West Brom 1 Aston Villa 0 (agg 2-2; pens 3-4)
It was a night of mixed emotions at the Hawthorns. Ultimately, there was a feeling disappointment but there was also a strong sense of pride, both in the players that battled valiantly to the end, and in the fans who created an incredible atmosphere that was almost enough to drag the team to victory.
For me, it wasn’t quite as good as in 1993 – the way the old Brummie Road terrace bounced that night could never be recreated in a modern stadium, and the fact that Albion scored twice early in that game was a massive factor in the noise level – but it was certainly the best that I have experienced at the Hawthorns since that famous night.
The club did their bit to help by providing the flags (albeit in non-environmentally-friendly plastic) that created the visual spectacle, and the repeated airing of the Liquidator which will always get the Shrine singing, but the repeated refrains of song after song almost incessantly throughout the two hours of nerve-jangling action was all the work of the Baggies faithful. All of us there on Tuesday night can be proud of the noise we made, although a special mention should go to those determined few who
continually started new chants at the first sign of a lull.
There is no doubt in my mind that the atmosphere had a massive impact on the events on the field. It may be too much to expect that for every home game, but for many last night will have been the first time they have seen the Hawthorns properly rocking. The switch to an all-seater stadium in the nineties was definitely a watershed for me in terms of atmosphere and, while Palace in 2002 and Portsmouth in 2005 were special days, this match was the first time the Shrine has come close to recreating the electricity we remember from the terraces.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough. Events before the match had conspired against the Baggies leaving them without two of their first team strikers, but those players on the pitch drank in the support and put in a performance that they can all be proud of.
Craig Dawson’s opening goal was just what was needed and at just the right time. Villa may have dominated the ball but, while it was 11v11, I’m struggling to remember a clear cut chance for the visitors. The defence worked tirelessly to close down every avenue and Jack Grealish, the ultimate Villain, was denied any space in which to weave the magic he supposedly possesses.
It was a physically robust performance from the entire team that Darren Moore would have been proud of at the height of his playing days . The forward players also harried and hassled the Villa back line forcing them into a number of mistakes that almost brought what could have been a decisive second goal – Murphy’s effort that was cleared off the line was perhaps the closest.
However, that physicality was ultimately to cause Albion’s downfall. Chris Brunt has never been the greatest tackler and, given that he played a couple of seasons at left back, it is somewhat surprising that he had never before received a red card in an Albion shirt. The second challenge was particularly rash, but was borne of the desire to keep Villa out – disappointing, perhaps, from one so experienced, but even he got caught up in the occasion and his discipline failed him in one crucial moment.
Up to then, Albion had looked the more likely to score the second goal of the match despite the visitors’ dominance in terms of possession, but from that point on, it was a matter of survival for the Baggies. Johansen had already been lost to injury, Phillips had also run out of steam after an energetic 75 minutes while Rodriguez, obviously struggling for much of the second half, was finally withdrawn early into the first period of extra time.
Jacob Murphy, who had at least shown some real mettle if only glints of the talent he undoubtedly possesses, was replaced by Tosin Adarabioyo as Shan shuffled the pack and came up with a surprising deal. Tosin played as a defensive midfielder and was excellent alongside Harper throughout the extra thirty minutes.
Jon Leko came on and looked to have run himself out inside his first ten minutes – once, he almost broke away, but controlled the ball with his arm, but he kept running as the time ticked on.
It was no surprise that with ten men, the Albion goal came under increased pressure, but Sam Johnstone was on hand to repel anything that got past the resolute Albion back line. He made two or three excellent saves and some crucial high catches and seemed all set to be the hero for penalties.
Hegazi was imperious once again, ably supported by Bartley and Dawson, while Gibbs and Holgate just never stopped running and harrying. Time and again they closed down Villa’s wide men as they probed for an opening, while always trying to offer an out ball when Albion did win possession back.
The away end remained subdued as it became clear that Villa would not find a way though, and so it moved to the final act. The penalty shootout.
Sam Johnstone, who conceded only one of the first six penalties he faced in an Albion shirt, only got close to one of the five on the night. He almost kept out Abraham’s decisive kick but Steer was the hero in the end as he saved the Baggies’ first two from Holgate and Hegazi.
It was a cruel end to a fantastic effort from the entire club. Wembley may have been a game too far anyway given the way the squad has been depleted by suspensions and injuries, but losing on penalties is never a pleasant experience, even worse when it’s to that lot from Witton.
The implications of the owner’s and the board’s decisions over the past twelve months, and those of Albion’s failure to be promoted will be discussed soon enough. For now, let’s reflect on the fact that the club came together on Tuesday evening and, despite the result, it was a very special night.
The club also came together at the end of last season, also resulting in glorious failure, but somewhere along the road this season, the splits and cracks appeared once again. The atmosphere at the Shrine on Tuesday surely went some way to healing those rifts.
West Bromwich Albion can be a great club when everyone pulls in the same direction, and has the potential to achieve great things way beyond what should be capable for a club of its stature. This summer will undoubtedly be one of change, potentially seismic in nature, but the true soul of the club, its fans, will still be there no matter what. If we can all pull together and provide our unwavering support, we can make the difference as we almost did on Tuesday night.