Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Season Review 2011/12

After writing a review of the 2010/11 season which saw us finish in 11th place in the Premier League, I never expected to be writing arguably an even more positive review at the end of this season.

We have finished each of the last two seasons with 47 points, and secured our first top-half finish in the Premier League thanks to being one goal better off than Swansea City.

Few people would have predicted such an impressive finish at the start of the season though, as we lost our first three Premier League games to leave us playing catch-up after the first few weeks of the season.

Our performances against Manchester United and Chelsea were fairly encouraging, with summer signing Shane Long scoring in each game as we suffered back-to-back 2-1 defeats to start the season. Many people tipped the Republic of Ireland international for a big season after these two goals and all-round impressive performances, but a series of injuries and health problems from October onwards saw him struggle to produce the kind of performances he showed himself to be capable of on a regular basis.

After being under very little pressure to get a result against two of the biggest clubs in the league, we then faced Stoke City at The Hawthorns. Despite having a squad which is arguably better than Stoke's on paper, our record against them in recent years had been nothing short of abysmal. Unfortunately this continued, as a defensive mix-up allowed Ryan Shotton to score in the closing stages for Stoke to continue their incredible record against us.

Sandwiched between the Chelsea and Stoke league games, we travelled to Bournemouth in the Carling Cup for a game which we comfortably won 4-1, with a brace from Marc-Antoine Fortune and a goal apiece for Jerome Thomas and Simon Cox helped a second-string Albion side progress to the next round of the competition.

After the disappointment of losing so late against Stoke, we had to wait two weeks to try and put the result behind us due to the first of what seemed like far too many international breaks.

Our first game after this two-week break saw us travel to Carrow Road to take on Norwich City. Despite spending most of the game camped in our own half, an early goal from Peter Odemwingie and a combination of last-ditch defending and poor Norwich finishing saw us just about pick up the three points and get our season off and running.

However, the following weekend at Swansea City saw us put in what I still consider to be our worst performance of the season by some distance. We lost 3-0 and very few players seemed to play anywhere near their best, making the long journey home even worse.

Just four days later we faced a tough trip to Everton in the Carling Cup and despite taking the lead through a second-half penalty from Chris Brunt, ended up losing the game after extra-time to end our dreams of reaching Wembley in at least one cup competition.

Our next Premier League game saw us host Fulham in what was a disappointing 0-0 draw, with neither side creating many clear-cut chances throughout the 90 minutes.

Our run of tough games continued at the Stadium of Light against Sunderland, even though Steve Bruce was being put under increasing pressure to pick up results after being one of the most active managers in the transfer market over the summer. We were 2-0 up inside the first five minutes thanks to goals from James Morrison and Long, but it was 2-2 by the half-hour mark and in the end, most Albion fans were probably fairly happy to leave the North East with a respectable point in the bag.

Thanks to yet another international break, we had to wait two weeks for our next game, which was the small matter of a local derby against Wolves at The Hawthorns. Thankfully, we produced what was undoubtedly our best performance of the season so far to pick up a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Brunt and Odemwingie.

If the celebrations after this game were euphoric, then they were pushed up several notches after our next game - a 2-1 victory at Villa Park. This was our first win at Aston Villa for three decades, as goals from Jonas Olsson and Paul Scharner, as well as a very solid defensive performance from the entire team, ensuring that we had guaranteed local bragging rights over the whole of the West Midlands in the space of just a week.

Paul Scharner celebrates his winning goal against Aston Villa 

Our next game saw us brought back down to earth by a dominant Liverpool side as we suffered a 2-0 defeat at The Hawthorns, despite not playing particularly badly.

November started with a 3-0 defeat at The Emirates against Arsenal. This performance was particularly frustrating, as we seemed to be set up just to keep the score at 0-0 for as long as possible, whereas just over 12 months previously we had attacked Arsenal and ended up winning 3-2 by beating them at their own game.

Another international break followed before we returned to action against Bolton Wanderers at The Hawthorns. An excellent display from both returning fans favourite Zoltan Gera and Long, and goals from Jerome Thomas and Long helped us pick up a fairly comfortable 2-1 win against a Bolton side who produced one of the worst performances I saw last season.

The following weeks saw us host Spurs and take an early lead through Youssouf Mulumbu, only to end up losing the game 3-1 after conceding two goals in the final ten minutes.

A run of what could be described as more winnable games in December began with a trip to Loftus Road to take on QPR. We played poorly for much of the game and the hosts should have been out of sight before Long equalised with just under ten minutes remaining to pick up a valuable point.

Our next game was undoubtedly a contender for our worst performance and result of the season, as we suffered a 2-1 defeat at home to Wigan Athletic. An excellent free-kick from Steven Reid gave us a first-half lead, but we gave away two sloppy goals to lose yet another home game after a disappointing perfomance.

