West Brom v Boro
The Hawthorns Saturday August 26th KO 3.00pm
To the motorist passing the Hawthorns on the A41 out of Birmingham, West Bromwich might appear to be just another unprepossessing suburb of the Second City, the beginning of a vast urban sprawl across a large swathe of the West Midlands.
The history, language, culture, identity and even humour that West Brom shares, however, is not with Birmingham but with its surrounding small towns- Wednesbury, Tipton, Willenhall, Oldbury and many others, as well as the larger conurbations of Dudley, Walsall and Wolverhampton.
Villa Park may be only four miles from the Hawthorns, but the local derby that most stirs the blood of West Brom fans is with Wolverhampton Wanderers located fourteen miles away to the west.
This is the Black Country, so named because the coal seams of the 19th century mining industry lay so close to the surface, and the smoke from innumerable small factories left a sooty pall over the whole area.
West Brom and Middlesbrough. Geographically they could scarcely be more different. The one completely land-locked and as far from the sea - over 100 miles in any direction - as it is possible to get on this small island. The other a port, equally industrialised and polluted perhaps, but offering the possibility of more enticing environments in the surrounding hills, moors and coastline.
Yet it is the similarity of the two towns which is most striking. Two Victorian boom towns with explosive population growths following the discovery of mineral wealth in the 19th century. Two towns sharing a common pride in the industrial skills and craftsmanship which fired their local economies and exported their products to every corner of the globe.
Then the shared decline from the late 1970s with the decimation of the UK's manufacturing base, and the movement from manufacturing to service industries, from industrial to finance capitalism, leaving in its wake a trail of broken communities and disastrous social and economic consequences. A political hatchet job masquerading as an economic necessity.
In good times and in bad what both towns have also shared has been pride in and loyalty to their respective football teams. Indeed football is now what both areas may best be known for across the world, and the success or otherwise of the local team is a remarkable signifier of the degree of hope and optimism which exists at any time in both towns.
I have always associated West Brom with good football simply because one of my earliest Ayresome Park memories, whilst still not yet a teenager, was seeing Vic Buckingham's side beat the Boro in the early 50s by playing a brand of European style football that was fifty years ahead of its time.
It featured Ronnie Allen, a small, dark deep-lying centre-forward adept at detaching himself from hulking centre-halves and scoring his goals by making late runs into the box. But I was most captivated by Ray Barlow a player of such charisma that he was able to take my attention away for one afternoon from my hero Wilf Mannion.
A fair-haired, well-built wing-half, Barlow dominated the game by spraying the ball to every area of the pitch but it was his presence, the way in which he was the hub of every West Brom move and his seemingly affable demeanour which remain vividly in my memory more than seventy years later.
The promise of that Baggies team came to full fruition in 1954 when they took the FA Cup and finished second in the league to Wolves. A halcyon year for Black Country football.
West Brom had a much better time of it in the 60s and 70s as an established First Division team while Boro languished in the second and briefly the third tier. Those were the days of stars now memorialised at the Hawthorns in a statue (Tony Brown) and a stand (Jeff Astle), though my favourite player was Bobby Hope, a tanner-ball player from the streets of Glasgow. Later the names of the great Cyrille Regis, Brian Robson and Laurie Cunningham could all be added to that illustrious list.
The immediate context of Saturday's encounter has been a close season in which expectations have been higher at Boro than at West Brom.
After last season's renaissance under Carrick another top six place seemed a strong possibility to most on Teesside given the right signings.
By contrast disillusionment with the owner and a lack of transfer activity with only two new players signed has settled like an old-style Black Country smog over the Hawthorns.
Outsourcing their ownership, like everything else, to China in the form of 'entrepreneur' Lai Guochuan has been a disaster for the Baggies.
"Lai, Liar" proclaim the fans' placards around the Hawthorns these days, the absentee owner, not seen at the ground in over a year, seemingly intent on asset- stripping the club. Every player up for sale at the right price. No money available for new signings. And money taken out of the club to rescue the owner's other Covid-hit businesses.
The project has been self-defeating and the club is now in talks with yet another entrepreneur, this time a crypto investor. The current price of £60 m would represent a loss of some £140m for Lai.
The Baggies' biggest staff asset is arguably their coach (another parallel with the Boro?) Carlos Corberan.
But even here there is some uncertainty. Leeds are hovering, and Corberan was given a hero's welcome at Elland Road last Saturday by a crowd not always noted for its generosity to past employees. Many believe that the mistake of dismissing Bielsa might best be rectified by re-appointing his former assistant and translator.
So far Corberan remains loyal to Albion, a team filled with the kind of proven Championship warriors in which the Boro are currently conspicuously lacking.
