“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; he leadeth me
The quiet waters by.”
The first verse of Psalm 23, emblazoned across one side of The Hawthorns. They’ve been singing it there for more than 40 years since a power cut during a Sunday game prompted the adherent churchgoers in the Brummie Road End to find their own entertainment. Maybe we have West Brom fans to thank for Sunday games happening at all, as in 1974 there were still Christian protesters outside of stadia appealing to supporters not to venture into their footballing cathedral on the Sabbath. Psalm 23 blaring out across the Black Country either side of odes to Tony Brown and Len Cantello and unflattering songs about Mike Bailey’s parentage may have just acted as a steady compromise.
City fans could have done some work with Psalm 23 in 1974, not least by altering the lyric slightly to showcase the odd relationship between Bunkers Hill and Malcolm Lord, who to many during that era was a midfielder they shall not want. Future generations could have adapted the opening verse to give Stuart Green or, at a push, Jon Walters, a bit of ecumenical serenading. At the Hawthorns on January 2nd 2017, however, no form of gospel-based caterwauling could have helped City. We’re going down.
There is a fetid stink of repetitiveness we recognise now at City games. We will play well in the first half. We will give everyone hope that we have the right players, the right tactics, the right plan. We will put most of those hopes at the feet of Robert Snodgrass, through whose own personal form the team tends to be efficient and bullish. We will lead, and deserve to. We will predictably spurn a glut of chances to increase the lead. We will lose a marker at some point and concede a goal effortlessly. We will collapse. We will make baffling substitutions that bring the manager accusations of favouritism and one-dimensional cluelessness. We will do it all again next week.
And we will hear nothing from the ownership about anything whatosever, something that seems to put us in common with a head coach who, while obviously out of his depth in this job and proving harder by the week to forgive, is being hung out to dry on a clothes line almost as strong as the one Daniel Cousin used to flatten Kamil Zayatte on this same ground nine – crikey, yes – nine calendar years ago.
City of Culture, we know what we are. But we are other things too. And they’re nothing to be proud of.
Walking in death’s dark vale, in presence of my foes…
Maguire Dawson Davies
Elmohamady Livermore Huddlestone Snodgrass Clucas
Three, five and two. Tried and trusted, except when someone puts a cross in. More on that to come.
Two changes from the side that chucked away two points against Everton, with the return of Tom Huddlestone to the midfield welcome and expected. The absence of Andy Robertson from the left flank made the cynical tongues a-wag, though – resting after an arduous Christmas? Or have West Ham bid for him again?
City settle down quickly. The midfield trio have entire control of the pace of the game. Huddlestone is in “lit cigar” mode, spraying the ball purposely yet nonchalantly to wherever he chooses. Sam Clucas, in an alien position, is not deterred from getting forward. The put-upon Ahmed Elmohamady is similarly forward thinking on the other side. This system just works, when City let it. And they are letting it.
Adama Diomande, followed by Huddlestone, both fizz shots straight down Ben Foster’s throat, then Michael Dawson – the Premier League’s top scoring defender this season, let’s just drink in that utterly crackpot stat once again – aims a left footer just wide after Snodgrass has a corner cleared back to him. It’s good, resourceful, enjoyable stuff from City, and the travelling fans – lots of whom paid on the day, it seems – respond throatily.
Then we score. And it’s a lovely goal indeed.
Harry Maguire wins it, Jake Livermore plays it and Elmohamady, in truly hectares of room thanks to a weirdly unobservant West Brom back four, has room and time to glide the ball to the edge of the box where the fast-arriving Snodgrass is able to slide in and steer the ball into the corner. Foster has no chance.
Just over 20 minutes gone, and a deserved lead has been attained. But can we keep it, to half time?
West Brom manage to tighten things up after Jonny Evans suffers an injury and the change prompts a like-for-like switch. But the home side are taking their time getting into the game, and their deafeningly quiet supporters don’t like it. Meanwhile, City want two.
Snodgrass with another dig, from further away. Blocked. Dieumerci Mbokani, chronic workaholic up front, heads a tame one straight at Foster. Diomande shoots wide, Huddlestone then goes closest with a low left-footer that Foster shovels up well.