This result put more pressure on our trip to Blackburn Rovers the following week, and it took two goal of the season contenders from Morrison and Odemwingie (with just one minute remaining) to help us pick up the three points and lift ourselves away from the relegation zone.

Just four days later, we travelled to St James' Park to take on Newcastle United, who had been so impressive for much of the first half of the season. After showing our defensive strength up to this point in the season, it was our attacking quality which saw us win an enthralling game 3-2, with goals from Odemwingie, Gareth McAuley and a late winner from Scharner providing Albion fans with an excellent early Christmas present.

Boxing Day saw us host Manchester City, and an excellent defensive display helped us pick up an excellent point after a 0-0 draw against the side who eventually won the Premier League.

Unfortunately, the three impressive results around the Christmas period were not built upon at the start of 2012 as we suffered another disappointing home defeat on New Year's Day, this time going down 1-0 to Everton after conceding yet another late goal.

Just two days later, what was become an increasingly injury-hit Albion squad travelled to White Hart Lane and produced a battling performance which was unlucky to end in a 1-0 defeat.

We were given a brief distraction from our inconsistent league form in our next game, as we beat a second-string Cardiff City side 4-2 in the third round of the FA Cup thanks to a hatrick from Cox and a goal from Odemwingie.

We followed this game with yet another disappointing home defeat, this time against Norwich City as a second-half penalty from Long was not enough to prevent us losing 2-1 after conceding yet another late goal.

The following week saw us travel to the Britannia Stadium to take on Stoke City in a game which few Albion fans saw us winning, especially after seeing Roy Hodgson name Gabriel Tamas and Fortune in the starting line-up after months out of the side. However, Hodgson's tactical nous once again worked as goals from Morrison and a last-minute Graham Dorrans free-kick saw us end yet another hoodoo and pick up a much-needed three points.

Unfortunately, the optimism gained from this impressive victory was ended by another home defeat to Norwich City, this time in the fourth round of the FA Cup as Fortune scored in a 2-1 defeat.

While our home form was continuing to be of real concern, we were still picking up a series of good results away from home. This continued at Fulham four days later, when a late equaliser from Somen Tchoyi saw us pick up a valuable point at Craven Cottage.

However, there was an air of inevitability about our 2-1 defeat at home to Swansea City in our next game. A second-half goal from Fortune was not enough to stop yet another home defeat, with this putting increased pressure on our trip to Molineux for the Black Country Derby in just eight days time.

Peter Odemwingie celebrating his third goal at Molineux

As it turned out, our game at Wolves was undoubtedly a turning point in our season. In one of the most incredible games I have ever attended, we picked up a 5-1 win thanks to a hatrick from Odemwingie and goals from Olsson and new signing Keith Andrews. If anything, the score-line flattered Wolves, as we could quite easily have had double figures after a dominant display. An incredible result for Albion was completed by Wolves manager Mick McCarthy being sacked the next day.

An international break followed, but we seemed to have lost none of our confidence and momentum as we beat Sunderland 4-0 at The Hawthorns in our next game thanks to two goals from Odemwingie and a goal apiece from Morrison and Andrews. We were playing our best football of the season by a considerable distance and already looked as though we had pulled clear of the relegation scrap.

This belief was enhanced a week later when we faced Chelsea at The Hawthorns, as a McAuley goal secured a 1-0 win and lost Andre Villas-Boas his job.

Unfortunately, our good run could not continue a week later at Old Trafford as we were comfortably beaten 2-0 by a very strong Manchester United side.

This defeat was followed by a trip to Wigan Athletic, a game which we drew 1-1 in front of nearly 5,000 travelling Albion fans thanks to the club running free coaches to what is already one of the more popular away games. Almost inevitable, former Wigan player Scharner got our equaliser in the second half, but we were very grateful to Ben Foster for a series of fine saves to prevent us losing the game.

We were not so lucky the following week though, as a Newcastle United side who were the best visiting team at The Hawthorns by some distance last season comfortably beat us 3-1 after being 3-0 up at half-time. A goal early in the second half from Long provided us with brief hope that we could come back from 3-0 down as we did at St James' Park the previous season, but we were outclassed all over the pitch and the result was undoubtedly a fair reflection of Newcastle's dominance.

The month finished with another comfortable defeat against a side who were simply too good for us on the day, as we went down 2-0 at Everton to lose against them for the third time in one season.

At this stage, we knew that one win from our remaining seven games would almost definitely be enough to secure our safety, so there was no panic despite the recent below-par performances.

We got the win we needed to ease any nerves in our first match of the month, as goals from Fortune, Liam Ridgewell and a Martin Olsson own goal helped us to a comfortable 3-0 win over Blackburn Rovers at The Hawthorns.

This took the pressure off our next game, which was a trip to the Etihad to face title-chasing Manchester City. With several players missing through injury, we were unsurprisingly beaten 4-0 and never really looked like scoring ourselves.

