Bags of pride

West Bromwich Al­bion have been turn­ing heads but does Roberto Di Mat­teo have the re­sources to last the course?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MUSIC - By NANTHA KU­MAR

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.

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