West Bromwich Albion v Sheffield United; The Hawthorns, Thursday 11th August 2022, 8pm
Thursday night football is back at the Hawthorns! Yes, that’s a phrase that doesn’t really sit well, isn’t it?
This weeks’ League Cup tie will be just the 34th match played on a Thursday in the entire club’s history, excluding those on the traditional holiday fixture dates of Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. The last two were both during lockdown when Premier League football was spread out into every day of the week while the previous one was a League Cup tie played on 24th August 2006 when Bryan Robson’s Albion won 3-0 at Leyton Orient, switched to a Thursday night for live TV coverage.
Gary Megson famously complained about having to play Tuesday and Thursday in October 2001 when the Baggies Division One fixture with Millwall was picked for TV and scheduled just two days after a League Cup tie with Charlton – Albion lost both games but, of course, went on to win promotion.
On this occasion, the schedule clash with the Commonwealth Games is responsible for the switch, with the Watford match moved to Monday, but Albion at least have a three day break on either side with the league fixture at Blackburn Rovers moved to Sunday as a result.
Paul Heckingbottom’s Sheffield United will have had two additional days to prepare having played their last game on Saturday, but the odds are that both sides will make substantial changes for this match given the punishing schedule of league fixtures that continues throughout August.
It will be interesting to see how Steve Bruce approaches this fixture having made just one change to his starting line up between this campaign’s opening two games. Most managers use the Carabao Cup to give fringe players some game time, while some will make wholesale changes. Depending on how much weaker your squad players are than your first team, it can be a very difficult balancing act. Bring in too many “weaker” players and risk losing the game, and thus any future opportunities to give time to fringe players until the FA Cup comes along in January. Make too few changes and you add to the workload of your first eleven, and may lose the game anyway!
Last season, Val effectively sacrificed the tie against Arsenal making eleven changes rather than attempting to cause an upset against Premier League opponents who were low on confidence at the time. Given the relative quality and experience of the two teams, the 6-0 result was not a surprise. I said in my match report that it was a symptom of a “broken game” where glory is no longer important; cup runs are sacrificed for the bread-and-butter of the league, but league competition is where the financial benefits are greatest.
My feelings are still the same. I love a cup run and, remote as it may be, cup competitions are most clubs’ best chance of glory; it is a real shame that the financial realities of the game today mean that most managers in the top two divisions will risk an early cup exit, if not abandon cups altogether, to protect players for league football.
Incredibly, or perhaps not given the above, the nine Championship clubs who played lower league opposition in Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup ties were all beaten.
For this cup tie, with the clubs in the same division, both managers have a decision to make, but with both hoping to challenge for promotion this season, and a hectic August schedule, I suspect both will make significant changes.
If club websites are anything to go by, the Blades have a deeper first team squad listing 29 players as “first team” compared to Albion’s 28, with five of those on wba.co.uk out on loan and at least three unavailable due to injury.
For the Baggies, the likes of Callum Robinson, Adam Reach, Kyle Bartley, Taylor Gardner-Hickman and Alex Mowatt are likely to get starts with Alex Palmer almost certain to get what will be just his second senior appearance for Albion. I would expect Matt Phillips to start as well, and Bruce may give Okay some more playing time, but that still leaves three or four open spots in the first eleven.
So, does the manager play some of his first choice players or dip into the U23 squad? With just three fit senior centre backs, we could see one of O’Shea or Ajayi start alongside Bartley, or Bruce could look to Saul Shotton who, like Palmer, earned his only senior start for Albion in the 6-0 defeat to Arsenal in the League Cup last season.
Zac Ashworth got three substitute appearances last season, including in the final two league games of the campaign, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him to get the nod at left back having been training with the first team this season. Ethan Ingram is another that could be used having also played in the Arsenal match last season.
One name that will be on the lips of many Baggies fans is Reyes Cleary. Having had a spectacular scoring record last season, Cleary was initially looking to leave the club with rumours of interest from some big European clubs – nothing materialised and he finally committed to a new contract at the Hawthorns earlier this month and celebrated with a brace against Newcastle United in the PL2 game on Monday afternoon. Given Albion’s lack of fit strikers, he may well get a spot on the bench for this match, but I would be surprised to see him start. His only senior appearance to date was as an extra-time substitute in the FA Cup tie with Brighton in January.
Using PL2 squad members has its consequences, of course, in that they have a fixture of their own on Friday, away to Southampton, although I’m sure the Academy staff would be happy to see their charges given more first team action.
This could be an intriguing contest between two Championship “heavyweights” but it is likely to be a match between two weakened sides not used to playing together. With victory meaning another match in an already packed August schedule, I’m not sure either manager will be overly upset with defeat and that, as I said last year, is a sign that football is broken.
Thursday’s meeting will be the first cup tie between the sides for almost 50 years. In October 1973, United were Albion’s opponents in the second round of the League Cup, the only other time the clubs have been drawn together in England’s second cup competition.
Having been relegated the previous season, Don Howe’s Baggies had started their first second tier campaign for more than 20 years with two victories but by the time the Blades, then a Division One side, visited the Hawthorns, Albion had not won in eight games and were languishing in 17th place in Division Two. Despite their poor form, the hosts started the game well and should have been in front before Alan Woodward put United ahead after a breakaway. David Shaw drew Albion level just after the half hour when his shot was deflected over the Blades’ ‘keeper, Tom McAllister. After half time, Len Cantello scored what proved to be the winner with a vicious shot from 25 yards after which the game turned a little ugly with four players receiving yellow cards and visiting number nine, Billy Dearden, apparently fortunate to stay on the pitch. The Baggies held on to progress to round three where they crashed out of the competition going down 3-1 home to fourth division Exeter City!
Only once have Albion lost a cup tie to Sheffield United – that was an FA Cup Fourth Road tie at Bramall Lane in March 1925 when goals from Fred Tunstall and Harry Johnson saw the hosts win 2-0 in front of more than 57,000 spectators. Every cup tie between the sides at the Hawthorns has finished in a home win.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
9 Feb 2022 – League Championship
Sheffield United 2 (Sharp (2))
West Brom 0
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
18 Aug 2021 – League Championship
West Brom 4 (J. Robinson (o.g.), O’Shea, Mowatt, Robinson)
Sheffield United 0
Albion’s Record against Sheffield United