With Hodgson taking a bit of a gamble with a slightly weakened team selection against Manchester City, it put a bit of pressure on our next game at home to QPR. Thankfully, a goal of the season contender from Dorrans saw us pick up a 1-0 win and virtually ensure our safety for another season.

If there was any doubt over whether we would be playing Premier League football next season before our trip to Anfield to face Liverpool, they were well and truly eradicated afterwards as a goal from Odemwingie with just under 20 minutes remaining saw us pick up our first victory at Anfield for exactly 45 years. The result was also significant for Hodgson, who had been sacked by them just over 15 months previously, but now had a better record than Kenny Dalglish in meetings between Liverpool and Albion since his departure.

Peter Odemwingie celebrating his winning goal at Anfield

Our next match saw us host Aston Villa in a local derby at The Hawthorns. In a game of few chances, a draw was probably the right result and not many supporters of either team would have been too disappointed after the game finished 0-0.

However, focus was soon taken away from this game as the next day it was revealed that Hodgson had been the subject of an approach from the Football Association about the vacant England manager's job. Understandably, Hodgson wanted the opportunity to talk to the FA about taking the job and just two days later, he was unveiled as the new England manager.

As part of an agreement between Albion and the FA though, Hodgson was able to remain in charge of the club for the final two matches of the season, giving Albion fans the chance to give him the send-off he deserved for how much he has improved our club during his relatively short time in charge.

The send-off for Hodgson did not appear to be going according to plan on the pitch at Bolton Wanderers, however, as we found ourselves 2-0 down with less than 20 minutes remaining. Despite this, late goals from Brunt and Morrison ensured the game finished 2-2 and gave the over 4,000 travelling Albion fans, many of whom were wearing England shirts or flags, something to cheer on the journey home.

Albion fans showing their appreciation for departing manager Roy Hodgson

Our final game of the season, and Hodgson's final game in charge of the club, saw us suffer an unfortunate 3-2 loss at home to Arsenal. At least two of Arsenal's goals came about due to errors from second-choice goalkeeper Marton Fulop, meaning that well-taken goals from Long and Dorrans were not enough to help us pick up at least a point in our final match of the season.

Overall, Albion fans can have very few complaints about how the season panned out. Finishing 10th in what is arguably the best league in the world is an excellent achievement, especially when you consider there were several games, particularly at The Hawthorns, where we were nowhere near our best and dropped points as a result.

The impressive performances of Ben Foster helped him pick up both the supporters and players Player of the Year award, with James Morrison receiving the Goal of the Season accolade for his stunning volley at Blackburn Rovers in December.

Ben Foster celebrating one of the several wins he helped inspire

Only time will tell whether new head coach Steve Clarke can build on the excellent work done by Roy Hodgson in his 15 months at the helm, but there is no doubt that Albion fans are currently enjoying seeing the club playing their best football for at least 30 years so we have to make the most of it!

Boing Boing!

Monday, 15 August 2011

Albion 1 - 2 Manchester United - A brief round-up

This game signalled the return of competitive football to The Hawthorns after exactly three months away, with Albion starting their campaign against the previous year's Premier League champions for the second successive season.

Manchester United impressed football fans up and down the country during their 3-2 Community Shield victory over Manchester City seven days before the start of the season, with Albion struggling to a 1-1 draw at home to Parma after a flat performance in their final pre-season friendly. These results and performances led to some Albion supporters justifiably predicting a rather heavy defeat, a pessimism not helped by our 6-0 opening-day defeat at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea last season. However, what was to follow was a very close game and a performance which certainly gives Albion fans plenty of reasons for optimism.

The game itself
The main surprise in the starting line-up was that Roy Hodgson appeared to go with what was almost an orthodox 4-4-2 formation, with the unpredictable Somen Tchoyi partnering debutant Shane Long up front. The rest of the team was fairly predictable, although I was disappointed to see Graham Dorrans left on the bench after predicting big things from him this season. There are still plenty of games left though, I suppose!

The first ten or 15 minutes of the game were totally dominated by United, and they took the lead during this period when Wayne Rooney received a pass from Ashley Young inside the penalty, was given time to turn and sent a powerful low shot across Ben Foster and into the bottom corner to give the champions a deserved lead.

It is fair to say that this goal woke us up a bit and as we began to see more of the ball, the noise levels inside The Hawthorns rose noticeably.

We equalised after 37 minutes, when Long received a pass from Chris Brunt after the impressive Tchoyi had held off Fabio with ease and sent a low shot under David De Gea and into the bottom corner to bring Albion back on level terms.

Shane Long celebrates a goal on his debut and bringing Albion back on level terms.

The general consensus of opinion at half-time was that we had played very well and deserved to be on level terms, but that United had a number of quality players at their disposal and so would be able to up their game if they needed too.

