Great Football League Teams 17: West Bromwich Albion, 2001-02
They may not have been a team for the purists.
But the West Bromwich Albion of 2001/02 knew how to do drama.
With only eight games of the season left, they stood 11 points behind bitter local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers, who occupied the second automatic promotion spot – but turned things around in a barnstorming finish to the campaign.
It was a wet dream for Albion fans, a nightmare for the old gold.
And it was all the sweeter for being so unexpected.
Albion at the start of the new millennium were emerging from the most traumatic decade in their history, with humiliation on the pitch, and stagnation off it.
Wolves, in contrast, had enjoyed tens of millions of investment from chairman and ‘golden tit’ Sir Jack Hayward, who rebuilt both ground and team – though fell short of elevating them to the Premier League.
The seed of Albion’s recovery was planted on Christmas Eve 1999, when Sheffield businessman Paul Thompson took over as chairman.
One of his earliest decisions was to sack Brian Little as manager, with the team sliding towards relegation in March 2000, and appoint Gary Megson.
The carrot-topped Yorkshireman was known for his pragmatic style of football, which contrasted with the cavalier approach Albion fans preferred.
But these were desperate times – so prized ideals went out the window.
Megson brought in four signings on deadline day – and Albion survived by beating champions Charlton in the final match of the campaign.
In 2000/01, things improved considerably, with a switch to 3-5-2 resulting in a surprise play-off place.
But few Albion fans expected the team to push for the automatic spots during the following campaign.
Megson had built a team largely in his own image – short on flair maybe, but never on commitment. Most had tasted better days with other clubs, before being released – and you could sense a point being proved in every tackle.
Captain and midfielder Derek McInnes, once of Rangers and then Toulouse, exemplified the Megson spirit best and proved a born leader – as he is showing currently as St Johnstone manager. Andy Johnson’s top flight experience with Nottingham Forest and youth team product Adam Chambers helped the engine room tick over.
At the back, ex-Derby and Pompey stopper Russell Hoult was beginning to hit the form that saw him on the fringe of the England squad a year later. He was protected by craggy centre halves Larus Sigurdsson, Phil Gilchrist, and Darren Moore – a lynchpin of Bradford’s happy promotion season three years earlier.
The wing backs were Neil Clement, blessed with a left peg so sweet his free kicks appeared guided by a third force that season, and on the right, Slovakian Igor Balis, whose moment in the sun would arrive late on in the campaign.
The attack looked blunt, after local hero Lee Hughes defected to Coventry for £5,000,001 during the summer (the £1 relating to a contract clause), and Jason Roberts injured his metatarsal, restricting his appearances that season to just 12.
So the line was led by the more workmanlike Scott Dobie, signed from Carlisle for £150,000, and Danny Dichio, £1.25m from Sunderland – supported by club legend Bob Taylor, now 34 years old.
It was not a team full of goals, but concerned more with keeping them out – often a 5-3-2 rather than the 3-5-2 on the teamsheet. Some 19 games would be won 1-0 during 2001/02.
The season opened unpromisingly with defeats against Walsall and Grimsby. But a 4-0 win over Kevin Keegan’s Manchester City in early September, before the new East Stand – a sign of further progress off the pitch – sparked a run of form that took Albion into the play off places by the end of the month.
Keegan’s team would soon hit their stride as well, along with the division’s other form team, Wolves. The pair would occupy the top two places for much of the season.
Albion drew their return with City at Maine Road on Boxing Day, and followed a 1-1 against Wolves at the Hawthorns in October with a 1-0 win at Molineux six weeks later.
“West Brom have had their day today,” said Wolves boss Dave Jones of the latter result, “but I hope our fans can see the bigger picture.”
Words he would come to rue.
Yet until the remarkable final five weeks of the season, it looked like Wolves were coasting to promotion, probably as runners-up to an increasingly impressive Manchester City.
