Friday, 10 June 2011

Season Review 2010/11

Well, what a brilliant season! As an Albion fan, one has to become used to the inevitable highs and lows which football can provide. However, last season had even more drama than we could ever have expected. From the highs of winning at Arsenal, drawing at Old Trafford and beating Liverpool, to the lows of losing against Blackburn Rovers twice, being comprehensively beaten at Craven Cottage and throwing away a three-goal lead at home to West Ham United, we certainly experienced the complete range of emotions possible during just nine months of football.

The season started with a great deal of optimism after returning to the Premier League at the first time of asking under Roberto Di Matteo.

Unfortunately, we could not have wished for a tougher start to the season, as the fixture computer decided to send us to Stamford Bridge, the home of the then Premier League champions, for our first game. Despite not playing particularly badly, we came away on the receiving end of a 6-0 hammering. If we were under any illusions as to how difficult it would be to stay in the Premier League, watching a combination of Scott Carson and our back four gift Chelsea at least four of their six goals certainly ensured that we knew how difficult it would be after that point.

Our first home league game of the season saw us take on Sunderland, who are certainly a stronger side than their league positions in the last few seasons may suggest. The day before this game, we completed the signing of Somen Tchoyi from Red Bull Salzburg and Peter Odemwingie from Lokomotiv Moscow. Although Tchoyi would take a little while to really make an impression on the Albion fans, Odemwingie made an immediate impact, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Sunderland with less than ten minutes to help us too our first victory of the season at only the second attempt.

Our next match took us to the rather more unusual surroundings of Brisbane Road in East London, for a Carling Cup second round tie against Leyton Orient. Despite playing our second-string, we controlled the game and deservedly won 2-0 thanks to goals from Pablo Ibanez and Chris Wood. Although there were only 400-500 Albion fans at the game, it was still one of the best away days of the season in terms of atmosphere and based on the fact that it was a fairly comfortable victory as well.

Thanks to the apparent 'big-club bias' of the fixture computer, we faced a trip to Anfield to face Liverpool four days later. We put in a very good performance against Roy Hodgson's side, with the only difference being a moment of genuine quality from Fernando Torres midway through the second half, which was enough to win them the game. Unlike our display at Chelsea, however, we looked far more solid defensively and the chance which Torres converted expertly for his goal was the only space he was given all game by the outstanding Jonas Olsson, who returned to the side in place of Pablo Ibanez for the Sunderland game after the poor defensive display at Stamford Bridge.

September started with a home game against Spurs, who gave Rafael van der Vaart his debut. Thankfully, the Dutchman had not yet adapted to Premier League football by this point, and we were able to turn in an impressive performance in a 1-1 draw with the side who would later go on to humble both of the Milan clubs in their debut season in the Champions League. Our goalscorer was Chris Brunt, who got us back on level terms after Luka Modric had given Spurs the lead.

Our second game of the month saw us face our first derby game of the season with the visit of Birmingham City to The Hawthorns. Despite being 1-0 down at half-time after a very flat first-half display, we improved immeasurably after the break following the introduction of Graham Dorrans to play just behind new fans' favourite Odemwingie. It was the Nigerian striker who essentially won us the game as he scored one goal, had another shot deflected into his own net by Blues defender Scott Dann, before Olsson made the game safe with a powerful far-post header.

A third home in succession saw Manchester City make the journey to the Midlands in the Carling Cup third round. In what was essentially a chance for both sides to play some of their fringe players, goals from Gianni Zuiverloon and Simon Cox saw us continue our run in the competition after going 1-0 down.

Just three days later we faced one of our toughest games of the season, and achieved what was probably one of our best results in beating Arsenal 3-2 at The Emirates Stadium. Not only did we beat Arsenal, we outplayed them at their own passing game at a ground which they had turned into something of a fortress since leaving Highbury. To make this result even more extraordinary, we did it after seeing Chris Brunt miss a first-half penalty. Second-half goals from Odemwingie, Gonzalo Jara and former Arsenal player Jerome Thomas put us 3-0 up, before two goals in the final 15 minutes from Samir Nasri ensured there would be a nervous finale for the 1,500 travelling Albion fans in North London.

