Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Skills and the tutelage of Alexis Sanchez - Chuba Akpom joins Albion from Arsenal as a creator for the Championship finale

Albion have gone for speed, bags of tricks and enthusiasm with the only new addition to their squad. The Chubatron is highly rated to the tune of a £25,000-a-week contract from Arsène Wenger, and he says he’ll play anywhere to rack up the minutes – not least likely, it seems, the left wing, where he’s been occasionally deployed by his parent club during EFL Cup games and in pre-season, when he was at his most prolific.

At 21, Akpom has grown up as an admirer of Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Alan Shearer, Patrick Kluivert and the Brazilian Ronaldo, and is experienced at all levels of England and Arsenal’s pretender ranks.

“He’s capable of creating things on his own – he doesn’t rely on chances being created for him,” Gareth Southgate, the England manager, said of Akpom, following a 3-0 win against Kazakhstan 15 months ago, in which he scored on his under-21s debut.

“His work out of possession was very good. He’s a confident player. He’s got ability. He just has to keep progressing.”

Southgate was impressed by Akpom’s on-loan performances at Hull last season, including a debut goal against Huddersfield - who his first appearance for Albion might come against - in what would become a promotion season.

It took him more than two months to score again, and a further eight games to score the only goal of a win against Bolton. All of his league goals were home ones, but his cup goals were all away: one at Accrington and a hat-trick at Bury.

Although he never dropped out of the picture at Hull, Akpom is essentially unproven. The signs are promising, though: Jürgen Klopp wanted to sign Akpom during his reign at Dortmund, and the man he succeeded at Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers, was openly interested in signing him two years ago.

Commitment will be key here. Akpom’s heart seems to have remained very much in north London during his brief, goalless loan spells in 2014 and 2015, when he flitted between training at the Emirates and playing for Brentford, Coventry and Forest.

He has experience of a top-of-the-table promotion push with the Bees. “It was different to what I’ve been used to,” he said, admitting some surprise at the physicality of the lower divisions three years ago.

“Getting the three points is huge at senior level. To be top of the league is such a big thing, and it was really exciting to be part of it all.”

His pedigree, if his goals and assists for Arsenal’s youth and reserve sides are anything to go by, also promises much. In training, he is inspired by Alexis Sanchez. “He makes me want to work a lot harder to reach his level,” he says. “It’s really motivational.

“The Championship is a tough league. You’ve got to have good fitness and be mentally prepared.”

A now-permanently signed Glenn Murray should guide him through the battles of an opening stretch of fixtures where he will need to combine robustness with his undoubted creativity, and he also offers a quicker option upfront if Baldock continues to miss out through injury.

There isn’t tremendous pressure on Akpom to score goals. For club and player, it’s a low-risk signing and, potentially, just the extra striker needed for the run-in.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Albion 2-1 Sheffield Wednesday

Championship, January 20 2017

It takes supernatural commitment, a kind of tenacious faux-dependency, to purely connect to football these days. Watching millionaires, spiritually divided from the mob by galaxies, and wondering if they might have the motivation to somehow care, feels more like going to the circus than fanning. Look, everyone wants the players to be as human as they are in the PR videos (“smile, Glenn! Make eye contact!”), but the reality is they’re a bunch of rich athletes, performing for fame and fortune, and most of us are out of shape potatoes trying to imbue meaning into our lives through a costly vicarious yearning.

Anyway, there are games when it becomes comfortingly difficult to remember what a pointless form of belonging football provides, and this – magnificent, bewildering, heroic and convoluted – was one of them. In that way that the seasons inexorably blur into one another, it seemed like years since Wednesday’s visit in May, their fans all ruddy and Yorkshire and ready to drive through the night to get back to work in the morning, powered by the fumes of a date with Wembley. Look who’s laughing now, we might have thought, if they didn’t seem capable of throwing some witch doctor curse on Albion, like when half the squad expired in the semi at Hillsborough.

There might, you feared, be few better teams to extend the tame loss at Preston into consecutive nil points, but then there is Knockaert, the epitome of a player, with all his flailing and moaning at the officials, who you’d detest if he was against you. It’s all fine, because he can get the ball just outside the area, as he did here from a diagonal Hemed pass as part of one of Albion’s grease lightning breaks from their own box, and pull off an impossible balanced sprint which perfectly keeps the ball just beyond whoever tries to stop him, ending with a goal.

There were several elements leading up to Knocky blasting it into the roof of the net which escalated the improbability of the goal: Norwood only just made the clearance which provided Hemed with the ball, and then Hemed underhit the pass, as good as it was, making Knockaert overhit his first touch. Kieren Westwood, the Wednesday ‘keeper, thought he could rush out and gather the ball. Like the entire stadium, he’d underestimated Knocky’s squirrel-like foot speed, and now Knockaert was away, making three defenders dive in their own idiocy, an unstoppable French fireball wheeling, It’s a Knockaert.

The law of the universe dictates that, sometimes, something so brilliant in a game has to be counterbalanced by a daft calamity. A Foristieri cross was met by the flying foot of Norwood, running towards his own goal, to divert it onto a Dunk header – #tbt, it’s a Dunk disaster – which sailed past the already-grounded Stockdale. The timing, right on half-time, was horrible, but the panic didn’t really churn in until another cross, in the 64th minute, led to a shot which caused Glenn Murray to use his hands as a means to avoid decapitation. Technically it was a sending off, but a penalty would have been sufficient punishment, perhaps as a nod to the human right to avoid being knocked out cold. Still, off he went.

