"Do It For Jeff," urged a banner in memory of West Brom's late Wembley hero, Jeff Astle and Albion duly obliged. It was the first time they had reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in 20 years, so the feat was joyously celebrated. Their manager, Gary Megson, had instructed his team beforehand to "seize the moment" and if at times the grip was shakier than it might have been, victory was, in the end, deservedly grasped in familiar fashion, with their 13th 1-0 win of the season.
It was always likely to be a low-scoring, tightly contested occasion. West Brom's is the most parsimonious defence in Division One and the clean sheet clocked up by Russell Hoult was his 19th in 37 matches, just three short of the club record. Cheltenham, too, are not inclined to concede much. This defeat ended a run of six straight away wins and a 13-match unbeaten run.
The winner was propelled firmly past Steve Book in the 64th minute by the shaven head of Daniele Dichio – only his second FA Cup goal. The first came last season, sending his previous club, Sunderland, into the Cup's fifth round.
Megson acknowledged that the win had been grimly achieved, but offered this explanation: "When you play Cup football it is always about the result. You would want to play better than we did, but it was important to get through to the last eight."
Cheltenham's obduracy also had a lot to do with it. A non-League club three seasons ago, they defended impressively, did not lose their shape or commitment and for a long time threatened to take something from the afternoon. "It looked to me," Megson admitted, "as if they were either going to nick it or try to get a nil-nil." In the end, both were beyond them, but it was a fine performance which earned cheers from their 5,500 supporters filling the Hawthorns' Smethwick End.
Cheltenham were treading new ground. They had never previously gone beyond the third round but, as FA Trophy winners in 1998, they know their way to a final. They confidently held off West Brom's early surge, assisted by what Megson criticised as "lack of patience" by his team in trying to unlock the visitors' deep defence.
Jason Roberts was offered space for an early shot but saw it deflected for a corner. Not much else came Albion's way in the first half, though they could be deemed unfortunate when the referee deemed Chris Banks' callous felling of Roberts as he headed for goal worthy of solely a yellow card. That decision, and several subsequent ones, infuriated the home fans, whose unease was heightened after a couple of close calls at Hoult's end.
But the shot which Adam Chambers directed straight at Book seconds before half-time indicated a West Brom revival, which was fuelled by some strong Megson words at half-time. They resumed with much more purpose and Book was required to sprawl full-length to keep out an Andy Johnson shot.
However, the deadlock was almost broken at the other end in the 55th minute when, with Johnson crumpled on the floor, Cheltenham broke away to force a corner. Russell Milton's delivery was met by the head of Jamie Victory and it needed a fine stop from Chambers, chesting the effort off the line, to prevent a goal. "I thought it was in," said Cheltenham manager Steve Cotterill. There was scant reward for Chambers, who was taken off five minutes later.
Reprieved and relieved, Albion went back to the business of unlocking a resolute defence. Roberts, growing in confidence and menace, was the main threat to Cheltenham. One fine piece of close control was wasted by Dichio's slowness in getting off a shot and then Roberts was only thwarted as he closed in by a fine tackle from Anthony Griffin.
By this stage, however, it was looking a question of when and not whether Albion would score. The Slovakian, Igor Balis, who had worked hard throughout, put over a cross from the right and Dichio's head did the business. Hoult was required to tip over a dipping shot by Mark Yates, but West Brom could have had that rarity, a second goal, if Chambers' replacement, Scott Dobie, had not shovelled over the bar a gift laid on his boot by Balis a couple of minutes from the end.Reuse content