Steve Bruce's snapping up of Jed Wallace and John Swift at the beginning of last season looked shrewd at the time, but now playing alongside such other veterans as Phillips, Pieters and Townsend they may well begin to run out of steam before the end of the current Championship marathon.
At Leeds last week, the average age of the Albion side was only one year younger than Leeds' oldest player.
Early results have defied pre-season expectations for both clubs. Albion's record (LWD) suggest a mid-table future, Boro's (LLD) scarcely aspires to even that level of achievement.
These are early days however and last week's display against Huddersfield and the promise of some Premier League quality players coming through the door this week still inspire hopes of a return to Boro's last season form.
Form, such as it is, suggests a 2-0 win for Albion, but I'll go for the 1-1 draw that would satisfy most Boro fans at the moment.
Whatever the result, the strength of both clubs will continue to lie in their loyal supporters. Pre-season-ticket sales of around 20,000 at both clubs tell their own story.
The property developers who destroyed that old Black Country pub, The Crooked House, are now finding to their cost the consequences of messing with the valued cultural traditions of working class communities. It is a story which has resonated around the country and indeed the world as a signifier of our times.
It is a tale which should inspire and embolden the supporters of West Brom, the Boro and indeed the fans of their local clubs everywhere.
I will of course be supporting Boro on Saturday. But I will be wishing the Baggies well, for all of the memories they have provided over the years, for the rest of the season.
My original response seems to have gone missing.... Anyway:
Fantastic, Len. A Masterman masterpiece of an opener.
My only complaint is that, having posted it for you, I now can't "like" it.
Thanks for posting the article - I've edited the Diaboro forum database on the server so Len's opener is now under his name - so you can like it now 😉
Excellent debut opener Len with a full history lesson of the West Midlands to boot - I'd agree that both WBA and Boro have something money just can't buy in loyal supporters who still turn up in their tens of thousands in the hope of better days ahead.
If I'm honest, I think Boro really have to win this one - if only to convince any potential new signings from PL clubs that they're not going to be stuck at the wrong end of the table and playing under pressure to avoid failure.
I should add that I've been finding the Diasboro site very slow today and even had to resubmit my post several times before it worked.
I noted on the host server that they've got a message to say they're currently updating the server software between 16-31 August - that may explain occasional problems so I'd suggest copying your posts before pressing 'Add Reply' to be on the safe side in case you lose it.
Thank you Len for an excellent opener encompassing both cultural and footballing history together with an astute assessment of the current state of play of both teams.
I agree with you that the majority of Boro supporters, self included, would see a draw as a good result and whilst we saw some encouraging signs last week I still feel we are work in progress and our defensive frailties remain a serious concern.
I hope I am wrong but as well as the defensive frailties, I have yet to see MC and his colleagues offer something different when Plan A is not working. WBA 2-0 Boro. ☹️😎
Having met Sir Len twice - quite breafly I must admit - I had high expectations about the opener. And he even exceeded them!
The post was cultural and footballing history as said above. Enjoyable.
I hope Boro will exceed the expectations on Saturday, too. Hence I will go for 1-2 surprice win. Leninhan and Latte Lath scoring. We are due a goal from a corner (I know Fry scored from a corner but ...).
Up the Boro!
Thanks Len, for a very detailed history of WBA and the Black Country, which I enjoyed reading, let their plight with their owner be a lesson for those crying for Gibson to sell up !
We are now entering the last week of the transfer window, a period when it goes haywire, loans a plenty, surprises sales etc. We will (or not) come to learn what irons in the fire Boro had and will the 2/3 players nearly over the line, actually cross it, all will be revealed shortly and then we can settle down until January 1 at least.
Come on BORO.
A masterful debut and scored a winner !
Me ? I just love Diasboro me ! All the different contributions and leading posts it just goes from strength to strength.
What is interesting about WBA and Boro is our shared love of Robbo who was their captain, star player and manager and was the catalyst for the Boro revolution whose input and of course vision for Rockliffe will never be forgotten.
I don’t think we’ll struggle this season so much so that Mrs OFB and I are going to the stadium tomorrow to get season tickets after a COVID hibernation for past few years.
As for the game on Saturday?
Im going for a 2 0 win for Boro
Thanks again Len
Watched the Leeds v W Brom game last week,to be honest I was somewhat disappointed with both teams, you'd have thought the players had not played with each other before, misplaced passes, out of positions, just disjointed, but a different game this week,I think if we are at it, and play like we can,then I see us winning.
Many thanks Len for a brilliant article. Enjoyed it very much. Congratulations.
That was a Masterful opener, Len. If it had been printed in one of the quality newspapers 25 years ago (I seem to think the writing in them is not as good, now, as I remember it from the past) it would have been judged top notch by any standard. Well done!
