Reading 0 West Bromwich Albion 2
What a difference a week makes. Baggies fans left the Select Car Leasing Stadium with renewed optimism after an energetic and effective performance produced a well-earned victory with the club’s academy products at the very heart.
Richard Beale made just one change to the starting line up, but it proved to be a crucial one with Taylor Gardner-Hickman coming into central midfield to produce a man-of-the-match performance capped by an assist and his first senior goal for the Baggies. His display was full of energy and quality that was epitomised by his goal. He had been hassling and harrying the opposition all game and he dispossessed Jeff Hendrick in the Reading half, clambered over him and advanced on goal. I thought he had left it too late to play in either Cleary or Grant, but he had no such thoughts and, from about 25 yards out, struck an unstoppable shot into the bottom corner of the net. He ran to the fans to celebrate and I’m sure there was a tear in his eye as he took the congratulations of his teammates.
Bruce had been using TGH this season, but only as Darnell Furlong’s understudy and, despite impressive performances in midfield both before and after his appointment last season, he had not been given an opportunity in midfield. It was no surprise to the fans that he was excellent in that position and it shouldn’t have been for Bruce – he played in midfield in the Baggies’ best run of results in his tenure in March including the wins over Hull City, Bournemouth and Fulham. He has the energy to match Molumby but also has the quality and courage in his passing that makes him a real attacking threat. Not only did he show that in his goal, but his raking 40-yard cross field pass that set up Matt Phillips for the opening goal was sumptuous.
Taylor was not the only academy product to impress as Alex Palmer, the goalkeeper that was ignored by Bruce despite a series of declining performances from David Button, secured the three points with a serious of excellent saves in the last 15 minutes as the hosts finally began to exert pressure. He had to wait eleven years for his senior league debut for Albion, but now has back-to-back clean sheets and produced another poignant moment as he joined in with the fans’ rendition of “The Lord’s My Shepherd” in the post-match celebrations.
It does not stop there as Dara O’Shea also performed well looking very comfortable along the experienced pair of Martin Kelly and Eric Pieters. O’Shea has shown some real quality since he broke into the first team under Slaven Bilić, but he had looked a little shaky of late. The return to a back three has certainly helped his game, and made Albion look much better defensively as a whole. A special mention must also go to Martin Kelly who has looked so classy since he came into the side. Any concerns over his fitness having barely played in two years have been dispelled as he has put in three ninety-minute performances of real quality.
A final nod to the academy came as Reyes Cleary came off the bench to make his league debut for the last half hour. He looked confident on the ball but really didn’t use his strength well enough and was bullied off the ball on a few occasions. It was good to see him on the field, but based on that display, I think he’s quite ready for Championship football – he could improve with a few more substitute appearances, but I think he would probably benefit from some time out on loan at a League One or League Two club.
Overall, Richard Beale and his coaching staff need to take a huge amount of credit for generating that performance from a previously underperforming group of players. “Courage and sweat” were the words he used all week – hard work should be a given, but courage is something that has been lacking as the confidence has drained from the players as the wait for a win went on. Putting TGH in midfield was a significant factor, but all the players looked more energised and brave on the ball. Livermore continued his good form since his return to the side, albeit I don’t think he has ninety minutes in him anymore, while Matt Phillips also looks comfortable at right wing back and produced a very cool finish to net his first goal for more than a year – his last goal came in the 4-0 win at Cardiff in September last year.
It reinforced my belief that this squad is capable of challenging towards the top of the table, and I’m still surprised that Steve Bruce seemed unable to get a consistent level of performance from them. I think he was unlucky in some respects – performances in the early part of the season were far better than the results they produced – but he definitely lost the confidence of the squad in recent weeks and seemed to be scrabbling around for answers in the last week of his tenure. Beale has been able to change the feeling around the camp in less than a week and, when the new manager is appointed, he should find a squad in a much better place.
Obviously, it was just one game and we could see a return to type on Tuesday. Albion have only won back-to-back matches twice in the last 12 months – the wins over Reading and Coventry City in December 2021 and the final two games of the season against Reading again and Barnsley. That the Baggies have just beaten Reading bodes well from that point of view, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
However, the signs are better than they have been for some time, and Steve Bruce’s departure is obviously a big factor. Based on this first performance, it suggests that Ron Gourlay has some time to pick the right candidate to take the club forward knowing that the team is in good hands in the short term.