WBA 1 Bolton Wanderers 1

While their footballing principles may stop West Brom repeating 2005’s great escape from relegation, their fans remain steadfastly positive. The visit of the unpopular yet enduringly effective Bolton provides another opportunity to showcase their faith and fragility, and David Stubbs was there

As the West Brom fans enter by the Jeff Astle gate into The Hawthorns, many of them, young and old, male and female, pay tribute to painted images, fastened to the railings, of the hero of 1968’s FA Cup victory that look like they were commissioned by the same artist who does those mirror likenesses of Elvis Presley you get at fairgrounds. One by one, they come up and pat Astle, as if rubbing a rabbit’s paw for good luck. It’s a genuinely moving collective gesture of footballing faith – I’m reminded of the stream of newlyweds who come and pay tribute to the eternal flame dedicated to the Second World War fallen in Moscow’s Red Square.

You do, however, wince for the late Astle, as the bulk of the pats are on the front of his shorts, and you sense his helplessness in the hereafter at this well-meant but relentlessly cumulative assault on his nether regions. Moreover, West Brom’s position at the bottom of the table is hardly an excellent advert for such sanguine superstition. Ten yards down, there’s a bloke selling kazoos, into which he rasps a barely adequate rendition of The Great Escape, a reminder of the Baggies’ miraculous avoidance of the drop in 2005 on the final day of the season. But no amount of Astle-touching seems to have done the trick this time round. Albion are rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, in dire need of a victory just to downgrade their situation to “perilous”.

Still, the mood among fans on this blazingly, unseasonably bright, spring-like yet bitingly cold day is not disconsolate. There’s no singing, outside the stadium at least, but a quiet determination to see the season out – and, it must be said, The Hawthorns is filled to capacity. The local paper, which sells for precisely 38p, is running a Baggies special edition, on the cover of which, in a clever play on words, they describe the local fans’ continued loyalty as “fan-tastic”. It’s funny because it’s true.

This being the West Midlands, there are no shortage of reminders that it’s a long way from Tuscany. The area around The Hawthorns is mostly industrial estate, car park, frequently stationed signposts for the M5, North or South, with traffic slowing as drivers rubberneck at dead pigeons in the road. However, the stadium itself is compact but impressive indeed. The floodlights arch, diagonal and bright white above the stadium, dominating the way floodlights ought to – none of this building them into the side of the stands nonsense. The interior design, meanwhile, is a thing to behold. A depiction of a scarf bedecks one set of seats behind the goal, while at the other end, some creative spark has had the notion, carried unanimously by the committee, of creating large lettering across the seats in italics. Italics! All of this is in keeping with the spirit of West Brom as a whole. Here is a club who try that bit harder, who distinguish themselves not through gunning realistically for UEFA/Europa Cup consideration but for romantically attempting to stick to principles of flamboyance, of playing football rather than opting for dour, park-the-bus, survival-at-all-costs pragmatism. It’s a theme that runs through the essays in the club programme and speaks of a strong sense of both tradition and style. Like Cyrano de Bergerac, they may be felled and defeated but no one can deny their panache.

All of which makes it the more dismaying that West Brom have long eschewed their traditional and elegant moniker the Throstles in favour of the Baggies. Granted, throstles have suffered from declining numbers and don’t flutter around Smethwick in great numbers nowadays – but that would be all the more reason to cling faster to that name, rather than the Baggies, which is an uncomfortably short step from being known as the Krankies or something.

Still, once inside the stadium, the fans are in full and lusty song, thankfully drowning out a big screen ad for a Duran Duran DVD. “West Brom till I die” gets a brief airing but that implies mere fairweather support compared with The Lord Is My Shepherd, which carries with it the implication that being a Baggie/Throstle is something you carry into the hereafter. Again, faith. The teams trot onto the pitch to the stentorian, though commonplace strains of Orff’s Carmina Burana, otherwise known as the Old Spice music, and the drums begin to bang.

Bolton, obdurate and seemingly unflushable from the Premier League, represent the sort of antithesis to West Brom – unadmired by neutrals, and today clad in a charmless near-orange reserve kit. Kevin Davies, with his distinctive, pigeonchested strut, epitomises their not entirely likeable muscular defiance.