I am tempted to go with OFB, our prospective newest Season Ticket Holder (well, after tomorrow): a 2-0 win for Boro though with no real logical justification, just blind faith. I mean! The idea that Boro should suddenly not only keep a clean sheet but somehow hit the target twice! Preposterous.
Len, everything in place and some lovely context too. Thank you for a great piece and a lot of effort on your part.
Strangely as a kid I always liked the name, their strip and the badge on the shirt. I even titled a print I once produced 'Angling, allotments and Albion'. I still want Boro to win though.
All the best to everyone.
Thanks Len - excellent opener.
So, what can we expect on Saturday?
Being a Boro supporter it makes me think of a friend just starting on chemotherapy knowing the side effects are going to be horrendous.
Before each session you expect the worst but hope for the best but are prepared for whatever comes.
That’s how I feel with WBA having won one , drawn one and lost won and so should beat Boro who only have a draw and two loses. But I hope that the improvement in their last game may continue and so hope they might get a result - a win would be brilliant. A draw would be ok.
But I’ll take what their performance deserves whether a win , a draw or a loss.
I’m hoping McGree starts - on ability he should be starting in an advanced role certainly in preference to at least 3 of last week’s starters. As much as I don’t rate McNair as a right back I think, on experience alone, he should be starting ahead of the young 18 year old. As for the rest I just hope we put players in their rightful positions.
Let’s hope first and foremost we get a performance , so whatever the result we can be happy.
Philip of Huddersfield
Passing thoughts ,Warnock loved Paddy McNair, missed Huddersfield, if he is not in the team Saturday , maybe ?
Watched MC at his press conference today. Did I learn anything from it. NO
A brilliant opener, Len. The standard of writing on here never fails to impress - let’s hope our team do justice to your prose.
@martin-bellamy - Len's opener was Champions League prose. Boro is a Championship team. Quite a distance between those two.
@malcolm. We hardly ever do learn anything, in part due to a lack of incisive interviewing from the journalists. 😎
I’d like to echo everybody else’s view that your opener was outstanding, Len. I really loved the socio-economico-geographic portrait you painted of the two towns - this was football in its true historical context. They say nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, but I think you’ve proved them wrong! Many thanks.
I’ve only been once to The Hawthorns (though as a former education adviser, I did often visit the school which lies directly opposite the ground.) On that occasion, Pulis-led Boro were languishing somewhere mid-table and scoring the occasional goal, whereas the Baggies were flying high and aiming for promotion. Their fans seemed confident of a home win. Early in the game, they started singing, ‘Tony Pulis, your football is sh*&#’ He had previously been their manager, of course, and had bitterly disappointed the fans with really negative football. Most of us in the red end felt tempted to join in with the song. Incredibly, Boro went on to turn on the style and won 3-2, with Assombalonga scoring two!!! So much for sh*&# football!
How I would love to repeat that scoreline- or any winning scoreline - on Saturday. I’m with Werder when he says we really need to win this one. Even a draw could mean we start to see other teams pulling away at the top, so a win is urgently needed. However, this is a really tough game, so reluctantly, I’ll settle for the draw. A defeat, on the other hand, would be catastrophically bad.
I quite like the person Michael Carrick is. But the information he gives in his press conference is quite little. He can talk about the big picture like yesterday, but in all he does not give much for us fans or the journalists at present.
Watched MC at his press conference today. Did I learn anything from it. NO
But he is doing the talking on the pitch as well as on Rockcliffe Park. That is all that matters in the end. But he is not like Mogga in press conferences. Me, I love Mogga to bits.
Up the Boro!
Well Len, what can I say, that has not been said already.
You have raised the bar that OFB, Andy and others have set, but in your own style. I also loved the historical comparison.
Thank you for your time and effort in researching and putting together this Headliner.
I never imagined pole vaulting would become such a useful thing until I have just found time to catch up in here and read through your opener Len, however the bar is so high now I am now re-imagining! Yet another great piece to read to join the growing list from different people.
The Powmills are still out and about down south and I have to confess I have not paid too much attention to football this last week. I have no real idea how we will fare against the Baggies, but will simply allow my heart to hope for a first win of the season...1-0 would be enough for me.
That was basically a Masters degree from Len. It will make the likely pain of watching the game more bearable.
Although Carrick deadbats most questions for his press conferences he has confirmed what we have all figured out; that we are no longer trying to buy promotion through loans and "oven-ready" signings. It's been coming. After the Monkpocalypse we tried to reboot with the Golden Thread only to completely balls it up leading to another 3 seasons of chaos as we tried to stabilise.
