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Letters from London
The Beautiful Game: Memories of When My Team Pulled Off the Great Escape
By Shane Clarke
London Correspondent
Neil Clement played a key role in Albion's Great Escape during 2004/05

I love football. On its day, it can be the most exciting thing that doesn’t involve Katy Perry in a tight-fitting mini-dress.

As a West Bromwich Albion fan, my life as a football supporter is very much a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs and the occasional de-railing. The downs can be pretty galling at times, especially if they involve being beaten by your fiercest rivals. But the ups…oh the ups…!

West Bromwich Albion were competing in the Barclay’s Premier League in the 2004/2005 season. It was one of the most bittersweet times of my life. Imagine watching as David Cameron is hurled off a tall building…only to land on your prized Bugatti Veyron parked at the bottom. That should give you a good idea of what it was like.

The anticipation pre-season was amazing: “Manchester United are coming to the Hawthorns – oh yes!” The reality once the season started was a bit less magical: “Manchester United are coming to the Hawthorns – oh no!”

It was not pretty. To say we struggled is the biggest understatement since the Portuguese Treasury announced that money was a little bit tight at the moment. It was almost soul-destroying the amount of bad results we were getting. The discussions by pundits that followed were less of an analysis than a post mortem.

At Christmas, we were bottom of the league. In the history of the premiership, no team had been bottom of the league at Christmas and still survived. These were dark days indeed.

However, one of the good things about being a Baggies fan is that you develop a sense of optimism that it almost moronic in its endurance. You have to, really. It’s either that, or start watching Rugby, which is taking “cutting your nose off to spite your face” to a whole new level.

So, Bryan Robson, Baggies/Man Utd/England legend, who was our manager at the time, rallied the troops and the fans to try to pull off “The Great Escape”. It was the kind of blind optimism that usually results in someone being rescued from halfway up a mountain dressed only in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops. But we all bought into it.

“Yeah! We can do it!” We all cried.

There were posters produced, photoshopped to replace the heads of the stars of the movie, The Great Escape, with those of Bryan Robson and a few key players. The Great Escape theme tune was played at home matches. There were banners, tee-shirts, car-stickers – it was a merchandiser’s wet dream.

But it was what happened on the pitch that counted. It was results that mattered, and come the last 45 minutes of the last game of the season, we were still rock bottom and facing the prospect of relegation. We were so close; just a fingertip away.

So began the most amazing, exciting and agonising 45 minutes of my life. Sir Alex Ferguson once famously described the run in to the end of the Premier League season as “Squeaky bum time”. Well, on this day, my bum was not just squeaking, it was belting out the national anthem, stamping its feet and waving a flag.

I took every kick, made every tackle, and scored/saved every goal with those eleven men on the hallowed Hawthorns turf. I hurled the kind of abuse at the referee that would make Frankie Boyle blush. I cheered, I screamed, I oohed and aahed, I lived and died by the results coming through from the other matches which affected us that were taking place at the same time.

We had to win. Nothing less would do. We needed those three points to even stand a chance of surviving. BUT, we also needed other results to go our way, otherwise it would all be for nothing.

As the match progressed, all seemed sunny and bright in the world of West Bromwich Albion’s great escape. Almost all other results were going our way. But there was a dark cloud on the horizon, threatening to rain on our parade: Charlton Athletic vs Crystal Palace. We needed Charlton to at least get a draw, or it would be Crystal Palace staying up, and us going down.

In the 58th minute, West Brom went 1-0 ahead when Geoff Horsfield scored shortly after coming off the substitute’s bench. We went into raptures. I screamed so loud that I half expected windows to shatter all over town. Oh, happy day! All was finally right with the world. It was like Christmas, New Year and your 18th birthday all in one. It was carnival time, Rio style. We dared to believe – we were staying up.

Then, in the 71st minute, news came through that killed the mood quicker than false teeth on a wedding night. Crystal Palace had gone 2-1 up. That meant survival for them and relegation for us. Talk about deflating – we felt like one of Richard Branson’s hot air balloons when he tried to float around the world.

Things quietened a little. They became tense, anxious, not a single nail remained unbitten. If things stayed as they were, our Rio carnival was going to become a wet weekend in Scunthorpe.

In the 75th minute, we doubled our lead, which meant our 3 points were almost secured. It was great, but it was also a hollow victory at the moment because it meant nothing to our fight for survival.

7 minutes later, in the 82nd minute, the earth moved, the angels wept, and a cry went up from West Bromwich that was so loud that France called the police to complain about the noise. Charlton had equalised! We were staying up…unless Palace took the lead again.

The following 8 minutes plus stoppage time were the longest of our lives. We were all fathers awaiting the birth of our children, students awaiting exam results, young men at the STI clinic awaiting test results after our sex and booze holiday in Thailand. Squeaky bum time? Our bums were bloody howling!

Finally, the sweetest sound we had ever heard echoed around the Hawthorns as the referee blew his whistle for full time. A cheer went up but was quickly muted when we remembered the Crystal Palace match was still playing. Come on, come on! It must be over by now! Put us out of our misery! Come on, dammit! Blow your whistle!

The word came through; it was all over. We had done it. Against all the odds, West Bromwich Albion had made history by becoming the first Premier League team ever to survive relegation after being bottom at Christmas.

The scenes that followed were something rarely seen on these shores: British men were hugging British men, properly, without worrying about crotch contact. They were kissing each other on the cheek without getting beaten up immediately afterwards. The xenophobia and racism we are so famous for was forgotten as black, white, Asian, Muslim and Christian all celebrated together. Even the opposing fans were applauding our historic achievement. It was a good day to be a West Brom fan.

It was party time, and everyone was invited. Moments like this were so rare that we were going to squeeze every drop of ecstasy out of it. And when it was all over, we would start looking to the future. After so many years in the wilderness, West Bromwich Albion had finally re-established themselves in the top flight of English football, where they belonged. It was onwards and upwards from here.

We were relegated the following season.

Bugger!

I love football (*sigh*).



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Shane Clarke serves as London Correspondent for The Seoul Times. He has been involved in humanitarian work for numerous years. He’s also a freelance management consultant. Having completed an honors degree in Law at Wolverhampton University, he then moved on to an MBA at Warwick Business School. He’s heavily involved in the fight against international parental child abduction to Japan.

 

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