Bags of pride
West Bromwich Albion have been turning heads but does Roberto Di Matteo have the resources to last the course?
West Brom on the rise with a bright start.
Boing, boing, boing,” as almost every newspaper was frantically eager to tell us after West Bromwich Albion’s stunning win at Arsenal, is a favourite terrace ditty at the Hawthorns. it is an affectionately self-mocking reference to West Brom’s fluctuating fortunes as they flitted between the first two divisions in the last five years, hauling impartial admirers as well as memorable tales.
The story of this West Midlands outfit during this period must be seen within the context of its locale. West Bromwich does not exactly provide the most attractive launch pad for an ambitious italian to compose a celebrated career in football management. Yet, this is where ex-Chelsea stalwart Roberto Di Matteo finds himself – in a former coal-mining town that evolved into an industrial area, which has been experiencing a gradual slide in the past 40 years.
The football club happens to provide both relief from the languor of decline and act as a source of pride. The scenes that accompanied their escape from the Premiership chop in Season 2004/05 are still etched in our minds. They are significant for the outpour of sheer exuberance – thousands swamped the pitch after the Baggies beat Portsmouth – as well as for a piece of Premiership history: they became the first club to stay up despite anchoring the table at Christmas.
obtaining another stay of execution was again the brief that had landed on the table of Di Matteo when he secured promotion to the Premier League and the opening fixture list very much confirmed it. The Baggies had visits to Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal in their first six Premiership games and were paired with Manchester City in the League Cup. A 6-0 annihilation at Stamford Bridge (Di Matteo’s old club) was not the most auspicious of season openers for the Baggies and the clichéd forecasts were the order of the day.
They bounced back with a slim victory over Sunderland and, while they suffered a less demoralising defeat at Anfield in their next league engagement, the next three results were crucial. Champions League debutants Tottenham Hotspur were held at home on Sept 11 and a week later Birmingham City – the West Brom stadium is situated on the edge of Birmingham – were trumped 3-1 in a grudge match.
Di Matteo then gambled on his second liners in the Round Three clash against Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City benchwarmers and his men wiped off the latter’s first half lead within 20 minutes of the restart for a 2-1 triumph. Di Matteo’s success over the extravagantly moneyed Manchester club was made sweeter by the fact that he also beat his more established compatriot.
But even this outcome would have not prepared even the most terminally optimistic Baggies follower for the events at the Emirates three days later. For a set of supporters that had, upon their return to the Premiership, placed wins over their principal rivals Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers as must-dos, the humbling of Arsenal and City had extended hope that a “boing” back to Championship might not materialise.
This is the challenge facing Di Matteo now. He needs to steer in the heightened expectations in the past week and help the West Brom faithful ignore their sixth position in the table.
The 40-year-old was not the first choice to take over from his muchrevered predecessor Tony Mowbray, who had taken the Baggies to Wembley twice since he took over four years ago this month.
Their first trip was to unsuccessfully contest the Championship promotion play-off against Derby County in May 2007 while the second occasion was the FA Cup semi-final showdown in April 2008 against eventual winners Portsmouth. Clinching promotion to the upper tier assuaged the pain of missing out on the Final but the Baggies’ Premiership adventure was limited to a single term.
When the Scottish Premier Sunday, Oct 3 1.55am - Real Sociedad v Espanyol 3.55am - Valencia v Athletic Bilbao Monday, Oct 4 12.55am - Barcelona v Real Mallorca 2.55am - Real Madrid v Deportivo La Coruna
Bundesliga Saturday, Oct 2 2.25am - Hannover 96 v St Pauli 9.25pm - Hamburg v Kaiserlautern Sunday, Oct 3 9.25pm - Stuttgart v Eintracht Frankfurt League beckoned through Celtic, Mowbray embarked on his homecoming last June, sinking the team into a breakup. There was further disarray when Preston north End’s Alan irvine rebuffed the board’s offer before Di Matteo, who came close to liberating MK Dons from League one two seasons ago, agreed to take on the job.
it was not made easier by the exit of three of his key midfielders in the summer: Borja Valero, West Brom’s record signing at £4.7mil, Jonathan greening, captain and stalwart of Mowbray’s side, and creative force Robert Koren. notwithstanding this setback, Di Matteo counts on the knowledge of a handful of players who started in the penultimate game of Season 2008/09 (a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool that confirmed their demotion).
He also has the fringe footballers of Mowbray’s team and they have since merged into a useful mixture of youth-and-experience to form the core of his first team. goal-scoring midfielder Chris Brunt and playmaker graham Dorrans have matured into individuals who appeared to be fulfilling their Premiership promise.
While the midfield is West Brom’s strongest section, it is in defence that Di Matteo lacks the necessary support for survival.
Apart from Liverpool discard Scott
SuperSport 2 (Ch 816)
Serie A Saturday, Oct 2 11.55pm - Udinese v Cesena Sunday, Oct 3 2.40am - Parma v AC Milan 8.55pm - napoli v AS Roma Monday, Oct 4 2.40am - inter Milan v Juventus
French Ligue 1 Sunday, Oct 3 10.55pm - Paris St germain v nice
SuperSport 3 (Ch 817)
BPL Saturday, Oct 2 9.30pm - Tottenham v Aston Villa Carson, there are not many “names” that could inspire confidence as the season cranks on. Midfielders Paul Scharner, Youssouf Mulumbu and Steven Reid are tasked to shield the rearguard in the absence of quality and leadership from the backline. injuries to any of the three and the Baggies’ main defenders could put their quest for continued Premiership existence at risk.
Their endurance is due to be tested again tomorrow when they host Bolton Wanderers. These are the teams – rather than Manchester United at old Trafford next Saturday - that Di Matteo and his charges have to exploit for full points if they were to ensure that safety from the step-down is guaranteed at the earliest possible time.
it is also unfathomable that rivals clubs allow themselves now to view West Brom as mere relegation fighters as the stakes have been upped by their heartening start.
About a year ago, Di Matteo shocked the Championship with his team’s 5-0 mauling of Middlesbrough – barely two months into their downgrading – at the Riverside Stadium. He has repeated the feat against one of the supposed Premiership title contenders but in reality for the Baggies, the battle has just begun and it is premature to make claims on behalf of the young manager and his side. Sunday, Oct 3 10pm - Chelsea v Arsenal
ESPN (Ch 812)
BPL Saturday, Oct 2 7.40pm - Wigan v Wolves 9.55pm - Sunderland v Man United Sunday, Oct 3 8.25pm - Man City v newcastle
StarSports (Ch 813)
BPL Saturday, Oct 2 9.55pm - Birmingham v Everton Sunday, Oct 3 9.55pm - Liverpool v Blackpool
* Astro schedule subject to change
Keep solid: West Brom manager Roberto Di Matteo living the dream with a string of impressive results.