There are few better feelings in football than a derby win, especially one so unexpected after weeks of poor displays.
Leaving Sussex just before 9am yesterday, most of us felt that a defeat was likely and that this summary would include a look back at Alan Irvine’s reign following his probable sacking on Saturday evening.
The only reason for some positivity on the way up was that my uncle was attending only his third league game of the season. The previous two were Spurs and Leicester away, both 1-0 wins.
What a difference 90 minutes makes! The football wasn’t brilliant, and beating a side that had ten men for over an hour 1-0 will hardly go down as a convincing victory. But it was a win and that’s all that matters after so many turgid displays in recent weeks.
Irvine surprised most Albion fans with his line-up, including summer signings Silvestre Varela and Brown Ideye in the side. Varela had impressed in recent cameo appearances from the bench, but Ideye had struggled to get up to the pace of the Premier League during his first few months at the club.
The Albion head coach also stuck with the back four which had kept a clean-sheet at Hull the previous week, with Gareth McAuley partnering Joleon Lescott, who was captain in Chris Brunt’s absence, at the heart of the defence.
In complete contrast to the last game I attended at home to Arsenal, Albion actually started on the front foot with Varela causing Alan Hutton all kinds of problems down the left early on.
Sebastien Pocognoli had Albion’s first chance, seeing a powerful effort parried by Brad Guzan after linking up well with Varela down the left.
The big talking point came after just 22 minutes, as former Baggies’ loan signing Kieran Richardson was shown a deserved red card for going into a challenge on Stephane Sessegnon with his studs up and missing the ball.
Although Albion continued to enjoy more of the ball, they were unable to turn this possession into clear-cut chances or even a spell of sustained pressure.
Our best chance came just before half-time, as Sessegnon saw a close-range effort saved by the feet of Guzan after more good work down the left from Pocognoli.
Villa came into the game more after the break, with the introduction of Fabian Delph seeing them get on the ball more and look to stretch the Albion defence with their pace on the counter-attack.
Albion continued to create the better chances however, with Varela seeing a close-range volley blocked and Ideye sending an effort from a Varela cross over the bar and into the lower tier of the Brummie Road.
Just as the home fans began to think that this would be another case of what might have been after failing to capitalise on other winnable games in recent weeks, the Baggies struck with 18 minutes remaining.
It was fitting that it was former Villa player and boyhood Blues fan Craig Gardner who scored the goal. He drilled the ball into the bottom corner from close range after Villa had been unable to clear a Saido Berahino cross from the right, with Ideye lurking and Sessegnon seeing an effort blocked by Guzan during the scramble before the ball fell to Gardner.
The celebrations around The Hawthorns were the loudest for months, perhaps more through relief than anything else. Gardner ran straight to the bench to celebrate with Irvine and the rest of the players.
Predictably, the final 20 minutes or so were nervy as Albion stopped pressing the Villa back four and almost invited them to try and attack.
The closest they came to finding an equaliser saw Christian Benteke send a clever flick just wide in the closing stages.
The final whistle was greeted with cheers from all four stands and celebrations from the players on the pitch, with Gardner almost going on a lap of honour from the East Stand round to the Halfords and eventually down the tunnel.
This won’t go down as one of the most entertaining derbies in recent years, but it will certainly go down as one of the most vital victories for Albion.
We can only speculate on what a defeat would have meant for Irvine, but I personally think he would have done very well to remain in charge if we had lost and maybe even if we had drawn after Villa were reduced to ten men so early.
However, the players kept going and based on chances created and football played, we just about deserved the win.
The important thing now is to try and build on this win, starting with the trip to QPR next week.
The team selection yesterday was a lot more encouraging, with genuine pace out wide and players looking to play the ball forwards at times rather than sideways or backwards. But Irvine will need to continue sending the players out to do this if we are to pick up more points over the Christmas period.
Come on you Baggies!
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