We all knew the score (and the probable score) before setting off and confirmation that we will have to wait another season for FA Cup glory isn’t going to matter in the greater scheme of things. Of course we wanted to win the game but the real interest lay in whether the new owners would take a bow or provide some insight into their plans in the programme (in the event there was nothing along these lines, really just not the day for it), a first look at new loanee Andre Green, whether some of the returning injured on the bench might get some minutes (Jonny Williams and Tomer Hemed duly did), and whether some of the kids might make a name for themselves. With West Brom putting out a side containing Barry, Austin and Brunt it was going to be a tough ask; and thanks to the BBC for providing the stat of the day: apparently seven of our starting XI were not born when Barry made his debut in 1998.
So in front of Phillips in a back four were Solly, Oshilaja, Sarr and Stevenson (with Lockyer and Pearce given the day off), and whether you call it 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 the two wide players were Green and Odoh with Vennings, Henry and Wiredu in the middle and Davison pretty much the lone striker (with Taylor also given the break). The bench included Gallagher, Pratley, Williams and Hemed, along with Morgan, Harness and Powell, the notable absentee being Ledley, giving rise to the impression that we may have already seen the last of him.
In truth the first half was a rather dull affair, with West Brom seeming to be playing within themselves and us not looking to commit going forward; and the first ball towards Odoh was a lofted one, a tactic which seemed unlikely to produce results. Our one effort of note was a shot on the volley from a half-cleared corner which went narrowly wide. Green had one decent run but we struggled to get the ball to him in good positions, Wiredu did get into space a couple of times but overran the ball (the first time he had a bad bobble off the pitch), while the star of the show was Oshilaja.
In amongst all of this West Brom did score, around the half-hour mark. Having probed but seldom actually threatened they were able to score far too easily. Their big No 9 was allowed to amble around the box unchallenged and he moved forward, played a one-two with another of theirs, and found himself one-on-one against Phillips. He didn’t miss. Otherwise they threatened from a number of corners and towards the break we were just hoping that they wouldn’t notch a second as that would probably have been that. They didn’t, so there was still hope, especially as presumably a few if not fresh then older legs would be coming off the bench.
The second half did indeed prove to be a livelier affair, although for most of it the surprise was that West Brom did not extend their lead. We did manage to get the ball to Green outside the box and after he pulled it down with aplomb he moved inside and hit a good shot turned around the post by their keeper. This and greater adventure on our part seemed to sting West Brom into trying to ensure no unwanted extra time or replay. They had a shout for a penalty as a shot at the far post hit someone’s hand, then their big No 9 shrugged Solly off the ball and laid it off for Brunt, to curl one over Phillips only for it to come back off the underside of the bar. It seemed that Austin must convert the rebound but somehow it was kept out and scrambled clear. Then a few minutes later a more routine effort from Austin hit the outside of the post.
Our changes saw Hemed and Morgan replace Green and Henry, plus a little later Williams making a welcome return for Wiredu, who had just picked up a yellow. And as the clock ticked down and West Brom were content to sit on what they had we did threaten to level things up. Hemed had no immediate impact but did provide an extra presence up front, making a lofted ball forward not the waste of time it had been in the first half. And Sarr was bringing the ball out of defence to good effect, usually picking out decent passes forward.
Our first real chance came as Odoh was tripped right on the edge of the box (on another day it might have been seen as just inside). The curled ball in somehow wasn’t converted at the far post, being put out for a corner. And shortly after that a cross in was nodded back and down by Hemed and Davison went for the overhead kick. Thought it was in but that one too came back off the bar. Into four minutes of stoppage time (and two West Brom substitutions) and right at the death Hemed had a shot from the edge of the area which just didn’t dip in time. And that was it.
So no surprise victory but no broken hearts either. We all know there are far more important games to come. Just how we shape up by the end of January remains to be seen. What is most important is that a line is drawn under the past few months and we regroup, don’t get hangdog because games have been lost. The spirit still looks good and has to remain so. Of course the rest of the season begins with another visit from West Brom. Bring it on.