It was such a dismal few seconds that you could only have surpassed the feeling of imminent catastrophe if the goalmouth had promptly burst into flames, scorching Knockaert’s gloves while a terrified ballboy desperately tried to extinguish it with a bottle of Lucozade. And then Stockdale (can we call him Save-it Stopdale from now on? Is it possible we could pun this anywhere at all?) rescued fate from the furnace of yet another disappointment against Wednesday, first diving, athletically, to his right to save the penalty, and then producing a follow-up save, the other way, which could only have been more remarkable had he caught the ball and raced down the other end to smash home in front of the North.

Nothing – sunshine, rainbows, fivers falling from the sky – would have been a surprise at this point. Albion were a man down but with their tails up – Murray had been relatively quiet, and all the momentum was theirs. Pocognoli has hardly played this season, but his cross, a glistening arc of solid gold assist, swung beautifully for Knockaert, diving in at the far post, unleashing delirium.

Wednesday, understandably, completely lost their heads at this point, like in Sunday League when you’re knackered and losing agonisingly and bristling with frustrated testosterone. Fletcher, who’d only been on the pitch for half an hour, did that head-shoving thing that footballers count as a headbutt on Stephens. McManaman ran in like the gnarliest back-up guy you’ve ever seen, Stockdale started shoving him in some kind of muted northern royal rumble, Stephens protested. Fletcher was sent off. Just in case that wasn’t funny enough, Hutchinson then flew in two years late on March – if ever his recovery from injury needed testing – in an act that might not have kept him on the hallowed turf even if he hadn’t already been booked.

That was that. What a time to be alive. To recap: no, let’s try to piece it all together in our own time, on Saturday morning, with the telly highlights. Some joke about Wednesday getting revenge in this year’s play-offs seems appropriate but disingenuous. Lady Luck, not least in terms of other teams’ results, has spoiled Albion for a rare six months, to the point where only a brilliant collapse will stop them.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Albion 2-0 MK Dons

FA Cup, January 7 2017

There was a time, recently enough to remain memorable, when a plus-11,000 crowd for an Albion home game would have been remarkable. Now the FA Cup’s been indelibly devalued, with its silly kick-off times and indifferent Premier League clubs on the road to a Wembley which hosts semi-finals and charges a tenner for a sandwich. There was no getting around the fact that this was a low turn-out in reflection of that, with the North Stand looking all strange and empty and the upper echelons of both sides reduced to ghost towns, like an echoey reminder of how crucial promotion was in the final season at Withdean.

It wasn’t just weird because of the unpopulated stands: there was also a yawny passiveness among the crowd, apathetic like zoo visitors or swimming pool spectators, a slumbering hum without a chorus. But then there is the counter thought that goes: why is there this chasm between league and cup crowds at Falmer these days? Who are the people who want to watch the team based on the opposition? And do they really want to spend a Saturday doing something else while the rest of us suckers sparsely people a muted stadium? Really, what else are you going to do on the first Saturday of the year? Go to pubs with the same people you go to pubs with every weekend, sitting in silence, tapping at your phones in the pub where you've all notified the world you are, occasionally laughing awkwardly at bants? Go shopping and traipse joylessly around spending even more than you do at football? Probably would have been better than getting the birthday shout-out someone got at this game, of all games, when there’s nothing special about the day at all.

This was the day when swarthy magician Beram Kayal returned, though. He didn’t waste any time. Breaking the silence with less than ten minutes gone, he strode to meet a ball just outside the box and crisply skimmed it into the bit of the net nearest the MK Dons fans. They must have felt like the Colchester fans at the EFL Cup game in August: following a side average to its core, never really looking like winning, offers nothing of the dare-to-dream stuff the cup is still just about marketed on, as Albion fans know. They possessed quite an entertaining figure in Chukwuemeka Aneke, a highly physical and energetic striker who, having turned Sam Adekugbe on the edge of the box, hit a shot at Maenpaa that would have been considered weak in the warm-up. Then he treated Hünemeier’s head much like a basketball hovering over a net when they leapt together in front of the mass wake that was the West Stand. Sidwell burrowed around under the belly of an MK player who fell over the ball before clasping it like a pot of long-lost treasure. Once it had been retrieved, Hemed smashed it against the keeper - he sometimes chooses the least effective option at the simplest of angles - from an Adekugbe cross.

Jamie Murphy and Richie Towell were part of the attack, both taking a day off the sunbed, and Murphy volleyed just wide after March performed one of the most meggy nutmegs ever on his marker. Then Hemed replaced nutmeg man as the most embarrassed player on the park by absolutely shanking from point blank range when three Albion players roved behind enemy lines. At this point, in the second half, Albion were firmly into making-hard-work-of-it territory, with the thought of a midweek in Milton Keynes if anyone made a howler providing just enough motivation to perform. There was a five-minute period during which the team needed to, in a manner of speaking, check themselves before they wrecked themselves, culminating in two attacks down the left from the Albion: Adekugbe stuck in a cross which March volleyed well over first time, Jamie Murphy dribbled to the near post byline before tapping back for a last-gasp MK clearance, and then a looping Goldson header from the resulting Murphy corner hung narrowly over the bar.

Towell broke away down the right to zero effect, but the Israelis were here to save the day. Kayal floated in a beauty of a cross, it all went slow-mo as everyone pondered the disappointingly thinkable of Hemed not nestling a simple header into the far corner, and then he promptly did the business. Actually, he should have had another a minute later thanks to the accommodating and increasingly porous Dons defence, but he shot straight at the keeper after being played in by Murph.

Everything was better now, not least because Skalak and Murray were warming up in front of the West, like lions in bibs. Kayal went off after 77 minutes, departing down the tunnel with his halo, a magnificent visionary, taking with him any real remaining interest in the game. Let’s start again next week, and avoid any more tedious home draws in the rest of whatever cup run we might have.