However, if anything, we had more of the play in the second half. We didn't really create any clear-cut chances, but had a lot of the ball and looked comfortable at the back, which is an unusual scenario for the Albion!

Despite this, as is often the case against the better sides in the Premier League, United were still able to find a winner with nine minutes remaining.

The fact that the winner was an own-goal by Steven Reid created by a former Aston Villa player in Young made it even worse for Albion fans, especially when it just seemed as though we would be able to do enough to hold on to what would have been an excellent point.

As much as we tried to find an equaliser during the closing stages of the game, United have got years of experience when it comes to scoring important late goals and then holding on to the draw a victory they have been able to salvage. Even Foster's presence at the far post for a last-minute Brunt free-kick was not enough to see us score a late equaliser, meaning that our season started with a defeat.

There were plenty of positives to take from the game, such as:
  • The performance of Ben Foster, whose confidence was brilliant to see.
  • Our defensive performance in general was more solid than it was during most of last season.
  • Youssouf Mulumbu produced another outstanding individual display.
  • Somen Tchoyi and Shane Long seemed to form a very good understanding up front in the first game they have played alongside each other.
  • Most importantly, at no point were we outclassed by the side many people are tipping to win the Premier League.
Somen Tchoyi was a constant threat to the Manchester United back four.

However, there were one or two aspects of the performance which need a bit of work:
  • Steven Reid struggled to cope with the pace and trickery of Ashley Young all afternoon.
  • If we are being really critical, the defence could have done more to stop Wayne Rooney turning and shooting in the penalty area.
  • James Morrison struggled to have any influence on the game, whereas Graham Dorrans might have been more effective.
  • To concede such an unlucky goal so late on to lose when we deserved a draw was very difficult to take, and is a negative in itself. 
Overall, though, there were far more positives than negatives to take from this performance and Albion fans will certainly not be too disheartened going into next weekend's match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. 

Friday, 12 August 2011

West Bromwich Albion season preview - 2011/12

For the first time in many years, there appears to be a genuine mood of optimism among Albion fans as we are about to embark on a second successive campaign in the Premier League for only the second time in our history. There are undoubtedly a number of factors contributing to this cautious optimism, but I would say the main one is that, for the first time in the Premier League, we are starting the season with an experienced manager in charge.

Roy Hodgson turned our season around last time out after his arrival midway through February, and his tactical nous could be crucial to us building on what we achieved last season and consolidating in the Premier League. If we are to believe what he said in an interview a couple of days ago, the club have secured the three players who Hodgson wanted to bring to the club above all others in Ben Foster, Zoltan Gera and Shane Long.

Having Roy Hodgson in charge is one of the main reasons for the level of optimism at The Hawthorns this season

The two signings which have created the most excitement among Albion fans are probably that of Foster on a season-long loan deal from Birmingham City and the return of Gera after his contract expired at Fulham, with the Hungarian international captain being a favourite among The Hawthorns faithful following his previous four-year spell at the club. The main attribute which these two players have in common and which our four other signings don't really have is a wealth of Premier League experience, something which Hodgson seems to value very highly.

Here is a round-up of our transfer activity:
Ben Foster (season-long loan, Birmingham City)
Marton Fulop (free transfer, Ipswich Town)
Billy Jones (free transfer, Preston North End)
Gareth McAuley (free transfer, Ipswich Town)
Zoltan Gera (free transfer, Fulham)
Shane Long (undisclosed fee, Reading)

Scott Carson (undisclosed fee, Bursaspor)
Boaz Myhill (season-long loan, Birmingham City)
Gianni Zuiverloon (released, now with Real Mallorca)
Abdoulaye Meite (released, now with Dijon)
Giles Barnes (released, now with Doncaster Rovers)
Marcus Haber (released, now with St Johnstone)
Chris Wood (28-day youth loan, Birmingham City)

Key player
I think our key player this season will, once again, be Youssouf Mulumbu in midfield. Peter Odemwingie's goals effectively kept us up towards the end of last season, but Mulumbu was consistent throughout the season and played with the kind of passion and commitment which has made him a real favourite with the fans. Mulumbu is the kind of player who you might not always notice when he is producing one of his typically solid performances, but you definitely notice if he is slightly below-par or is absent from the team due to injury or suspension. Most of the time, if Mulumbu plays well, the rest of the team plays well.

Youssouf Mulumbu's form is crucial if Albion are to repeat their success of last season

One to watch
I think there are two players to look our for this season from an Albion perspective - Graham Dorrans and George Thorne. Dorrans spent most of last season out of the team, due to personal problems at the start of the season and a number of injuries. However, during the few games where he was given an opportunity to impress, he showed glimpses of the ability which saw him perform so well in The Championship during the previous season. If he is given more of a chance this season, I can see him being a big player for us.

