Top of the league for Christmas with more points than any other team in the English or Scottish leagues, albeit having played more games than Liverpool and Celtic, it’s been a fantastic first half of the season for Slaven Bilić and his excellent group of players.
I have highlighted on these pages the various records that this team have been setting, or getting close to, which is a further sign of how good this start has been. The season’s team are the first Albion side to top their division on Christmas Day since the Football League had fixtures on that day. Vic Buckingham’s 1953 side were the last Baggies side to have that honour – they were given the opportunity of overtaking Wolves when Stan Cullis’s side lost at home to Aston Villa on Christmas Eve, and they duly produced a 5-2 win over Liverpool to take top spot in time for Christmas lunch!
Bilić’s Boys have gone thirteen matches unbeaten and have opened up a three point gap over Bielsa’s Leeds United at the top of the table and, more importantly, an eleven point gap over the chasing pack, currently headed by Sheffield Wednesday. This is despite dropping four points in their last three games, and most Albion fans will agree that the unbeaten record could easily have been lost in any of those matches.
The victory over Swansea City on 8th December was easily Albion’s best performance of the season, but they have failed to reach those heights since. It is obviously positive that the resilience shown by the team, coupled, perhaps, with a touch of fortune, has seen the Baggies come through undefeated, but we’re all anxious to see them get back to somewhere close to the levels they displayed against the Swans.
As the Baggies found on their trip to Wigan a couple of weeks ago, the fact that they are playing a side in the bottom three in their next match is no guarantee of victory. Furthermore, since the appointment of Austrian, Gerhard Struber, last month as their new head coach, the Tykes have shown an upturn in form winning three games of his seven games in charge, including their last two.
Albion only have to think back to late October when a bottom-of-the-table Barnsley came to the Hawthorns and took a 2-0 lead to know that the South Yorkshiremen cannot be taken lightly. It was Cauley Woodrow who did the damage for the visitors on that occasion while, in the Tykes’s last home game, it was another of their strikers, Conor Chaplin, who was on form scoring a hat-trick as QPR were dispatched 5-3. Chaplin scored another in their 2-1 win at Millwall on Saturday. Woodrow is now playing as a number ten behind Chaplin and Jacob Brown, and formation that certainly seems to working, at least from an attacking point of view with Barnsley having scored 12 goals in their last 5 matches.
When you also consider that Albion have not won at Oakwell since 1947, confidence in the Baggies’ ability to earn all three points may not be as high as the relative league positions might suggest.
To compound matters, Bilić has one or two injury concerns to deal with. Grady Diangana is almost definitely ruled out while Kieran Gibbs and Kyle Bartley are both doubts. Bartley’s possible absence is further complicated by a training ground “incident” involving Ahmed Hegazi that saw the Egyptian left out of the squad for Saturday’s visit of Brentford. You can read more about my thoughts on that in yesterday’s opinion piece.
Albion have only won one of their last 12 Boxing Day matches away from home, a 2-1 win at QPR in 2012, so while we all are hoping for three points, it will be another statistic to note for this record breaking side should they win. The Baggies faithful will be out in force with close to 4,000 expected to make the tip to Oakwell, while the next two home games against Middlesbrough and Leeds United are sold out. The fans are doing their bit – the players just need to do theirs!
In league competition, Albion and Barnsley have only ever met in the second tier. It’s hardly surprising given that the Tykes have only spent one season in the top flight, a brief sojourn to the Premier League in 1997/8, while the Baggies have only spent two seasons in the third tier.
What is, perhaps, more surprising is that Albion haven’t won at Oakwell for more than seventy years, although draws between the sides in Yorkshire have been fairly regular occurrences.
All but one of the Baggies’ six successes on Barnsley soil came before the Second World War, with the sole post war victory achieved in August 1947 thanks to a solitary goal by Davy Walsh. The Baggies won four of their first six visits to Oakwell between 1902 and 1908 but it has proved to be a difficult place to visit since.
Albion’s biggest win at the venue was on St Patrick’s Day 1928 when a brace from Jimmy Cookson plus goals from Tommy Glidden and Jo Carter helped the Throstles to a 4-2 win.
The most famous “away” game was, of course, the FA Cup Final Replay in 1912. After a 0-0 draw at the Crystal Palace, a controversial decision was made to host the replay at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. Thousands of Barnsley fans made the short trip across South Yorkshire and vastly outnumbered the Albion faithful, with the Second Division Tykes beating their First Division opponents by a single goal which came just two minutes from the end of extra time.
In more recent years, Barnsley have dominated the Oakwell meetings between the sides winning four of the last five including a 4-1 thumping back in August 2000 when Lee Hughes opened the scoring only for the hosts, managed by “Harry” Bassett, to respond with four second half goals, two each from Neil Shipperley and Lee Jones.
My first visit to Oakwell was back in November 1986, long before the days of sat nav and, on what was a very foggy day, we only managed to find the stadium thanks to the glare of the floodlights. Steve Lowndes opened the scored for the hosts only for Bobby Williamson to equalise for Albion before the break. In the second half, John Beresford put the Tykes back in front but the Baggies rescued a point thanks to an equaliser from Garth Crooks with five minutes left.
If you’re looking for positive omens, Albion have twice played Barnsley on Boxing Day scoring five goals on each occasion. Both games were at the Hawthorns, a 5-3 victory in 1905 and a 5-0 win in 1930.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
22 Oct 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Diaby (o.g.), Pereira)
Barnsley 2 (Woodrow (2))
Last meeting at Barnsley
29 Sep 2009 – League Championship
Barnsley 3 (Hammill, Hume (pen), Martis (o.g.))
West Brom 1 (Brunt)
1 Sep 2007 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Teixeira, Beattie)
Last win at Barnsley
30 Aug 1947 – League Division 2
West Brom 1 (Walsh)
Albion’s Record against Barnsley