Hyder Jawad reports on Albion's Wembley woe.
West Bromwich Albion's date with destiny turned into a wretched affair and brought nothing but tears. They lost their Coca-Cola Championship play-off final here at Wembley Stadium yesterday to Derby County and must now contemplate another season outside the Premiership.
It is Derby, less talented but more effective when it mattered, who will join the English game's elite, leaving Tony Mowbray, the Albion manager, to wonder where it all went wrong. A goal by Stephen Pearson in the 61st minute separated the teams and, ultimately, Albion cannot complain.
Billed as the #60 million match, and played at one of the world's greatest arenas, it offered everything except an Albion goal. And, for a team that scored 81 league goals, that was unacceptable.
What it will mean now for Mowbray's plans is anybody's guess. The rumours surrounding the futures of Jason Koumas and Diomansy Kamara will increase now that Albion will not be playing Premiership football next season. Koumas has been linked with a move to Everton, Kamara to Celtic. And whatever happens, Mowbray will search for the balance that has been missing for most of the season.
In the final analysis, Derby made virtues of their vices and won because they surpassed themselves yet again. Albion, by contrast, underachieved and learnt that Wembley, even in its revamped form, is not the place to lose.
As the final whistle sounded, Albion players sank to their knees in the rain. They had played brinkmanship once too often and suffered for it. They had outplayed Derby when the teams met at The Hawthorns in December but that was when the pressures were different.
This is always a nervous time of year for Albion supporters. In each of the past eight seasons, since the start of the Gary Megson era in early-2000, they have either been fighting to avoid relegation or to gain promotion. They are, for better or worse, the definitive yo-yo club.
Mowbray, resisting the temptation to recall Neil Clement to the starting line-up, kept faith with the team that completed the victory against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the play-off semi-finals at The Hawthorns on May 16.
This meant that Sam Sodje, on loan from Reading, and Chris Perry, back in favour after a period in the wilderness, occupied the central-defensive positions. Clement would later emerge as a late substitute.
Billy Davies, the Derby manager, surprisingly gave a place in his starting line-up to Paul Peschisolido, the former Albion and Birmingham City striker, who next week celebrates his 36th birthday. Also in the team was Darren Moore, the former Albion defender, and Craig Fagan, the winger who began a two-year spell with Birmingham in 2002.
Fagan was one of the few Derby players to make an impression in a first half that Albion dominated.
Setting out their stall from the start, Albion came close to scoring after 36 seconds when Kamara, relishing the wide open spaces, found enough room on the edge of the penalty area to get clear of his marker and struck a low shot that Stephen Bywater did well to save.
Dictating the pace, Albion were keen to make full use of their creative players, with Kamara and Koumas encouraged to make intelligent runs off the ball. Indeed, when Koumas gained possession deep inside the Derby half, he seemed unfortunate not to gain a penalty after going down under the rash challenge of Tyrone Mears.
Koumas evaded three challenges and seemed set to score but Graham Poll, refereeing his final match in England after a 13-year career, gave the Derby defender the benefit of the doubt. Replays suggested that Mears touched the ball before the man, but only just.
Derby's assaults were rare, although Peschisolido came close to scoring when he broke clear early on but his weak shot was easily saved by Dean Kiely.
Fagan then teased the Albion defenders with a diagonal run towards the edge of the penalty area. The shot, however, was not as good as the run and the ball spun horribly wide of the far post.
If Albion had a problem during the first half it was that their final ball never fulfilled expectations. Kamara and Koumas saw much of the ball, consistently beat their markers, but never quite managed to provide the appropriate pass or cross.
On the only occasion when Albion did rip the Derby defence to pieces, in the 43rd minute, Kevin Phillips struck a shot against the crossbar after a swift exchange of passes involving Kamara and Zoltan Gera. It summed up the opening 45 minutes: urgency and purpose from
Albion but, alas, nothing that resembled a goal. The scrappy nature of the match, made even less aesthetically pleasing by the soggy pitch, suited Derby's more direct style of play.
And yet it was Derby who began the second half the brighter of the teams. They might have opened the scoring in the 52nd minute when Matt Oakley, their captain, struck a low shot from the edge of the penalty area that narrowly missed at the far post.
On the hour mark, Derby came closer when Fagan fed Oakley, whose first-time shot on the turn was splendidly saved by Kiely.
Derby were now starting to stretch Albion and it was no surprise when they took the lead in the 61st minute through Stephen Pearson. The move began with Steve Howard darting forward on the right. He turned the ball to Giles Barnes, a substitute, who crossed for Pearson to slide the ball home from close range. The goal had merits but one must question the Albion defending. It was Pearson's first goal for Derby since joining for #650,000 from Celtic in January, .
Albion's response was instant and inadequate. Koumas again showed his dexterity to head towards goal. When clear, his shot was so weak that Kamara came close to turning the ball home. Sadly for the Albion supporters, the ball trickled wide. Jonathan Greening came closer soon after but his shot from a tight angle was deflected wide by Bywater.
The goal had revived Albion. With time ticking away, Mowbray made a double substitution. Darren Carter, the hero for Birmingham in the 2002 play-off final, replaced Gera and Nathan Ellington, a striker, replaced Paul McShane, a defender. Albion were now adopting a 3-4-3 formation and were the embodiment of their manager. But the approach play was better than the final ball.
As time ran out on Albion, the frustration among the supporters from the Black Country became tangible. In the end, Albion's creativity, though pleasing on the eye, though often inspiring and exciting, never matched the occasion.
When it mattered most, during Albion's biggest match for two years, they fell short of their own high standards and remain in the Coca-Cola Championship, while Derby, less talented, now join the top flight of English football.
It seemed inappropriate but Albion only have themselves to blame.
DERBY COUNTY (4-4-2): Bywater; Mears, Leacock, Moore, McEveley; Fagan (Edworthy, 83), Oakley, Seth Johnson (Jones, 87), Pearson; Howard, Peschisolido (Barnes, 58). Substitutes: Camp, Macken.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION (4-4-2): Kiely; McShane (Ellington, 71), Sodje (Clement, 81), Perry, Robinson; Gera (Carter, 71), Koren, Greening, Koumas; Phillips, Kamara. Substitutes not used: Chaplow, Daniels.
Referee: G Poll (Tring, Hertfordshire).
Scorer: Pearson (61).
Bookings: Albion McShane, Perry, Sodje (fouls); Derby Peschisolido, Mears, Oakley (fouls), Bywater (ungentlemanly conduct).
Albion man of the match: Jason Koumas revealed his full range of skills on the left flank.