Graham Dorrans could be a big player for Albion this season if given the chance

Thorne has emerged from the youth team and Reserves over the last 12 months or so as a player who can genuinely challenge for a first-team place this season. Despite only making two competitive appearances for the senior side, his performances in these matches and in training have led to suggestions that he could well force his way into the first team at some point this season. Thorne is unfortunate that the strongest area of our squad is arguably central midfield, which is where he plays, but time is on his side and if he impresses when he undoubtedly gets an opportunity in the Carling Cup, he may well leave Hodgson with a tough decision to make.

George Thorne has emerged as a player who can challenge for a first-team place this season

Expectations for this season
Premier League - 14th
I have seen a number of people suggest that we should look to at least match our 11th-placed finish last season, and maybe even push towards the top half of the table. However, I think remaining realistic is incredibly important and so I would be happy if we finished lower mid-table and were able to go into the last three or four games of the season with our Premier League status secured. Although there is still the best part of three weeks left until the transfer window closes, I think there are at least four or five squads who, on paper, are not as good as ours. With this in mind, if our key players have good seasons and avoid injuries, I don't see any reason why we cannot avoid relegation again.

FA Cup - Quarter-finals
Everyone likes a good cup run and one of the main disappointments of last season was that we were knocked out in the third round of the FA Cup after a lacklustre performance at Reading. We now have a greater number of options throughout the side than we did last season, so I think we should be looking at trying to reach the latter stages of the FA Cup if the draw is kind to us.

Carling Cup - Quarter-finals
This is the competition where, in the early rounds at least, some of the young players from our newly-established Development Squad will probably be given the opportunity to impress Hodgson and the rest of the first team coaches. When you add to these young players some of the experienced players who may not start the Premier League season in the starting line-up, such as Marton Fulop, Somen Tchoyi and Simon Cox, it is clear that we have the potential to go on a decent run in this competition if we avoid some of the bigger clubs in the draw. This is often the competition which clubs sacrifice to allow them to focus on their respective league or the FA Cup, but the reaction of Albion fans to our exit at the hands of Ipswich Town in the quarter-finals last season after naming a weakened side shows that if you are able to reach the latter stages of the Carling Cup, it is still a competition which supporters would like to see their side win.

Overall, I think we have a lot to look forward to this season. There is always a certain sense of optimism going into the first week of any new season, but there is plenty of reason for it on this occasion, with an experienced manager at the helm and a number of quality additions joining a squad who performed very well in the Premier League last season for much of the campaign.

Despite this, I'm sure most Albion fans (myself included) would settle for a lower mid-table finish without having to worry about relegation going into the final few games of the season, and maybe even a cup run as well!

Thanks for reading, please feel free to leave a comment with your expectations for the season or speak to me on Twitter @tomharper94.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Albion's transfer activity - Part two

Since my last blog post about our transfer activity, it is fair to say that we have been one of the more active clubs in the Premier League, confirming the signing of four players and being linked with countless others.

The first new addition to be confirmed was Ben Foster, who has joined us on a season-long loan deal from Birmingham City. Some concern was expressed by a number of Albion fans at the fact that there is no option to sign Foster permanently at the end of the season, although I'm sure they club will make an offer if Foster plays as well as he did for Birmingham City in the Premier League last season. In my opinion, Foster is among the top five or six best goalkeepers in the league, so to attract him to the Albion is a real coup for the club and definitely a cause for optimism ahead of the new season. As part of the deal which saw Foster join us, Boaz Myhill went the other way in an identical deal, meaning that we do have a Plan B should we not be able to sign Foster next summer. Below is a video showing what we can hopefully expect from Foster next season.

To provide back-up for Foster this season, we also signed Marton Fulop from Ipswich Town. Fulop is an experienced goalkeeper, who can include the likes of Sunderland and Manchester City (albeit briefly) among his former clubs. He has spent the last seven years in England playing for a number of clubs, so will provide good competition for Foster in an area of the squad which is looking significantly stronger compared to the end of last season.

I mentioned in my last blog about our transfer activity that we were close to re-signing Zoltan Gera after his contract expired at Fulham. This deal took a little longer than expected to go through due to Gera needing surgery on an ankle injury, with the club wanting to wait until he had made a sufficient recovery before confirming his return. He seems to have made a good recovery and should be available for selection by mid-September, which is also around the time when a suspension he incurred after being sent off on the final day of last season will have been served. The big question among most Albion supporters is, quite simply, how will Gera fit into our side once he is fully fit? Roy Hodgson has described him in a recent interview as one of his main targets this summer, which suggests that he will be in the starting line-up during most games. With this in mind, I believe his versatility could be his greatest strength, as he is capable of playing on either wing and can also play just behind one or two strikers, depending on the formation we play. This is where Hodgson will earn his money this season, as we have a lot of talented midfielders who we need to try and accommodate in the side!

