Megson wary as Albion try to stay ahead of the pack

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The Independent Football

Today's date, 16 March, should be seared into the psyche of every West Bromwich Albion supporter as they converge upon The Hawthorns for tonight's six-pointer against Wigan Athletic.

Today's date, 16 March, should be seared into the psyche of every West Bromwich Albion supporter as they converge upon The Hawthorns for tonight's six-pointer against Wigan Athletic.

For the first home fixture of Gary Megson's fifth year as the Albion manager marks the second anniversary of when the First Division promotion race, which had resembled a private tussle between Manchester City and Wolves, was suddenly transformed into a three-team affair.

That afternoon, Wolves lost at home to Grimsby and Albion won at Sheffield United. The Molineux side's advantage was still nine points. They had six matches left, yet Albion, with seven, stormed past them by three points to clinch automatic promotion to the Premiership.

This time it is Albion sitting pretty in second, level on points with the leaders, Norwich, and Wigan who lead the pursuing pack. If Megson's team win, they will be 12 points clear of Wigan, who have a game in hand. For both clubs the match represents a window of opportunity.

Or in Albion's case, a door, as Megson explained. "There are moments in a season when a door opens and you've got to push through it. So far it has happened a couple of times, but we haven't gone through."

Finally, at Crewe on Saturday evening, they seized the moment. "We knew Norwich and West Ham had lost, while Wigan had drawn at Bradford," the 44-year-old Megson said. "All that would have made no difference if we had lost, but there was a real urgency and desire to succeed. We had 30 shots and 10 corners in an away game." Albion came from behind to win 2-1.

Given how they crashed out of the Premiership at the first attempt, losing 24 games and winning just six, the way that Megson has revitalised Albion so soon has been striking. Criticised by some fans for making too few signings while in the top flight, he has dramatically revamped his squad.

No fewer than 15 players have come through the Jeff Astle Gates, passing several mainstays on their way out. The newcomer who has made arguably the greatest impact is Geoff Horsfield, who arrived from Wigan, of all clubs, in December.

Horsfield scored their winner against Albion last September, "as bad a goal as we've conceded," according to Megson. "Our keeper kicked it out; there was no challenge on their centre-half as he headed it back 40 yards; and our centre-backs were caught on their heels. Geoff held one of them off and stuck it in.

"We knew what we were getting when we bought him because he was at Birmingham and he's an experienced player. He has done everything I expected and I've been pleasantly surprised by his running with the ball. I just wish he had more of a goalscorer's mentality. He said himself he could have scored five at Crewe with all the chances he had."

The suspension of Jason Roberts means Albion need not face one of their own former centre-forwards, although Megson warned that, in Nathan Ellington, Wigan possess another "top-notch" striker. In fact, he declared himself an admirer of the ambitious Lancashire club.

"They've got a good manager, Paul Jewell, and a great benefactor in the chairman, Dave Whelan. He built them a terrific stadium and got them a fantastic training ground. It's no surprise they're where they are."

It promises to be quite a contest. "Even when we played Crewe, everyone was saying it was a big game," Megson said. "In our position, regardless of who we play, every match is huge. We're in a position where everything is going all right. Now we want to try to kick on.

"I've been saying all season that I think it will be close and I still believe that. All we can do is try to get as many points on the board as we can." If that sounds unduly cautious, it is probably because of the memory of the fate that befell Wolves when they were similarly placed.

A second promotion in three seasons would send Megson's stock soaring. Yet constructing teams is only one of his talents; he is also a club-builder. When he became Albion's 17th manager in 28 years, they were in the First Division relegation zone, with crowds of barely 14,000 and losing £30,000 a week. They rented training facilities and one of the stands had seen better days.

Today, 33 signings and 23 departures later, they are on course to return to the Premiership, drawing gates of 24,500 and announcing profits. They also have a state-of-the-art training complex, while a new stand has risen.

With several ostensibly bigger clubs likely to be looking for managers, Albion's priority this summer may well be to try to ensure that the architect of the changes does not become one of them himself.