West Bromwich Albion (a) Premiership
Half time: Albion 0 United
Graeme Souness said:
"I had a smile on my face after the
start we made to the game, but when we had them on the back foot we didn't
come up with the killer punch. Had
we scored early then we could have gone on to win by more than one goal.
I don't remember much about the last time we played at the Hawthorns in yellow. I was there for the 5-1 midweek victory in 1989 when we played in yellow and green stripes and took the home side apart in a Division Two fixture but the famous 3-0 FA Cup victory in February 1974 is just the stuff of legend and grainy TV footage.
So when United took to the field sporting the yellow third kit, my heart skipped a beat hoping that Shola Ameobi might head in an opening goal like Supermac and that Laurent Robert might rekindle memories of Stewy Barraclough's wing play or Lee Bowyer might nod in a cheeky third a la John Tudor.... Incredibly some of us can still dream despite thirty years of disappointment, frustration and heartache.
A 3-0 victory tonight would have seen us leap up the table to 9th above Aston Villa - a victory of any kind would have put us back in the top half - three points would have renewed our optimism and signalled that an appalling run of results had truly come to an end. A stale goalless draw against relegation favourites West Brom would let the doubt creep back in again and probably ruin most of our New Year resolutions.
I'd joked on the way to the ground that the two worst defences in the league that had conceded 82 goals in just 41 games were bound to serve up a scoreless bore draw. It was said half in jest but nevertheless it was ludicrous enough to be utterly predictable.
We got there early enough to see the pre-match warm-up which involved a bibs v non-bibs kickabout. Charles N'Zogbia was part of this and as expected Craig Bellamy wasn't, suggesting that the young Frenchman was in line for his first start. This was confirmed as the team was announced containing just one recognised striker - our perennial bench-warmer and fourth choice attacker - Ameobi.
No matter, the Albion starting eleven included Darren Purse who is always a threat in front of his own goal and the deeply unpopular Ronnie Wallwork (who made a couple of substitute appearances against Newcastle in his unspectacular Manchester United career) both good news for us I thought.
There was a minute's silence for the victims of the SE Asian tsunami before the kick-off and the unimaginable force of the destruction found a suitably powerful echo in a stadium full of thousands, all standing in perfect silence (apart from a couple of pathetic tinny ditties playing on someone's mobile).
We started very brightly and within the first ten minutes two or three chances had already gone begging. The best of those came when Laurent Robert arrowed in a free-kick that was inch-perfect for Bramble to head in from six yards but his attempt went straight to Russell Hoult who didn't have to move.
The home side's best chance of the half fell to Wallwork who was allowed time and space to hit a 20 yard drive. Given saved reasonably comfortably but spilled the shot with Bramble first to the loose ball, although his clearance was returned into the middle where Kanu headed wide.
At the other end Shola had a few half chances but came in for some rough treatment, notably from Johnson who should have been booked long before he received a yellow for encroaching on a Robert free-kick. The kick was moved ten yards further forward but Robert didn't take advantage.
Bernard found himself in an advanced position and cut across Albrechtsen and stumbled as he anticipated a challenge from behind. He got to his feet quickly to avoid a booking for diving and shouts for a penalty were confined to the away contingent at the other end of the ground.
Lee Bowyer, celebrating his 28th birthday, almost broke the deadlock from distance with a low daisycutter that found Hoult flat-footed but cannoned off the foot of the post. Robert fired in a goalbound effort from the rebound but the 'keeper saved well.
For large parts of the half, and the game, we messed around in midfield with some pretty little triangular passing movements that were about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. Steven Taylor, who is looking assured at the back given that he's still just 18, was a little safe with his passing - turning it back to Given all too often or playing a five yard pass to his nearest colleague. Bramble however, was putting in some outstanding long range balls that were invariably inch perfect.
After the break there was little improvement from either side and the game descended into an error-strewn, chance-free kickabout that our lot had obviously been practising in the warm-up.
Shay Given made an excellent save after Horsfield had pushed and pulled his way past Hughes and our best chances fell to Robert who had a weak header cleared off the line and Bowyer who took a touch too many after N'Zogbia had done well to pull the ball back from the goalline.
It says a lot for N'Zogbia, or a lot about our homegrown talent, that the youngster has been pitched in so early. After just one reserve game he was a playing substitute and now he gets his first start after just four substitute appearances. He looked like a schoolboy in the warm-up but his performance suggested he hasn't been thrown in too early.
He linked up well with his midfield colleagues and although he needed a bit of guidance at times a couple of his byline runs in the second half were excellent. Having said that, I would have preferred to see James Milner on from the start and within 30 seconds of his introduction he almost created the winner, Dyer failing to get a shot on goal after Milner's run had created a good opening.
The whistle was welcomed more by the home fans and their manager who had lost all of his games at The Hawthorns but most Newcastle fans knew that once again points had gone begging.
It seems incredible to think that we were having problems fitting three top class strikers into the side and now we have one mediocre forward playing on his own. Shola has done well in recent games and considering the buffeting he got tonight didn't do too badly in this game but he was dead on his feet with 20 minutes to go and Souness (serving a one match ban in the stands) didn't fancy throwing on Ambrose, allowing Dyer or Robert to play up front.
Had we really settled for a point? I sincerely hope not.
Babayaro and Boumsong may come in and shore up our leaky defence but those two or Nicky Butt and Stephen Carr wouldn't have helped us in this game. Of course we missed Kluivert, Shearer and Bellamy but we could well start next season without two or all of that striking trio. That's a worrying thought.
In summary, it was a tired performance from a side that has played four tough games in eight days. It's not working at the coalface, but four games in such a short period does take its toll. However, perhaps this was the night that thoughts of qualifying for Europe via the league were finally extinguished.
It's unlikely that we'll be here next year, given West Brom's predicament. Just as well really, as it's just as unlikely that we'd have a European third kit to wear....