These excellent results saw Roberto Di Matteo and Peter Odemwingie receive the Barclays Premier League Manager and Player of the Month awards respectively, a feat which had never been achieved by Albion before.

Two weeks later, we faced another tough test in the form of Bolton Wanderers, who had started the season very well under Owen Coyle. Johan Elmander gave Bolton the lead at The Hawthorns, but a goal from James Morrison with just under ten minutes meant that our unbeaten run continued into a second month.

We then faced another incredibly tough away game, with a trip to Old Trafford. Not only did we have to try and pick up a result at Manchester United, but we had to do it without Peter Odemwingie, who had picked up an injury which would rule him out for several weeks. We were 2-0 down at half-time after two defensive errors and the hosts appeared to be heading for another comfortable home victory. However, two of the most bizarre goals which could possibly be scored saw us pick up a deserved point. First, a low free-kick from Chris Brunt near the byline took several deflections before clipping Patrice Evra and sending the ball over the line. Then, just minutes later, Edwin van der Sar made the kind of error he had probably never made previously in his distinguished career, as he inadvertently dropped a routine cross right at the feet of Somen Tchoyi to tap the ball home and send the travelling Albion fans into raptures.

Our impressive start to the season was such that a 2-1 home victory over Fulham seemed like something of a formality. After the visitors went ahead through a stunning strike from former Albion midfielder Zoltan Gera, goals from Youssouf Mulumbu and Marc-Antoine Fortune before half-time helped us to another impressive result against an established Premier League club.

Three days later we made the short trip to Leicester City in the Carling Cup fourth round. Again, Roberto Di Matteo played a side comprised of fringe players, but we still had too much for the hosts, as two goals from Simon Cox and a goal apiece for Somen Tchoyi and Steven Reid helped us too a comprehensive 4-1 victory, just weeks after Sven Goran Eriksson had taken charge at The Walkers Stadium.

Unfortunately, our brilliant start to the season came to an abrupt end in our first game of November at Blackpool. We were not helped by referee Michael Oliver, who ensured that we were down to nine men with an hour still to play. To be fair to Oliver, he got the decision to send Gonzalo Jara off spot-on, but sending off Pablo Ibanez inside the first ten minutes for a foul in the penalty area when he clearly wasn't the last man was absolutely baffling, so much so that The FA rescinded the red card and three-game ban Ibanez would have picked up just days later. We were 2-0 down at Bloomfield Road, before Youssouf Mulumbu pulled a goal back with a superb curling effort from just inside the penalty area to give us a chance of snatching an unlikely point. The game finished 2-1, but the performance with nine men was a real positive and showed just how much character there was in the squad.

Our next match saw big-spending Manchester City visit The Hawthorns. They were one of only two sides to genuinely outclass us on our own pitch last season, as two goals from Mario Balotelli helped the visitors too a victory which was perhaps more comfortable than the scoreline suggests. To add to the disappointment of successive defeats for the first time this season, Youssouf Mulumbu was sent off late on for a second bookable offence.

Just three days later we faced a difficult trip to Upton Park to face struggling West Ham United. Despite going ahead through a Peter Odemwingie penalty, the hosts equalised with a stunning effort from Scott Parker after Paul Scharner gave the ball away on the edge of his own penalty area. We went behind early in the second half, but got an equaliser with just under 20 minutes left from Pablo Ibanez to pick up a creditable point at a ground which is normally one of the tougher places to go in the Premier League.

However, this optimism lasted no more than three days as we succumbed to a disappointing 1-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic, putting in what was probably our flattest performance of the season to date at that point.