We are now in a situation where we get a second chance to building a sustainable club. The only issue I have with that is that's not possible to run a sustainable club in the Championship and challenge for promotion. Parachute payments so warp the playing field that you can't compete financially with them.
You can try to be the Championship equivalent of a Southampton who survived in the Premier league by developing youngsters and out-performing the transfer market but, inevitably, you fail one year and it all comes crashing down. The likes of Southampton can survive in the Premier league because broadcast revenue is significantly more than the wage bill. You can't do the same in the Championship because almost no clubs have a wage bill that is less than their revenue.
This means we are making a huge bet. We are betting that Scott and Jones (Crystal Palace guy) can recruit better than 22 other clubs in the Championship with a budget that is pretty middle of the table. Let's face it, our recruitment has been a disaster for years. So this is a big bet without a track record to support it. Doesn't mean it won't work but even if it does work, this season we'll struggle to make the playoffs with the squad we're likely to have.
Makes it a difficult time to play WBA but, then again, they are a basket case financially. Parachute payments have run out, their owner is trying to bail and they seem have made exactly two signings so far this season: Maja on a free and a young attacking midfielder from Brighton who is currently starting on the bench.
WBA will be looking at us and figuring this is a great chance to get some momentum into their season. We're looking at them and thinking exactly the same. For all the Baggies' problems, they still have a decent squad. Reminds me of our second season under Pulis where we still had one of the best squads in the league but we were having to keep selling players to stay afloat. Admittedly, the players we bought were appalling and overpriced.
In my opinion, Corberan is possibly the best manager in the league and I think Carrick is learning (fast) on the job. So far, I've never seen us out-think an opponent tactically. I've seen us out-play and out-score other teams but never seen us tweak the formation or adjust our tactics to create a problem that the other team struggles to answer. Corberan is the master of that.
If we don't win tomorrow, a segment of the fanbase which is fickle at best is going to turn and a certain degree of panic will kick in. To be honest, though, it's hard to see anything but a win for WBA. Their team is (by necessity) pretty settled and still full of quality. We're starting on a brand new path with a mix of young hopefuls who are still learning each others' names and Insta handles.
That all said, I like the signings we've made. Dieng is one of the best keepers in the league. Rogers is a Premier league player in the making. Engel looks like he could be a real find and Latte Lath looked a real handful. RVDB looks classy and composed at the back. If each of these players develops well this season we could have the core of an excellent team in 12 months. Of course, 12 days is a long time in football, yet alone 12 months, so this is a big gamble and we're going to have to stay the course over what is likely to be a rocky ride.
@deleriad. Excellent summary Deleriad and worthy of an addendum to Len’s Master’s Degree Thesis.
A most enjoyable read and with which I agree entirely, particularly the comments on us not out thinking our opponents tactically.
I just hope that this does not prove to be MC’s Achilles heel, particularly as his second in charge did not show any great tactical awareness during his tenure in charge. 😎
Very good post, deleriad. I completely agree with that assessment.
The last two summer transfer windows have been catastrophic for the Boro in the sense that the fall-out from the recruitment team's failure to deliver on the promises and expectations of our previous two managers produced a dysfunctional relationship at the heart of the club which led to their subsequent sackings.
I just hope that this pattern of events is not repeated this autumn.
Carrick however, in accepting the subordinate role of coach, has far less leverage than his predecessors, a situation created by Scott for just such an eventuality.
In a classic back-covering manoeuvre Scott also announced after the appointment of the latest member of his recruitment team that that "they would have no place to hide" if they failed.
It's a win-win situation for Kieran. If the recent signings come off he can claim the credit. If they bomb, he has a strategy to enable him to blame others and escape Scott- free.
It would be tragic for the club were the pattern of the last two years to be repeated and for an outstanding young coach to be the fall-guy for failing to make bricks without straw.
Middlesbrough striker Josh Coburn agrees Plymouth Argyle move.
I think a new striker is coming before this comes offial. Up the Boro!
@lenmasterman To be fair to Scott, I think he said in his interview that "his job starts now" and to judge him over the coming seasons. We have had a badly dysfunctional 18 months where the club has been neither one thing nor t'other.
If there is a genuinely good relationship between Scott & Carrick and we really all are trying to do the same thing then it could be the start of something really good.
I do think that Carrick got an accidentally smooth ride for his first few months. We had a really good squad of technically proficient footballers who had a weight lifted from them when Wilder went. This is now a far more testing time for Carrick. Unlike Southgate and Woodgate he has a decent squad and he knows we'll patch holes with loans where needed. Hopefully he'll also have time to grow into the role.
I'm cautiously optimistic. I can see us ending someone around about 6th in a way that makes it look like the team is developing.