April at The Hawthorns – We’ve Been Here Before

Jonny Lambert takes us back to a previous April trip to West Bromwich Albion - when Sunderland had a similar goal in mind.

At this stage of the season we’ve had a good look at the rest of the league, and are very much aware of the availability (or lack thereof) of our own players this weekend. So with that in mind I thought I’d take you on a trip down memory lane instead, and a previous time we were at The Hawthorns on an April weekend, way back in 1998.

It was Easter Monday and I’d taken the trip down with family to West Brom, then managed by our former gaffer Denis Smith, who had two promotions and a relegation during his four years on Wearside. Three points was the hope as we looked toward the Holy Grail of promotion to the (Carling) Premier League. We’d not long left Roker Park and with a sparkly new stadium in place thanks to the vision of owner Bob Murray, the term ‘white elephant’ had been bandied about a fair bit – going up was really a must.

Albeit only 25 years ago, so much has changed in football this game looks rather dated now. Kits were oversized – like really big – goalmouths were grassless, referees were really old and there were only three substitutes allowed, with sides often gambling on no reserve goalkeeper. The Hawthorns was under construction at the time with the corners being filled in to give it a more modern enclosed feel, but the Smethwick Road End was packed with travelling Lads fans.

I was in the typical uniform of a 1990s teenage boy, donning head-to-toe sportswear covered by an Adidas manager-style bench coat, and a mop of hair on my head that any northern-based indie frontman would be proud of. I also had enough sweets on me to preserve my body for decades, washed down with pints of fizzy drinks that would keep me at a necessary level of hyperactivity for the afternoon’s game.

Riddled with the scar tissue of being Sheron’d on a Not So Good Friday at home to QPR, we’d barely taken our seats when we found ourselves behind. The Lads failed to deal with a corner, and by that I mean we left the prolific (since disgraced) striker Lee Hughes completely unmarked two yards out to bundle the ball home. 0-1. Things then went from bad to worse on 11 minutes when Kevin “Zinedine” Kilbane popped up at the back post to head the ball down into the goal for a 2-0 home lead.

Kilbane was one of those players that on the face of it had an admirable career: 540 senior games with 110 international caps on top for the Republic of Ireland. Yet I can’t help thinking that in the four years he played for us he spent vast swathes of games hiding from the ball. A truly unique skill.

Thankfully it was Easter and, much like that slightly bigger story goes, we resurrected three days after Mike Sheron’s execution of our defence on the Friday. And who else could it be than the greatest little and large strike force of all time: Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips.

First up was Quinny, generously left unmarked to bring the ball down and slot home, swiftly followed by Super Kev, who pounced on a loose ball after two West Brom defenders went for the same ball. 2-2 and game on.

On 37 minutes Micky Gray lost his head and punched opposing striker James Quinn after seemingly being hit first. A straight red followed for the curly-haired left back and only a booking for the lesser Quinn. I can still hear my uncle’s dismay at Gray’s lack of discipline in choosing to retaliate which you must “NEVER” do. I was fine with it, but only on the basis that Quinn got dismissed as well…which he didn’t, so it ended up a poor gamble on Micky’s part.

A player down away from home didn’t look good for us, but back then we had quite the side, and on 50 minutes a weighted pass by Lee Clark went through to Quinn who managed to lob the oncoming Chris Adamson to make it 3-2 to the Lads. Sadly this was not to be the ending we’d hoped for as, while home fans were departing for the exits, Hughes managed to grab his second of the game in the final minute to make it 3-3. I was utterly deflated at the end but philosophical that 10 men away from home might just have made it feel less like two points dropped (even though it was).

That left us at 5-5 on aggregate over the long weekend, with Quinny bagging four goals across the two games. Vital points were dropped and ultimately we were left at the mercy of the play-offs and that penalty shoot-out.

We’ve already got through our Easter double this campaign, so it’s now simply a three game shoot-out with all eyes on those final two available play-off places. Who knows how Sunday will play out as we are now without our captain and leader Danny Batth, but the Lads don’t like to stick to the script sometimes, so a daft result might just happen.