The mood among Albion fans was not improved in our next game at home to Stoke City, as we were beaten 3-0 by a side who we simply never do well against. This scoreline flattered the visitors, however, as two of their goals came from penalties, both of which were debatable decisions at the very least. Unfortunately, it is difficult to be positive after a 3-0 defeat and for the first time in Roberto Di Matteo's reign, we were going through a genuinely poor run.

Our run of four defeats out of five was ended in our next game at Goodison Park, as we came away with a superb 4-1 victory from a ground where we had had a very poor recent record. Goals from Paul Scharner, a Goal of the Season contender from Chris Brunt, and late strikes from Youssouf Mulumbu and Somen Tchoyi helped us to a brilliant victory. An almost-perfect result and day was ruined by the sending off of Mulumbu in the final minutes, as he picked up a second yellow card for a foul after picking up his first booking for running into the fans after his goal.

Our first game of December saw us make the long journey East to Ipswich Town for a Carling Cup quarter-final, which played despite the heavy snow forecast. This was the game where a few Albion fans began to question Roberto Di Matteo, as he chose to field an even weaker team than he had played in any of the previous rounds as we suffered a 1-0 defeat. To show this total lack of respect for supporters who had travelled a long way in difficult conditions and for a competition which we genuinely had a chance of winning was simply not acceptable.

However, the Italian redeemed himself as the side he selected to face Newcastle United at The Hawthorns in a televised game on Sky Sports delivered an accomplished display to pick up a 3-1 victory. Peter Odemwingie was on the scoresheet twice and Somen Tchoyi added another spectacular goal to his collection following a similarly well-taken strike at Everton the previous week.

This led to a lot of optimism going into the trip to Villa Park, particularly with Aston Villa struggling to find any form under Gerard Houllier. Unfortunately, we continued our well-established habit of helping teams out of poor runs by producing a below-par performance in a 2-1 defeat, with Paul Scharner scoring a late consolation for us.

With our home game against arch-rivals Wolves postponed the following Sunday due to bad weather, we had to wait until Boxing Day for our next game which was a visit to the Reebok Stadium to face Bolton Wanderers. Despite creating numerous opportunities in this game, the normally ever-reliable Peter Odemwingie failed to take them and we conceded a goal in either half to continue the negativity which was beginning to engulf some of the more pessimistic Albion fans.

Their mood was not helped when three days later, we put in an absolutely abysmal performance against Blackburn Rovers at The Hawthorns in a 3-1 defeat. Yet again, the mood around the ground was a depressing one as we realised that after all the early-season optimism and hope that we would not be involved in a relegation battle, we would be facing a genuine fight to stay in the division.

We started off the new calendar year with the tough task of trying to beat Manchester United, who had seen Wayne Rooney go through a barren run form. Thankfully for the visitors, we were in a very charitable mood and allowed Rooney a confidence-boosting goal with a free header inside our penalty area after just three minutes. Despite this poor start, our performance for the following 87 minutes was absolutely outstanding and we could count ourselves incredibly unlucky not to come away with at least a point. We equalised just before half-time through a stunning strike from James Morrison, as he sent a superb half-volley from the edge of the penalty area into the corner of the net. We had a lot of the play in the second half, but a missed penalty from Peter Odemwingie and a late Javier Hernandez goal helped the visitors to a victory when they were nowhere near their best, something they have developed a reputation for over the years.

After such an impressive performance, we headed to Craven Cottage three days later confident of getting a positive result, despite missing most members of our back four. This gave young defender James Hurst the opportunity to make his Premier League debut for the club. We played relatively well for much of the first half, but an error from Scott Carson saw Fulham go ahead just before half-time and two further instances of hesitation from the goalkeeper saw the hosts add a further two goals to their tally from set-pieces in the second half to seal a comfortable 3-0 win. This was the first time I began to question Roberto Di Matteo, as the players seemed to be lacking the motivation and confidence which made us such a joy to watch earlier in the season and a lack of these two attributes has to be done to the manager to a certain extent.

