This Sunday would have been the last day of the Premier League season, so this week we are looking back at some of the top flight’s most memorable finales. Here, in the second of our series, SIMON JONES takes us back 15 years to the Hawthorns and West Bromwich Albion’s great escape…
Fuelled by a nip of Cognac and armed with a hero who had spent the previous night knocking down walls, West Brom were ready to attempt the great escape. No-one gave them a chance. No team bottom of the Premier League at Christmas had ever stayed up and this lot were still bottom on the season’s final day.
Doomsayers had them relegated already.
Geoff Horsefield is mobbed by fans after helping West Brom pull off the great escape
Albion had to beat Portsmouth and their rivals Southampton, Crystal Palace and Norwich City had to falter.
Faith though was in short supply at the Hawthorns that Survival Sunday. Except in the eyes of manager Bryan Robson.
‘We’d got a draw the week before at Old Trafford,’ recalls Robson. ‘It was like the proverbial Alamo but the lads defended magnificently. I could see they had the appetite for the fight and I had this real belief we would do it.’
To ramp up motivation pre-match, a video montage played out, aptly, to Al Pacino’s speech from Any Given Sunday ‘Inch by inch’. Powerful, spine-tingling.
‘I actually couldn’t understand it because my English wasn’t great,’ confesses key midfielder Zoltan Gera. ‘But I watched the clips and understood the emotion. I believed.’
West Brom manager Bryan Robson celebrates his side’s first goal against Portsmouth
A little Dutch courage helped too, as defender Martin Albrechtsen admitted: ‘People were very nervous and I remember some taking a big sip of cognac like five minutes before we went out.’
A tradition of old, Robson was happy to turn a blind eye if it worked. ‘Richard Hawkins, the conditioning coach, had a bottle in his medicine bag for emergencies,’ revealed Robson. ‘A few of the lads wanted a shot to take the edge off their nerves. I looked at Richard to say ”as long as they don’t have more than a nip!” It was actually quite common when I was a player at West Brom. Some of the older guys would put it in their tea or take a swig out the bottle.’
It was going to take more than brandy to get out of this though.
After a laboured first half, Albion were drawing 0-0 and on course for the drop. Gera had broken his hand after being trodden on by Portsmouth keeper Jamie Ashdown. He’d need an operation but would play on.
West Brom supporters listen to their radios to keep track of the day’s other top flight results
There was some hope. Southampton, who had scored early, were now drawing with Manchester United, Norwich were losing to Fulham while Palace had fallen behind to Charlton.
Robson gambled and switched to 4-3-3. Enter 31-year-old striker Geoff Horsfield.
A former builder, Horsfield had prepared for the game by renovating one of his properties. ‘I had the plasterers coming in on the Monday,’ said Horsfield. ‘So after training on Saturday I went straight on site and knocked an internal wall down and was putting a steel girder in at ten that night. It’s a good thing I was only sub because I was a little bit tired.’
He may have spent hours pummelling a wall but Horsfield took barely 20 seconds to breach Portsmouth’s defence. He put Albion 1-0 up from Gera’s cross. The crowd sensed the escape was on.
Horsfield (L) celebrates scoring the opening goal of the game with Zoltan Gera
Months earlier many had lambasted Robson. After taking over from Gary Megson in the November, he had failed to win until January.
The transfer window saw him bring in Kevin Campbell on a free as captain and Kieran Richardson, a livewire loan from Manchester United. Sensing tension in the camp Robson took the squad to Disney World Florida in February. Some fans were incredulous.
‘They were a good bunch but something wasn’t right,’ said Robson. ‘It was all too tense. I took them to Florida and we trained hard in the morning then got together as a group in the afternoon.
‘I didn’t want to take them to Portugal or Spain like those other club trips where there’s bars everywhere. I didn’t have to worry about them getting drunk, they were more interested in what rollercoaster they were going on or watching Jonathan Greening scream. They relaxed, aired any grievances and they came back a different team. Richardson was full of fire, injecting a real intensity into training and Campbell was a leader.’
Richardson, fittingly, scored Albion’s second against Portsmouth after a Horsfield backheel but the Hawthorns’ muted response told them that results had turned.
Horsfield (L) congratulates Kieran Richardson (R) after he doubled the Baggies’ lead
WEST BROM 2-0 PORTSMOUTH
West Brom (5-3-2): Kuszczak; Robinson, Clement, Albrechtsen, Gaardsoe, Wallwork; Richardson, Greening (Horsfield 58min), Gera; Earnshaw (Kanu 84), K Campbell
Scorers: Horsfield 58, Richardson 75
Manager: Bryan Robson
Portsmouth (4-3-3): Ashdown; De Zeeuw, Primus, Stefanovic, Taylor; Cisse, Hughes (Skopelitis 50), O’Neil; Kamara (Rodic 65), Fuller, Keene (Mezague 81). Manager: Alain Perrin
Referee: Mike Riley
While Southampton and Norwich were now losing and down, Palace were in front.
Oddly, it was the visiting support who rallied. Revelling in the demise of arch-rivals Southampton, they sang ‘Play Up Albion’.
‘The Pompey fans were different class,’ said Robson.
‘I’d never been so relieved than when Kieran scored but the hush in the stadium brought a nervousness to the players. When the Portsmouth fans sang it got our support going too.’
At 4.41pm there was an even bigger roar. Charlton’s Jonathan Fortune had equalised against Palace. ‘It was perfect for us that Charlton played Palace because it was a derby, they hated each other,’ said Gera.
West Brom fans fun on the the pitch after their team managed to narrowly avoid relegation
Between 3pm and 4.40pm, all four relegation-threatened teams had survival in their grasp but it was Albion who prevailed.
Confirmation, ‘after an agonising wait for Palace’s game to finish’, came from Riccardo Scimeca who had been glued to his mobile phone. He broke the news to cue celebrations and a 10,000-strong pitch invasion.
Robson was doused in champagne by Campbell. ‘My eyes were stinging for two days,’ said Robson, ‘and he ruined a decent suit but it was worth it.
‘I’ve competed for League titles, FA Cups, European trophies and they are definitely more enjoyable experiences but that was one of my greatest achievements.’
Robson is sprayed with champagne after his team secured their Premier League status
So the celebrations must have been spectacular?
‘I went to a nice little Indian restaurant in Walsall with my wife, my brother in law and his wife. We didn’t think the hardcore support would find us there. I was totally drained. I think I was even in bed by ten…honest.’
For Gera, pending surgery meant his celebrations were equally genteel. Opting to reflect on a moment of history at his favoured Italian restaurant, he took an unexpected phone call. ‘It was from Gabor Kiraly, the Palace goalkeeper. He was my friend. He must have been hurting but he rang to congratulate me. After such a day it was a very gentlemanly thing to do.’