The turning point was a bizarre Saturday in March. Wolves lost at home to lowly Grimsby. But the big story of the day was the Sheffield United-West Brom match, where, for the first time ever, a Football League match was abandoned because of a team having fewer than seven players on the pitch.
The Battle of Bramall Lane featured on the national news that evening, such was its notoriety. It was a brutal affair, with three Blades players sent off, and two mysteriously going down injured, after Neil Warnock had already sent on all three substitutes. With Albion leading 3-0 at the time, Gary Megson – no friend of United anyway given his Wednesday history – alleged dirty tricks.
The following Friday, the Football League cleared the Blades of any wrongdoing – but importantly they announced that the 3-0 scoreline would stand, and the three points went to the Hawthorns.
That night, Albion went to the City Ground and came away with another 1-0 win thanks to a late, late Bob Taylor header.
Suddenly, the deficit had been cut from 11 points to five. Game on.
With Wolves’ run-in looking the more testing, Albion were scenting blood. Comfortable wins over Crewe and Barnsley followed, then another Taylor-inspired 1-0 win at Coventry, against a lacklustre Lee Hughes.
Across the Black Country, Wolves choked against Man City at home (0-2), and then lost at Millwall (0-1) in a Friday night match.
Albion now had control of their destiny, and moved into second with a home draw against Rotherham the following Sunday, leaving two games remaining. “I feel like a golfer who’s got two putts to win The Open,” commented Megson.
The penultimate match was at the now freakishly-oversized Valley Parade. Its cavernous stands were fuller than usual, with thousands of Albion fans unable to squeeze into the away end.
They witnessed a tense but drab game, which appeared to be heading for a draw – with the initiative swinging back to Wolves – until that man Taylor tumbled under a clumsy challenge from Andy Myers in stoppage time, and the referee theatrically pointed to the spot.
When the travelling hordes had stopped celebrating, reality dawned: Albion had missed seven out of 11 penalties awarded that season – and the unlikely player now entrusted to take them was wing back Igor Balis.
He had to wait a nerve-shredding three minutes, while Taylor was treated for injury, before his moment came. And then put it away as if it was a Sunday kickabout.
Cue mayhem in the stands, and on the bench – where on loan Chelsea full back Warren Cummings seemed as ecstatic as any die-hard Baggie that day.
“Has a penalty ever meant so much to West Bromwich Albion?” asked the commentator from the short-lived ITV Digital.
Bradford was the clincher, the game with the drama the fans will remember. The final home game against mid-table Crystal Palace was a stroll in the spring sunshine. A Darren Moore toe poke calmed early nerves before Taylor – the man for the big occasion – settled it shortly after half time.
About five minutes from full time, with Wolves drawing 2-2 at Hillsborough, a cheer began to roll around the stadium, as fans turned to their mates, screamed “we’re up”, and hugged each other. The party was about to begin.
The post-match dressing room camera confirmed the celebrations would be as large and late among the players as in the local hostelries.
For most of the team, as Derek McInnes said in his post-match interview, this was a “career high watermark”; many of these players were simply good rather than exceptional pros, in a team of like-minded characters, who had hit the peak of their game, and probably knew they would never achieve the same heights again. The same, it turned out, was true of the manager.
The happy memory of that sunny spring afternoon quickly faded. A very public spat between manager and chairman shortly afterwards ended, surprisingly, with Paul Thompson resigning.
But the unrest meant Albion were slow in the summer transfer market and the squad was predictably too weak to survive in the Premier League.
Megson achieved a second promotion in 2003/04, but left the club the following October, as fans and directors tired of his attritional style of football, and wondered whether it could ever work in the top flight.
By then, all bar a couple of the 2001/02 regulars – Hoult and Clement – had moved on or languished in the reserves.
Megson is now back at his home club of Sheffield Wednesday. He has been a divisive and unpopular figure at almost every club he has managed since leaving The Hawthorns.
But he – and his squad – will retain a mythical status in B71 for their achievements during that 2001/02 season.