The most recent signing we have made is that of striker Shane Long, who has been a player we have been linked with all summer since Reading lost to Swansea in the Championship play-off final back in May. His record of 25 goals in 51 starts last season is incredibly impressive, which is why a number of Premier League clubs have been linked with him this summer, as well as arguably the two promotion favourites in The Championship, Leicester City and West Ham United. Some Albion fans have expressed concern that we have signed a player with very little Premier League experience, but I have been impressed every time I have seen him play live (admittedly only once or twice when we have played Reading) and I definitely trust a manager with 36 years of experience in the game to have signed a player who is good enough to make a big impact in the Premier League. Below is a video showing some of Long's highlights from last season, which should hopefully persuade the doubters that he is potentially a very good signing.


When you add these four signings to the two we had already completed this summer (Gareth McAuley and Billy Jones), I think our squad is undoubtedly stronger than it was this time last year. We have replaced players who were far too inconsistent with players whose greatest attribute is their consistency and reliability (albeit at a lower level up until this point), so I would like to think that most of the individual errors which cost us so dearly last season can be eradicated this season.

Roy Hodgson has hinted in his most recent interview that he would still like to sign a centre-back and I think that if we are able to add one more player to our squad in this position, we will have made all the signings we need to this summer.

Keep checking my blog over the next few days, as later in the week, I will be posting an Albion preview for the forthcoming season. 

Friday, 22 July 2011

Craig Dawson - Can he be the answer to our defensive problem?

As any Albion fan will admit, our defence is simply not good enough and has struggled for the past three years or so. This is despite having a number of established international defenders competing for a place in our back four, such as Steven Reid, Jonas Olsson and Gabriel Tamas.

The area of the defence where we are particularly light is at centre-back, with three players trying (but unfortunately failing) to impress either Roberto Di Matteo or Roy Hodgson last season when played alongside the impressive Olsson at the heart of our back four.

This has led to various sources linking us with moves for countless central defenders this summer, one of whom arrived in the shape of Gareth McAuley on a free transfer from Ipswich Town.

However, one player whose arrival seems to have been ignored by Albion fans is that of young centre-back Craig Dawson from Rochdale. Admittedly, this may be because we actually signed Dawson on deadline day last summer, before sending him back to the League One club on a season-long loan deal. With all the talk about potential new defenders, could the answer to our defensive problem actually currently be at the club, waiting for his chance to impress?

Dawson began his career playing for Non-League club Radcliffe Borough as a 17-year-old, where he played 75 games in just two seasons. During this time, he scored 15 goals, with his impressive goalscoring record being an attribute which he was able to take into the Football League with him after joining Rochdale in 2009.

As well as the offer made to Dawson by Rochdale, Bury, Crewe Alexandra, Port Vale and Northwich Victoria were also rumoured to have made offers for the young defender at the time.

When you consider that Spurs, Blackburn Rovers and Middlesborough all allegedly sent scouts to Radcliffe Borough games to watch Dawson, it is clear just how highly-rated he was after just two seasons playing Non-League football.

During one season with Rochdale, he played 46 games and scored a very impressive ten goals as they clinched promotion to League One. His solid defensive displays and goalscoring ability led to him being selected in the League Two Team of the Year, as well as winning the League Two Player of the Year award.

This led to a host of clubs showing an interest in him, but Albion eventually completed the signing of Dawson on August 31st 2010. Almost as soon as his arrival was confirmed, we sent him straight back to Rochdale on a season-long loan deal so he could continue his development at a higher level than he had previously been used to.

Craig Dawson was unveiled as an Albion player on deadline day of the summer 2010 transfer window.

Dawson once again played a key role for Rochdale, playing 41 games and scoring nine goals as the newly-promoted side finished a very impressive ninth, just three points off the play-offs, in a division containing some of the best sides to play in the third tier of English football for many years.

He returned to Albion at the end of last season and was included in the squad which has played three friendlies in the USA this pre-season as well, a sign that Roy Hodgson wants to give Dawson as much of a chance as possible to impress and show what he is capable of.

Most Albion fans have so far only had very brief highlights of matches and the occasional comment from a Rochdale fan on an Albion messageboard to form an opinion on Dawson, so here is the view of Dawson from a Rochdale fan to improve your knowledge of him as a player and what he would bring to the squad.

With this in mind, I decided to appeal for a Rochdale fan on Twitter to provide us with a reason why Dawson was so highly-rated whilst playing for them. Here is the response I got from a Rochdale fan called Sarah, who can be followed on Twitter @GirlOnATerrace and whose blog  is well worth a read!

Craig Dawson is the type of player everyone wants in their team, management and fans, and you just cannot not like him. He's the epitome of what every young lad wants to achieve, starting off playing football locally before signing for Radcliffe Borough, and eventually joining up with us in 2009. When the news of his move to West Brom came about, although we were obviously gutted, we were also so pleased for him because he deserves everything that he's worked so hard for and a lot more. We were also very happy that we were allowed to have him back on loan for the season before he left us to move onto bigger and better things.

