While more Baggies fans will have been at the home match the following Sunday, those like myself that were present at Valley Parade on Saturday 13th April 2002 will almost certainly mark the conversion of an injury time penalty by Igor Balis as the moment that a return to the top flight of English football was assured.
There may have been one game still to play, but those three points and the manner in which they were secured certainly made me feel that it was going to be our year. Having just re-watched the highlights on YouTube, the emotions of that day all came back.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to have got a ticket in the away end, but I was one of several hundred who had bought tickets in the main stand and the Bradford stewards were sensible enough to get us all in one section of the stand near the away end.
At the start of play, Albion knew that two wins in their final two games would secure a return to the top flight for the first time in 26 years. Wolves had a home game with Wimbledon the following day.
The game itself was one of few chances and as the match wore on, it looked like the Baggies were about to throw their hard-fought advantage away by dropping two crucial points. Megson played every card to try and get a winner bringing on both Bob Taylor and Trevor Benjamin, and it was Taylor that finally made the difference.
As the game moved into stoppage time, Taylor looked to cut inside within 10 yards of goal and was caught by City defender, Andy Myers – the penalty was awarded by referee, Mike Dean.
It was no straightforward task, however, as Albion were, as the ITV commentator put it, the team that “missed penalties for fun”. Of eleven penalties awarded that campaign, the Baggies had missed seven but, unbeknownst to Megson, they had an international penalty-taker in their midst.
Right wing-back, Igor Balis, had been a consistent performer all season but had never been asked to take a penalty. His English wasn’t great, and he hadn’t thought, or felt able, to mention the fact that he took penalties for his international team, Slovakia. It seems crazy nowadays that the club would not know such things, but it was a different time.
Nonetheless, it had finally been revealed and Balis was the chosen man for the most important penalty of the season. He had to wait, though. Taylor had suffered an injury in the challenge that won the penalty, and received treatment for about three minutes.
Throughout that time, he stood calmly on the edge of the box holding the ball. A few Bradford players tried to get in his head with snide comments, but I’m sure Igor didn’t understand a word and remained unmoved.
The moment came, and he slotted the ball calmly into the bottom left hand corner – the ‘keeper dived the right way, but it was a perfect penalty and the away fans behind the goal, many sporting comedy afros in an homage to Big Dave, went wild.
I often imagine how Wolves fans watching Soccer Saturday or listening to the radio reacted to news of that goal, and it makes me smile.
The next day, a strike from Noel Blake was enough to earn Wanderers the three points that meant that it would go down to the last day, but there was huge confidence amongst Baggies fans that the job was all but done.
|Division One Promotion Battle – 14th April 2002|