Tony Pulis returns to the Hawthorns this weekend boasting a record of six wins and a draw from his last seven matches at the Hawthorns as a visiting manager with Crystal Palace and Stoke City. It is the first game in what will be a pivotal month in the promotion shake up with no less than six games between the current top six between now and the first weekend in March, with Albion involved in three of them.
However well the Welshman has done in the away dugout, he won just one of his last eleven games at the Hawthorns as Albion manager and it is that record that he will be most remembered for amongst the Baggies faithful. Scott Dobie scored the winner in a 1-0 victory over Stoke City in September 2003 the last time a Pulis away team lost at the Shrine, but when his home team were thumped 4-0 by Chelsea in November last year, the Welshman had lost the support of the Albion fans and was sacked two days later.
Despite the fact that a win for Boro will see them move level on points with the Baggies, there have been plenty of noises of disgruntlement from fans at the Riverside as they have come to understand what supporting a Tony Pulis team means. When the teams met on Teesside in August, the Welshman made it exactly the sort of game he wanted – physical, fractious and completely devoid of any sort of attractive football, and it paid off in the end thanks to Ayala’s controversial late winner.
Results for Middlesbrough has been decent, although they went through a rough patch in December when they lost 3-0 at home to Aston Villa, 1-0 at home to Burton Albion in the League Cup, 2-1 at QPR and 1-0 at home to Sheffield Wednesday which raised the volume of the complaining supporters, and while their league form has recovered a little since then, the 1-1 draw at home to Pulis’s home town club, League Two Newport County, will not have gone down well.
The return of Tony Pulis should be a mere side show to what is a massively important game between two of the Championship’s promotion challengers, but such was the divisive nature of his tenure at the Hawthorns, he has the potential to still divide the home fans more than a year after he left the club. I will not be giving him any sort of reception, either positive or negative. Readers of this site and of its predecessor, jonwant.com, will know that I was never a fan of Pulis, and I believe he is the principle reason for Albion’s relegation, but it’s in the past now and three points is far more important than any sort of revenge for what he did to the club I love.
One statistic that is pure Tony Pulis is that Middlesbrough are the lowest scoring team in the Championship’s top 18 teams with just 31 goals in their 28 games, and will be facing the division’s top scorers with the Baggies having scored close to twice as many with 57. Even Reading, who sit in the relegation zone, have scored more goals than Tony Pulis’s team.
One surprising statistic given how Albion played under the Welshman is that Middlesbrough have scored just four goals from set pieces (not including penalties) in the league this season, less than 13% of their total. Villa have scored more than a third of their goals in that way and lead that particular table with 18, while the Baggies have scored 12, representing 21% of their goal total.
Of course, Boro do have the best defensive record in the division having conceded nine fewer than any other Championship side, although in their last 12 games, the Teessiders have conceded 12 goals to Albion’s 11, and scored just 14 to the Baggies’ 24.
The Baggies’ defensive improvement since the switch to a back four has been remarkable, but at home at least, it has come at a cost when it comes to goalscoring. In the eight home games before the win over Leeds United, Darren Moore’s side scored 22 goals and picked up 16 points. In the six league games at the Hawthorns with a back four, the Baggies have scored just 11 goals and picked up ten points. While they have remained unbeaten, four home draws have been one of the principle reasons why Albion have slipped out of the top two.
Middlesbrough’s defensive record and Albion’s slight drop off in scoring power at the Hawthorns of late could point to a draw. However, following activity on transfer deadline day on Thursday, Darren Moore has a few more options available to him, while John Obi Mikel has joined Pulis’s ranks; he could make his Championship debut having started the FA Cup match last weekend, although he only lasted an hour and the feeling is that he is not match fit just yet.
For Moore, two new wingers in the shape of Jefferson Montero and Jacob Murphy plus midfielder, Stefan Johansen, have joined on loan until the end of the season. Montero and Murphy will hopefully more than make up for the departures of Harvey Barnes and Bakary Sako, while Johansen will offer a much-needed option in the middle of the park.
With Brunt, Morrison and Phillips unlikely to be fit enough to play a part this weekend, Big Dave will be please to have Jake Livermore available following his suspension. I’d expect the former Hull man to play alongside Barry and Harper in that middle three, but Johansen will provide another option, along with Sam Field, for Moore to consider for a spot on the bench.
I don’t expect anything else to change in the first eleven to that which started at Bolton last time out in the league. Montero or Murphy may well ultimately replace Hal Robson-Kanu in the starting line up, but given neither player will have trained with the squad until Friday, I doubt either will be on from the start against Boro. Both could be on the bench, however.
The Baggies are defending a four match unbeaten home record against Middlesbrough, and the Teessiders’ visit prior to that finished all square, but it was an FA Cup 5th Round Replay in March 2007 that the visitors won 5-4 on penalties.
Boro’s last win at the Hawthorns was during the dreadful tail end of Albion’s Great Surrender season in February 2006. A goal from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and an own goal from Ronnie Wallwork saw Steve McLaren’s side leave with all three points in a match that saw relegation specialist, Nigel Quashie, sent off.
Back in March 1974, World Cup winner, Jack Charlton, was in charge of Middlesbrough and he brought his side to the Hawthorns for a Division Two match against Don Howe’s Albion. A 20-year-old Graeme Souness was in the Boro side that day and got on the scoresheet along with Alan Foggon while John Hickton scored a brace as the visitors won 4-0 in their biggest ever win at the Hawthorns. Another member of that side would become the first half-million pound player five years later – David Mills made the record switch from Ayresome Park to the Baggies in 1979.
Albion first hosted Middlesbrough in December 1901 when Billy Lee and Chippy Simmonds scored the goals in a 2-0 win for the home side. It would be nearly 20 years before Boro recorded a victory on Albion soil, doing so in March 1921 over the reigning league champions with George Elliott scoring the only goal of the game.
The Baggies’ two biggest wins over the Teessiders came in the same year, 1935. In January, Teddy Sandford (2), Ginger Richardson, Arthur Gayle, Joe Carter and Wally Boyle all found the net in a 6-3 victory with Boro’s all-time record goalscorer, George Camsell scoring a double for the visitors. Boro were back at the Hawthorns in December and on the end of another thumping – Camsell found the net again, but Ginger Richardson had a field day scoring four of Albion’s five in a 5-2 win with George Shaw scoring the Baggies’ opener from the spot.
In recent years, Tony Mowbray’s Albion recorded a rare 3-0 win in the 2008/2009 season when Marc-Antoine Fortuné, Robert Koren and a Tony McMahon own goal secured the points for the hosts, while the Premier League meeting in 2004 was memorable not for the fact that it was Bryan Robson’s first game as Baggies manager against his old club, but for Kanu’s incredible miss in the dying seconds of the game that denied Albion a point.
This will be another tough test for the Baggies, and they will need to be at their best to break through that Pulis-marshalled defence. I think Albion will ultimately have too much and will nick it.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
24 Aug 2018 – League Championship
Middlesbrough 1 (Ayala)
West Brom 0
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
28 Aug 2016 – Premier League
West Brom 0
17 Apr 2010 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Cox, Bednar)
Albion’s Record against Middlesbrough