Football: Harford's honeymoon to focus on hard work

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The Independent Online
West Bromwich Albion 1 Swindon Town 2

An old West Brom favourite, Bryan Robson, observed after a year in charge of Middlesbrough that in the public's mind, players win games and managers lose them. Albion, the Manchester City of the Midlands in terms of managerial turnover, proved an exception to the rule on both counts on Saturday.

Although the team succumbed to Swindon, only the most unreasonable Baggies fan could have blamed Ray Harford. It was, after all, a mere 48 hours after the former Blackburn manager accepted the poisoned chalice which passes for silverware at The Hawthorns. Selection and tactics had been left to the caretaker manager, who is now his deputy, John Trewick.

Unfamiliarity, rather any attempt to pass the buck, led Albion's 15th manager in 20 years to refer to his new charges afterwards as "they" rather than "we". His era would effectively start today, he explained, and the former Blackburn manager does not plan to play himself in gently. In view of their position, a sense of urgency is overdue.

Harford warned that the players could expect to brought in for extra training in the afternoons, which suggested he had detected either a lack of stamina or a need to work on set-pieces. Or both. There will also be early additions to a squad which he has already decided is too small.

His first priority will be to improve a defensive record which would have been the worst in the four divisions but for Darlington's largess. At Ewood, of course, defence began with Messrs Shearer and Sutton. He is also keen to acquire some left-sided players. Harford talked wistfully of working with Le Saux and Wilcox, but will of necessity be setting his sights lower.

There are plus points, notably the fact that Albion have outscored higher- placed teams. However, Harford's inheritance was summed up, not entirely unfairly, by a headline on the cover of the supporters' newspaper about the demise of Alan Buckley. "So long," it sneered, "and thanks for the fish," a reference to the former manager's penchant for recruiting from his previous club, Grimsby.

Yet the trend to lay total responsibility for poor results at any manager's door is, as Robson hinted, too simplistic (if not actually, with apologies to Mr Buckley, a red herring). He can pick the team, prepare all week to exploit their strengths and counter the opposition, do the full Churchillian bit before the game. But at the risk of sounding like Old Mother Mellor, the players have to pull their weight too.

Steve McMahon, Swindon's player-manager, abandoned his team largely to their own devices and headed off to scout a prospective signing at Huddersfield's game against Wolves (Bull and Cowe in harness?). When he hears how they made nonsense of their record of 10 defeats in 11 away matches, he may be tempted to let them get on with it more often.

Once Swindon had survived a torrid opening 25 minutes, during which Kevin Donovan persistently prised open their left side, they slipped into a purposeful rhythm. Wayne Allison and Mark Walters, whose distribution was exemplary in an unaccustomed central role, both struck the woodwork. Walters then crossed high for Allison to ensure that Albion would not keep a first clean sheet since October.

Andy Hunt capped a period of Albion pressure by equalising after a debatable penalty award, at which point Harford was convinced they would go on and win. Instead, they were undone by poor concentration and the aerial power of Allison, who set up Alex Smith for his first goal since his free transfer from Everton.

The final whistle provoked a barrage of boos. Force of habit, maybe - Albion have now won just three out of 16 at home - or possibly frustration against the referee, who in fact had rather a good game. It was not, surely, directed against Harford, though he should be warned that Hawthorns honeymoons tend to be short and not especially sweet.

Goals: Allison (42) 0-1; Hunt (pen 71) 1-1; Smith (76) 1-2.

West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Crichton; Holmes, Burgess, Raven, Coldicott (Cunnington, 78); Donovan, Sneekes, Butler, Hamilton; Taylor (Peschisolido, 53), Hunt. Substitute not used: Germaine (gk).

Swindon Town (3-5-2): Digby; Culverhouse, Seagraves, Broomes; Robinson, Walters (O'Sullivan, 88), Smith, Darras, Leitch; Allison, Cowe. Substitutes not used: Finney, Watson.

Referee: P Richards (Preston).

Bookings: Albion Cunnington. Swindon Seagraves, Walters.

Attendance: 16,219.

Man of the match: Smith.

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