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!

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