in December) of the players’ self-policed system of fines for minor acts of indiscipline. Roberto Di Matteo seems fairly relaxed about Scharner’s decision to speak publicly, possibly believing that the Blackpool result suggests it has done no great harm.
Albion’s 15 games following the Ewood Park encounter include six against sides below them in the table. Of those, four are against their West Midlands rivals (the strangeness of the season so far is emphasised by the fact that, although apparently facing a relegation battle, Albion were the highest placed of the region’s clubs going into this weekend’s games). That is one reason to maintain perspective, whatever the outcome on Sunday. Meanwhile, those of us who remember the corresponding fixture 20 years ago will retain our natural caution, even in the event of Albion sweeping to another 3-0 victory. James Baxter