We had a chance to take our mind off the league with a trip to Reading in the FA Cup in our next game, but another flat display saw us lose 1-0 and end any chance of a trip to Wembley for another season.

Going into our next game at home to Blackpool, there were several rumours going around in the national papers that Roberto Di Matteo would be sacked if we lost. At this stage, I was still just about behind Di Matteo enough to support him. Thankfully, we showed the character of earlier in the season as we picked up a 3-2 victory, with two goals from Peter Odemwingie, one of which was a winner three minutes from time, and a goal from James Morrison helping us to what was probably our most important victory of the season at that point.

Yet again, though, our optimism was short-lived as we produced a poor performance in a 2-0 defeat at Ewood Park in our next Premier League game. As we were soon to discover, Roberto Di Matteo's time was running out...

Our first game in February saw us take on Wigan Athletic at The Hawthorns in what had become a must-win game for both sides in the fight against relegation. Despite taking an early lead through Peter Odemwingie, we found ourselves 2-1 down at half-time after conceding two goals from set-pieces. In response to this, the under-pressure Roberto Di Matteo gave the much-criticised Marc-Antoine Fortune the opportunity to make an impact in the closing stages, and he did just that with a close-range header to rescue a point. A number of Albion fans seemed surprisingly content with a point in this must-win game, but it was becoming clear that we would have to beat some of the better sides in the division when we got round to playing them again if we were to stay up.

Four days later, we suffered a comprehensive 3-0 defeat at Eastlands against Manchester City. Not only did this keep us in the thick of a relegation scrap, it also turned out to be Roberto Di Matteo's last game in charge, as he was placed on gardening leave the following morning.

The search for a new Head Coach began, with internet message boards and social networking sites full of rumours about who Jeremy Peace and Dan Ashworth would select. The likes of Sam Allardyce and Derek McInnes were linked with the job, before it looked as though Chris Hughton was on the verge of being appointed four days after Di Matteo left. However, just one day later, and the day before another crucial home game against West Ham United, Roy Hodgson was appointed as our new Head Coach. This appointment inspired confidence among the Albion support, as we genuinely believed that we had appointed the best person available to keep us up.

Hodgson took a watching brief from the stands for our game against West Ham, leaving First-team Coach Michael Appleton to take charge of the team. Everything was going well at half-time, as goals from Graham Dorrans and Jerome Thomas, as well as an own-goal from Winston Reid, put us 3-0 up at the break. However, a second-half capitulation and some very questionable tactical decisions from Appleton allowed the visitors back into the game and saw them level the scores at 3-3, a result which we were lucky to get based on our second-half performance!

A three-month mini-season essentially started the following Sunday with a home game against Wolves, in what was Roy Hodgson's first game in charge. In truth, we were poor for most of the match and went behind just before half-time to a goal from Jamie O'Hara. However, in the last minute of injury-time, Carlos Vela finished well from close-range to give us a share of the spoils and begin brilliant celebrations around The Hawthorns.

Our next game was another derby-of-sorts against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium. Again we found ourselves behind going into the final few minutes, before Carlos Vela stepped off the bench and scored another late equaliser to secure an impressive point.

These late equalisers meant we could go into our first game of March against Birmingham City at St Andrews confident of picking up a result, especially seeing as they had won the Carling Cup just six days previously. We delivered an incredibly professional performance, as second-half goals from Youssouf Mulumbu, James Morrison and Paul Scharner helped us to a crucial victory over one of our local and relegation rivals.

Our next game saw the first of several difficult games against sides near the top of the table as we faced Arsenal at The Hawthorns. Goals from Steven Reid and Peter Odemwingie put us 2-0 up, but Arsenal improved a great deal after our second goal, scoring two goals themselves, and perhaps being a little bit unlucky not to find a late winner.

