15 December ~ With a series of apparently winnable fixtures, December was supposed to be the month West Bromwich Albion opened up a gap between themselves and the real Premier League stragglers. As a result, they wouldn't be talked of as relegation candidates when spring came round, but would finally be thought of as a credible and established top-flight outfit. It isn't working out that way just yet. Instead, a draw away to QPR and defeat at home to Wigan have ensured that fans' anxiety levels will remain high in the run-up to Christmas.
There is no crisis at The Hawthorns. In fact, there is little doubt that Albion currently have their best squad for nearly 30 years, with certain players – notably Youssuf Mulumbu, James Morrison and Shane Long – enhancing their reputations by the week. Although recent results have been disappointing, the team are not playing particularly badly. They looked the more likely winners as the game at Loftus Road entered its final stages. And Wigan players were unable to hide their own surprise at last Saturday's result.
Yet there are a few worrying signs. They keep throwing away points from winning positions. Penalties continue to be conceded – Wigan were the fourth successive visitors to The Hawthorns to be awarded a spot-kick. And Chris Brunt and Peter Odemwingie appear to be going though moody phases. Even the normally level-headed Roy Hodgson is showing his frustration.
Whether optimism can be drawn from the far greater problems Saturday's opponents Blackburn are going through is, at best, debatable. For a start, Ewood Park does not have the happiest associations for Albion fans. You have to go back to February 1991 for the club's last victory there. That win was followed, three months later, by a first ever relegation to the third division.
While the sort of cliches that surround Blackburn – "dark December days at Ewood Park" and the like – are tedious, there remains a sense that this Albion team does not consistently produce the sort of physical and mental resilience necessary to prevail in this type of fixture.
Hodgson arrived at the club with a reputation for sound defensive organisation. But that idea is being challenged by the lack of clean sheets and regular frittering away of leads. The kind of striker most likely to enjoy himself against the Albion defence is one who is big, muscular and good in the air. In other words, someone just like Blackburn’s Yakubu.
One tenuous link between Saturday's game and a previous visit to Ewood Park is the issue of refereeing. At the end of the 2002-03 season – Albion's first in the top division for 16 years – thousands of fans travelled to Lancashire dressed as match officials, bearing whistles, flags, and red and yellow cards. It was a tongue-in-cheek protest at the number of decisions that seemed to go the "wrong" way during the campaign. No one at The Hawthorns is yet blaming referees for this season's misfortunes, but there would be few complaints if a controversial penalty helped the team overcome Blackburn on Saturday – even if it is a little too early in the season to use yet another cliche and describe the match as a "six-pointer". James Baxter