In between, ironic cheers from the City corner of the Smethwick End as both Salomón Rondón and Matt Phillips aim headers goalwards, but David Marshall clings on comfortably. Then Maguire nearly removes a Throstle head with a shot of hysteria-inducing venom, though the ricochet allows West Brom a counter attack that ends with Curtis Davies making a goal-saving block. Real defending, this. We have cohesion, pace, innovation. It’s a splendid half of football and the City players trudge off satisfied.
In the eventual context, a half time lead is nothing to shout about, even away from home. But it represents progress. Of a kind.
As darkness falls, we see the first evidence of the crescent moon and Venus having a bit of a gossip in the sky. The nearest planet to earth is eerily bright, and you can understand why social media’s most ardent amateur photographers were hard at work for the next couple of hours. It twinkles, flickers and, as any astronomer will tell you, offers next to no gravitational pull whatsoever. It is so slight it is literally immeasurable and the cumulative effect is nil.
So we can’t use that as an excuse for the second half.
Mike Phelan must have known that Tony Pulis would rely a bit more on bodies in the box. Thy rod and staff comfort Pulis still – and his staff tend to be six-foot plus blunderers who can climb above constructions dimensionally similar to bungalows in order to meet leather with forehead. Very comforting indeed, for him. Especially when the opposition is plainly unaware and unprepared.
On 49 minutes, a corner. Chris Brunt heads in unmarked. On 62 minutes, a corner. Gareth McAuley heads in unmarked. The second took a while to be confirmed as Mark Clattenburg took a break from his ‘Basic Mandarin for Beginners’ app on his wrist to consult the goal-line tech, which eventually said goal.
Two corner, two unmarked headers, two goals. This merits relegation on its own, never mind some of the other harebrained, incompetent things City have done this season.
Let’s add another to an ever expanding list (we’ll be needing more A4 soon). Mbokani, tireless, selfless, forward-thinking, about to relinquish his club duties for the ACoN, withdrawn from action. On comes Ryan Mason, a midfielder whose collective contribution to the City cause since a ludicrously expensive transfer from Tottenham has been a goal in the League Cup and otherwise a series of displays that have been somewhere between vague and feckless.
The formation alteration sees Diomande operate alone up top with Snodgrass theoretically doing the work in the hole behind him. Mason is no improvement either directly or by association. City barely see the ball. And within another eight minutes, a third goal goes in.
Not a set-piece this time, but still the City rearguard struggle to find its collective bum as a counter attack allows James Morrison a sliced left-foot volley into the corner past Marshall, who is blameless for all three goals but is still questionable when it comes to organising a defence.
Phelan tries another novel substitution in removing Davies (to mocking from fans of West Brom, for whom he used to play) and bringing on Markus Henriksen. The number of bodies in the midfield now was bordering on greedy, but still City had little knowledge of what was going on and certainly no inclination to find out. It was a galling, devastating exercise in ruining something you’ve got and earned for yourself. It was really, really horrible.
Robertson was also on the bench, so was David Meyler, so was the forgotten man of the senior squad, Shaun Maloney, who has plainly more to offer than the two wastrels who have taken up too much of our time as tactical martyr figures already. Why Maloney isn’t getting a game is anyone’e guess, but then he wasn’t a purchase on Ehab’s list in August, of course.
Afterwards, Phelan claimed he couldn’t defend the corners, which gives him something in common with his players. He is now without Elmohamady as well as Mbokani throughout January, while Snodgrass applauded the fans quite lengthily, as if to signify an imminent parting of the ways. Phelan is also without the goodwill of most City fans, and indeed the physical presence of an awful lot of them due to the much-vaunted boycott of this Saturday’s FA Cup tie versus a similarly bedraggled, virulent Swansea City. Though even without the boycott, why would anyone, from either side, want to go to that?
Cups will take our attention for much of January, especially if our rancid owner, within the paths of righteousness e’en for his own name’s sake, continues to play cat-and-mouse with the head coach over funding for new players. The Premier League is unlovely at the best of times, but it is especially so when you feel like the unloveliest presence within it. That’s where City are right now and it is difficult to imagine being anywhere else before May. And the blame will always lie squarely, firmly, unequivocally at the top.