The opening exchanges are not sparkling, and if football stadiums are the new churches, then these are the moments when we, the congregation, find our minds metaphorically wandering and worrying as to whether we remembered to turn the gas stove off before leaving the house. Albion are subjected to a cluster of offside decisions from the same linesman, including a disallowed goal, most of which involve Marc-Antoine Fortuné. Accusations of onanism shower like spittle from the crowd. Fortuné then provides a great lay off to James Morrison, who takes his time and coolly blasts the ball into the Rainham Steel hoarding way past the right post.

Much of the intelligent and deft play is coming from Chris Brunt down the left, and West Brom have the wind of the crowd’s encouragement at their backs – their sanguine, hopeful roars, even when Albion are merely bring the ball out of their own half are so disproportionate at times it’s like they’ve been badly dubbed on to 1960s football footage. However, Bolton, while not appearing to expend so much effort, are putting together a few chances of their own, with Scott Carson forced into a point blank save from Davies just after the half hour mark.

Come the second half and, when he puts in a foul on Ricardo Gardner on 50 minutes, you realise that Jonathan Greening has been on the pitch. He cuts a strange figure, Greening, with something of the air of a castaway at West Brom with his sometime beard and lank hair. Like some former Britpop combo once mentioned in the same breath as Blur, Suede and Pulp but now completely and mysteriously forgotten, he seems to wonder about the pitch under a giant cartoon thought cloud bearing the words “What happened?”. Here is a man who actually pocketed a Champions League medal for Manchester United in 1999 and received an England call-up, but now he is reduced to patrolling the West Brom midfield, central yet strangely peripheral.

Albion continue to press, look to be trying that much harder, though sadly chances keep falling to the wayward Morrison, whose volley on 63 minutes eventually sees the ball return from the sky coated in snow. And then, wouldn’t you know it. In Loaded-speak, if Albion are the bloke that spends weeks working up the courage to ask out the girl working down the pub, mentally composing lines of introduction, selecting aftershave, going down the gym and investing in new duds, then Bolton are the guy who casually walks in off the street, unshaven, shirt hanging out, leans over the bar and says “How about it, then?” – and scores. It’s Bolton who get the goal, on 67 minutes, as Matthew Taylor slots home a volley past a West Brom defence making like Easter Island occupants. Poor Scott Carson in goal – once again, his excellent shot-stopping work has been to no avail as with cruel inevitability, the defence springs another fatal leak. The Albion fans are crestfallen. Unlike at Portsmouth, the drum does not bang on cheerfully regardless of adversity on the pitch. This is probable doom. With ten minutes to go, there is even a trickle for the exits.

But then, out of the tomb-like silence save for the taunting of Bolton fans, waltzes Robert Koren, down the right, and, with the Bolton defence taking their turn to stand stock still ,unleashes a low, left foot shot that takes a deflection off Danny Shittu and The Hawthorns erupts from the dead.

The final few minutes of the game are conducted in a cauldron of noisy excitement and anxiety. There is terror after some of the calamitously derelict defending which has impeded Albion this season leaves Taylor clean through, only for Carson to block. There’s an exchange of half-chances, then five minutes of event-packed injury time. Gary Megson, who later described himself as “humbled” by his reception on his first return as an opposition manager to The Hawthorns, is out on the edge of his technical area, exhorting. Both he and Tony Mowb­wray are wearing dark suits – they look like a pair of rival undertakers barking their wares in a marketplace. In a messy dispute involving a substition, Megson manages to get himself sent off by Howard Webb, for which he later apologies with a rueful chuckle.

The game ends 1-1, with Mowbray’s expression set, as it permanently is, in a Munch-like expression of horror. He won’t need the cliche merchants in the press conference afterwards to tell him he and WBA have a mountain to climb now, to be fair. What he also has, however, is the support of a set of fans who, despite all, have rarely if ever given away to restiveness this afternoon. It’s as if they’re resigned to their long-term fate, to bounce between Premier League and Championship – always too classy to stay long in the latter, always too vulnerable to gain a longterm foothold in the former. But always, panache.

As for Bolton, another point, duly and dully earned. Their fans serenade Kevin Davies with his own customised hymn of praise. Perhaps someday his image will adorn the gates to the Reebok Stadium and it’ll be his testicles the Bolton faithful tap for good luck. Perhaps not.

From WSC 267 May 2009