As a West Bromwich Albion centre-half, Darren Moore got to know a thing or two about defending.
Big Dave, as he still is affectionately known by Baggies fans, was part of Gary Megson’s promotion team of 2001/02.
The Baggies might have been promoted twice since – possibly going for their fourth of this decade – but that first success was the most lauded.
Not only did Albion overtake Wolverhampton Wanderers but they did so having caught them from some distance.
Albion, at one stage, were some 11 points behind Dave Jones’s men. They were, in track terms, a full lap behind, with just two or three circuits left to run.
Fast forward to today and Roberto Di Matteo’s West Bromwich Albion side are flying towards a Premier League return. They have scored two more than Tony Mowbray’s title-winners had at this stage, they have two more points and, crucially, have conceded two fewer goals.
Crucially, because the Baggies boss has made a point of sealing a backline which leaked goals last season during their failed Premier League campaign.
For all of Mowbray’s attributes, the defence remained a problem area. Even during their promotion campaign of 2007-08, they conceded more than relegated Leicester City. The warnings were already in place for what was to follow last season in the top flight.
So Di Matteo’s determination to solve that problem, while ensuring Albion don’t suffer at the top end of the field, has been one of his main tasks this season.
A defence which pretty much revolves around the same personnel every week, give or take the odd knock or loss of form, has been aided by a midfield anchor man, usually Gonzalo Jara or Youssouf Mulumbu.
Albion look stronger. They are stronger, with just two goals conceded since the end of October and both of those coming as a result of free-kicks and they have yet to concede from a corner in any league game this season.
Even after Albion’s 4-0 win at Sheffield Wednesday, it wasn’t Simon Cox, Chris Brunt or Jerome Thomas who took the head coach’s eye – it was his two centre-halves.
Moore, now 35 and playing for Barnsley, can see a difference in what little he’s seen of Albion.
The class of 2002 broke every club defensive record. They conceded just 29 times, the fewest number of goals they’ve let in during a campaign and Russell Hoult kept 27 clean sheets, 24 of which came in League outings – again, a record.
Albion won 1-0 on 17 occasions and were only the 12th highest in the division in terms of goals scored.
Speaking about Albion’s current promotion push, Moore said: “I know they had a bad day when they came to Barnsley but the defence seems important to him and it’s a stereotypical Italian approach.
“First and foremost a clean sheet is a point. From that platform, if you have players who can score goals, then you’re on to a winner.
“I’ve said it all along. West Brom will be there or thereabouts. They’ve got all the right ingredients in that side.”
Albion’s defence of 2001-02 was pretty much assembled by Megson.
Russell Hoult, Phil Gilchrist and Igor Balis arrived the previous campaign, helping Albion to the play-offs, joining Neil Clement who was already signed permanently from Chelsea.
Larus Sigurdsson had been brought in by Megson’s predecessor Brian Lyttle in 1999.
Warren Cummings, Stanislav Varga, Des Lyttle, Tony Butler and the Chambers twins, James and Adam, were to play support roles at various points of that campaign behind a midfield marshalled by Derek McInnes and Andy Johnson.
Moore joined in September 2001. News of his transfer probably passed many by – as Albion and Portsmouth haggled over the fees, the world was coming to terms with its worst-ever terrorist atrocity in New York.
The Brummie finally pitched up on September 14, with the £750,000 new signing making his debut as a substitute the following day at Watford.
“In 2002 it was down to defending as a team and making sure we kept performing when it mattered,” continued Moore. “The odds were stacked against us so many times but it just galvanised us even more.
“We had a manager who reflected our attitude. It was a no-nonsense attitude – one of hard work, one of discipline and one we brought into. You had to because if you didn’t then your team-mates would soon let you know.
“Myself, Gily, Larus, Derek McInnes, Andy Johnson, Appy until his injury, Danny Dichio, Russell Hoult our brilliant goalkeeper, the Chambo twins, Jordao, Igor, Clem – the attitude and application of everyone was vital during that season, especially the longer it went on.”
Albion’s success was lauded, not least as it came amid unconventional circumstances.
A 24-hour period towards the end of March dealt a huge psychological blow to Wolves. The Baggies had played Sheffield United on March 16. Albion were leading three nil when the game was abandoned due to United losing five players – three to dismissals and two to “injuries”, with no substitutes remaining. On the same day, Wolves lost to Grimsby Town at Molineux.
The five days after the Battle of Bramall Lane were a period of limbo for Albion while the authorities decided how to resolve the issue.
On Thursday March 21, Albion were awarded the 3-0 win. The following night, a Friday televised game, Albion won 1-0 at Nottingham Forest, thanks to a late Bob Taylor goal.
In the space of those two days Albion had reduced their points deficit from 11 to five points. Wolves could only manage a 0-0 against Norwich the following day, increasing their lead by one point. Jones’s men were wobbling. They were to take just seven points from their final five games of the campaign, while Albion gained 13 from 15 points – ensuring promotion thanks to a 2-0 win against Crystal Palace on the final day.
But the real drama came during the previous weekend. Albion travelled to Bradford. The game was heading to 0-0 stalemate, when Albion were awarded an injury-time penalty which Igor Balis converted.
“The next day Wolves won against Wimbledon to ensure the race for second would be played out on the final day of the season.
Wolves could only draw at Sheffield Wednesday but it was academic. Moore’s opening goal helped Albion beat Trevor Francis’ Eagles 2-0.
“People didn’t really see us coming until we won at Bradford,” recalls Moore. “There was absolutely no way from that moment on that we were going to let go of the lead.
“Those last few weeks of the season were one of mental toughness, resilience and attitude. I don’t know what happened at Wolves but perhaps we showed it more than they did. Maybe the pressure got to them.
“We went to Sheffield United, who were a good side, and won 3-0. It was the Battle of Bramall Lane and the points weren’t officially awarded to us until the Thursday.
“On the Friday we won at Forest and basically made up six points in the space of 24 hours – and I think that was when Wolves started to feel it. After that it was always going to be a battle of will and nerve. Psychologically it swung our way.
“I’m not sure how much Wolves had left by the end but we could have played and played and played. It was a great feeling.”