It's clear from watching Craig play that he's not a lower league footballer, there's something different about him and he was always a class above our team. He's tall and slender yet powerful and determined, and despite his young age he always had a cool and composed head and very rarely gave us any wobbly moments. I think one thing that puts him in a better class is his eye for the goal too, he was always coming up for corners and contributed 10 goals to our 09/10 campaign. 

My last memory of Dawson at Rochdale is one that encompasses him entirely as a person and a footballer. After our final home game last season when the players came back out to applaud the fans, Craig headed off in the opposite direct and proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes walking around the entire ground shaking hands, giving hugs and signing items for every fan who wanted it and made a point of thanking everyone individually for their support at Rochdale. That night was our end of season awards and once again he stayed right until the end of the night with the fans rather than the other players, I think he probably made a lot of fans very happy that day without realising...including me as I made sure I got a good few hugs in there too...!

Craig was a big part of our team at Rochdale, a local lad done good, what's not to like? He's always come across as a genuinely lovely lad who appreciates everything that he's been blessed with and is the model professional too. Even his parents came onto our messageboard to thank the fans for all the support we've given him during his time with us! I'd expect his move was a big decision for Craig as he seems like a real family lad, but I think this is just the start of something amazing for him, I just hope he remembers some of the memories from his time with us when he's turning out for England...! ;)

Dawson celebrating one of his numerous goals for Rochdale.

I hope this blog has proved to be an informative read for Albion fans hoping to find out a bit more about Dawson and whether he can genuinely be the answer to our defensive problem.

Feel free to share your opinions by leaving a comment below. 

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Albion's transfer activity

After just over a month of very little to talk about in terms of football, the transfer window opened on July 1st and supporters like myself who were missing our fix of football-related news to discuss finally had something to talk about.

In fairness, Albion had been one of the busier clubs before the transfer window opened, with Gianni Zuiverloon, Abdoulaye Meite, Giles Barnes and Marcus Haber all being released. On top of this, we were able to strengthen our squad with the additions of Gareth McAuley from Ipswich Town and Billy Jones from Preston North End on free transfers At the time of writing this, we are reportedly close to completing the signing of former Albion favourite Zoltan Gera on a free transfer after his release from Fulham.

Abdoulaye Meite is one of four Albion players who were released at the start of the summer.

This apparent policy of signing players on free transfers has led to criticism from some Albion fans, as they believe that we should be spending vast sums of money on players who may be no better than the signings we had made thus far. I have often thought during transfer windows that we need to spend more money than we have done, but when you look at our two record signings - Borja Valero and Luke Moore - it is clear that spending money does not necessarily guarantee that a player is going to make an impact.

However, this criticism will continue following the departures of Scott Carson and Valero to Bursaspor and Villarreal respectively, both for undisclosed fees. Although the amount of money Albion received for these two players is not known, it is fair to say that it would probably be enough to add at least one or two quality players to the squad over the summer.

My opinion on our transfer activity so far is that we are essentially replacing the players who we released with more consistent, experienced players.

McAuley has made over 25 appearances for Northern Ireland and has a wealth of experience in The Championship with Ipswich Town and Leicester City. He has also been playing football at a reasonable standard for 15 years since his career began in Northern Ireland with Linfield and so will know exactly what is required to deal with some of the attacking players he is going to come up against in the Premier League, despite it being a higher standard. Due to the fact that he is a solid, old-fashioned central defender, he is a very good replacement for Meite.

Jones is another player with a lot of experience, albeit at a lower level. He came through the youth system at Crewe Alexandra, which should lead to him being a very good footballer and also means that he should have a lot of confidence on the ball. Despite only being 24, he has already played nearly 300 career games and was also rumoured to have attracted the interest of Manchester City back in 2007 after a series of impressive performances for Crewe in League One. He is a right-back by trade, but can also play in midfield. With this in mind, he is an ideal replacement for Zuiverloon.

Although we have yet to officially confirm the signing of Gera, it seems as though the deal is fairly close to completion. He is a player who needs very little introduction to Albion fans, having spent four years at the club and making a massive impact in the process. His habit of scoring goals against Wolves was always going to make him a popular player among the supporters, with his exuberant celebrations and outstanding work ethic increasing his popularity further. If he does sign, he is a natural replacement for Barnes and is a player who can provide back-up to the first team, as well as genuinely challenge for a starting place if he impresses during pre-season. 

I am sure there are more signings in the pipeline, especially up front, where we undoubtedly need to sign a goalscorer to try and take some of the pressure off of Peter Odemwingie. A goalkeeper is also going to be a priority now Carson's departure has been confirmed, with the likes of Steve Harper, Robert Green and Tomasz Kuszczak all being linked with us. If we are able to add players in these two key areas as well as possibly strengthen other areas of the squad should quality players become available, then I think we will be in a very good position to push on next season and build on our outstanding finish to the season last time out.