In April, we faced five tough games which we knew could make or break our season. The first of these saw us host Roy Hodgson's former club Liverpool, at The Hawthorns. As you would expect, there were a fair few chants aimed at Hodgson from the travelling supporters and these increased in volume after they went 1-0 up early in the second half. However, two penalties from Chris Brunt, the second of which came after 89 minutes, won us the game and started what were probably the greatest celebrations of the season. Hodgson had been in charge for less than two months, but he must have felt more welcome in the Black Country than he did at any point on Merseyside as he heard his name ringing around The Hawthorns after this game.

Our next game saw us visit Sunderland, a side who were going through a dreadful run of form. In another entertaining, end-to-end game, we went 1-0 then 2-1 down, before Paul Scharner scored a late winner to send the travelling Albion fans home happy and confident that we may have already done enough to to stay up. Our first two goals were scored by the in-form Peter Odemwingie and Youssouf Mulumbu respectively.

However, our impressive run of form was to come to an end in our next game at home to Chelsea. We took the lead early on through Peter Odemwingie, but Chelsea were 3-1 up by half-time and comfortably saw out the second half to keep them in with a chance of winning the Premier League title and keep us looking nervously over our shoulders at the relegation zone.

The games did not get any easier as a week later, we travelled to White Hart Lane to face Spurs. Yet another goal from Peter Odemwingie gave us an early lead, but we found ourselves on level terms at half-time and 2-1 down going into the final ten minutes. What happened next can always be remembered by Albion fans as the day Simon Cox announced his arrival to the Premier League with a superb curling effort from 25 yards out, leaving Heurelho Gomes in the Spurs goal with no chance and helping us to a well-deserved point.

Next up was the game every Albion fan had been waiting for - the visit of Aston Villa to The Hawthorns. A bizarre own-goal from Abdoulaye Meite gave the visitors the lead, before Peter Odemwingie equalised just after half-time. Within minutes of our equaliser, Paul Scharner picked up a second booking for a professional foul and left us down to ten men for the remaining 30 minutes. It is fair to say that we weathered a bit of a storm after this, but with just six minutes of the game remaining, a perfectly-weighted through-ball from Simon Cox was latched onto by Youssouf Mulumbu, who got the better of a Villa defender before firing high into the net and lifting the roof of The Hawthorns. If the celebrations after the Liverpool victory were impressive, these were even more so, as we celebrated our first victory over one of our main rivals for 26 years.

Peter Odemwingie picked up the Barclays Premier League Player of the Month for the second time this season after his four goals, with Roy Hodgson perhaps a little unlucky to not pick up the Manager of the Month award ahead of Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti.

We started May with a trip to Molineux to face arch-rivals Wolves. Our Premier League status had been secured the previous day, with both Wigan Athletic and Blackpool failing to beat Aston Villa and Spurs respectively. However, we never really turned up against Wolves and found ourselves 3-0 down early in the second half, before a Peter Odemwingie penalty gave us a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, this was not enough to help us get a result which could potentially have almost confirmed the relegation of our local rivals.

Our last home game of the season saw us take on Everton at The Hawthorns, in a game which had a distinct end-of-season feel to it with both sides being comfortable in mid-table. An early goal from Youssouf Mulumbu helped us to a 1-0 victory, our first clean sheet in the league since our opening home game back in August! After the game, Roy Hodgson led the players on a lap of acknowledgement around The Hawthorns pitch to thank the fans for their support.

Our final game of the season saw us draw 3-3 at St James' Park against Newcastle United after being 3-0 down, in what was one of the most entertaining matches of the season. All of our goals were scored in the second half by Somen Tchoyi, who divides opinion among supporters, some of whom think he has the potential to cause defenders problems in the Premier League, whereas others believe that he is simply not good enough.

Both Player of the Season awards (Supporters and Players) were won by Youssouf Mulumbu, who had a brilliant season in midfield and has proved to be a real bargain at just £170,000 from Paris Saint-Germain.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this season review, please feel free to leave a comment.

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