West Bromwich Albion 1 Derby County 0
The tone was set at the start when Doug Ellis, the former Aston Villa chairman, took a seat in the directors' box. Whenever Ellis is around, there is always some degree of intrigue and uncertainty. It is the law.
And, for 89 minutes, with a three-quarter moon hanging in the sky like a bat, one could sense the frustration around The Hawthorns as West Bromwich Albion missed a succession of chances and seemed set to drop more precious points.
That was until John Hartson danced through the Derby County defence to score a fine goal, giving Albion their first victory since November 18 and, significantly, providing a timely reminder that they can, if necessary, win ugly.
Curtis Davies, the Albion defender, said as much and cast his mind back to last month to when Albion played at Pride Park. "We played better against Derby County that day when we lost 2-1," he said. "But this one was about the result, nothing else."
Winning ugly was not supposed to be part of Tony Mowbray's constitution but the state of the Coca-Cola Championship table — which, prior to the match, showed Albion in bad shape — dictated the emphasis. It was not quite a return to the Gary Megson days — that was elephant-man football — but nor was this the freer style on which Mowbray has staked his reputation.
"We have talked a lot about playing entertaining football but you reach a stage when you need a win," the Albion manager said. "John Hartson has had a couple of injuries and we have spent the last three weeks working on his fitness. He never tires of telling me why he should be in the team and he has done the business for us here."
Hartson did not hang around to share his joy — he was out of The Hawthorns with as much speed and dexterity as was required to score his goal — and thus we were denied to opportunity to hear his side of the story.
It was not the only story that mattered. The relief on the face of Mowbray, who has not begun his tenure as well as he would have liked, conveyed more than anything Hartson could have put into words.
During the match, Mowbray looked nervous, especially when, in the second half, Kevin Phillips failed to score when presented with an opportunity virtually on the goal-line. Diomansy Kamara, marked tightly by Darren Moore, the former Albion defender, also missed chances while Jonathan Greening and Jason Koumas were less than successful with long-range shots.
Derby, tired and disappointing, were more interested in causing problems on the break. That said much about their respect for Albion but also about the weakness of their squad. They still occupy fourth position — ahead of Albion by four places and five points — but they are not of Premiership material.
Albion probably are and the Derby manager, Billy Davies, said:" West Brom have the best squad in this division while we do not have the depth of squad to make the changes we needed to keep things fresh."
But the league table is a statement of fabrication. Albion are far superior to Derby and, probably, superior to every other team in this division, bar Birmingham City. Proving it is another matter and it is probable that the Albion players are not yet used to Mowbray's methods.
That was inevitable. What new manager does not take time to change the mentality of his players? Time, however, is a precious commodity in this division and we are nearly at the halfway point of the season.
Those serious about promotion make statements of intent in December. Birmingham have done that, having benefited from a settled team and a renewed burst of confidence. Albion lack both and have yet to master the art of playing away from home.
Still, this victory, achieved with effort rather than style, will do much to ease their frustrations. Mowbray can feel pleased with Koumas and Phillips, pleased that Paul McShane gave another dominant display, and pleased that Hartson still has an instinct for timing. The shot from which Hartson scored might have been deflected home by Paul Boertien but who can deny that Albion deserve whatever luck is coming to them?
WEST BROMWICH ALBION (4-4-2): Hoult; Albrechtsen, McShane, Davies, Robinson; Gera, Greening, Quashie, Koumas (Clement, 90); Phillips, Kamara (Hartson, 62). Substitutes: Steele, Ellington, Hodgkiss.
DERBY COUNTY (4-4-2): Bywater; Edworthy, Leacock, Michael Johnson (Moore 16), Boertien; Lupoli (Peschisolido, 81), Barnes, Bolder, Jones; Stead (Bisgaard, 63), Howard. Substitutes: Grant, Seth Johnson.
Referee: Russell Booth (Nottinghamshire).
Bookings: Albion — Kamara (foul), Hartson (ungentlemanly conduct).
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