This is a time of the year when there are a number of rumours going around and supporters become frustrated with an apparent lack of transfer activity, but based on the vast majority of our additions over the last few years, I believe we can really trust Roy Hodgson, Dan Ashworth and the scouting department to ensure that we bring in enough players with the ability to improve our squad ahead of the forthcoming season.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Scott Carson to Bursaspor - Is it the right move?

It's fair to say that not many Albion supporters expected Scott Carson to be our number one goalkeeper at the start of next season, even after his improved form following the appointment of Roy Hodgson. However, the fact that our much-criticised former captain looks set to join Turkish side Bursaspor, who played in the Champions League last season and will be competing in the Europa League during the forthcoming season, has come as a great shock to most English football supporters.

Despite his obvious quality, Carson has always struggled to settle at Albion. He has often been made a scapegoat by supporters for poor performances and although he was at fault for some of the goals we conceded last season, he was very harshly criticised at times and some of this criticism was definitely unjustified.

I certainly don't think that Carson was helped by the fact that he made his infamous error for England against Croatia just a few months into his Albion career. This led to a great deal of criticism from the national media and perhaps meant that some Albion fans immediately had their opinion on Carson changed, although he was not the first and will certainly not be the last highly-rated goalkeeper to make an error for England in an important game.

There is undoubtedly a reasonable argument that Carson may have lost what confidence he had after this error, although his performances for the remainder of the Premier League season which ultimately ended in relegation were relatively consistent. He conceded a lot of goals, but this was mainly down to a gung-ho approach from our manager at the time Tony Mowbray, who placed far too little emphasis on defending and far too much emphasis on playing good football and out-scoring the opposition, a tactic which worked in The Championship, but which was not going to work on a regular basis against some of Europe's top sides in the Premier League.

After the departure of captain Jonathan Greening at the start of the following season, new Head Coach Roberto Di Matteo immediately appointed Carson as Albion's new captain. This decision confused the vast majority of Albion fans, but it was hoped that the responsiblity of wearing the armband would lead to Carson being more vocal with his back four and becoming more of a dominant, confident goalkeeper in general.

Unfortunately, he became rather error-prone and although we ended up being promoted from The Championship, I had hoped that we would be able to sign a goalkeeper who could realistically challenge Carson for the number one jersey and maybe even replace him as our first-choice goalkeeper. This player would be Boaz Myhill, who we signed from relegated Hull City.

Seeing as he was still captain, it was not a surprise to see Carson start the season as our first-choice goalkeeper, with Myhill being forced to settle for a place on the bench. Although he made no real out-and-out errors, Carson's hesitancy always looked like costing us goals and led to criticism from small sections of supporters at matches, who felt the need to sarcastically cheer Carson on the rare occasions he came off his line to gather crosses.

The one occasion when I finally lost patience with Carson was during our 3-0 defeat at Fulham in January. Under-pressure Head Coach Di Matteo had assmebled a make-shift back four for this game due to injuries, with none of our defenders being over six feet tall. Despite this, we had held out relatively comfortably until just before half-time, when Carson let a long-range shot from Clint Dempsey through his hands and into the back of the net. This clearly had an effect on Carson and the rest of the players, as two moments of hesitancy in the second half from our goalkeeper led to us suffering an incredibly disappointing 3-0 defeat at Craven Cottage.

These errors led to Di Matteo dropping Carson up until he was placed on gardening leave, with Myhill coming into the side and producing a number of consistent performances.

However, the appointment of Roy Hodgson coincided with a return to the side for Carson, who immediately looked more assured and seemed to have benefited from an extended spell on the sidelines. Carson did not have the captaincy returned to him though, as Chris Brunt had been given the armband in his absence and so continued as captain.

I would go as far to say that Carson was one of many players who performed very well in most of our remaining games, with an error at Newcastle United on the final day of the season being the only disappointment in an impressive last three months of the season.

These solid performances have led to some Albion fans stating that they believe Carson should stay at the club next season, as they do not think we will be able to bring in a better goalkeeper. Whilst I can understand this view to a certain extent, I think we do need to look to strengthen this area of our squad and if we can get around £2m for a player who has just entered the last year of his contract, we should definitely take it.

From Carson's point of view, this could also be the big opportunity he needs to rebuild his career. It is fair to say that he has struggled at the Albion and that the English media will always remember him for his error against Croatia, whatever he achieves during his career. Going abroad means that he is away from people who will just criticise him at any opportunity and who greet every example of impressive goalkeeping with a sarcastic cheer.

Although there is no guarantee Carson will be successful for Bursaspor in Turkey, playing in a totally different environment may help him develop as a player and establish himself as a permanent fixture in the England squad. Taking all this into account, I believe this transfer could be one of those rare deals which benefits everyone concerned.