West Bromwich Albion have not got to the Premiership's doorstep by wishful thinking or dilettante football. They play hard and mean and if, sometimes, it doesn't make for pretty watching, so be it. To win 1-0, as they have done on 15 occasions this season, is, beyond dispute, preferable to a draw or defeat. And anyway, if Albion's successes are sometimes carved out in bleak fashion there is always the consolation of Gary Megson and his pitchside performance to show the club has heart, lots of it.
Megson endlessly paces the little cage without bars that is the managers' operations area near the touchline. He spins, he wheels, he pirouettes. And he shouts, of course. My, how Gary Megson shouts. There is the outflung-arm command, the prayer-mode pleading, the no-nonsense bellow. Sometimes Megson is in sergeant- major mood, legs astride and hands clasped behind back as he surveys the pitch that is his parade ground.
The involvement is total. He battles it out with his defence, advances with the midfield and goes up for crosses with the strikers. Decisions against his players provoke a Victor Meldrew look of disbelief. At the end of the performance you half-expect a bunch of judges holding up cards to shuffle forward and mark him for style.
But Albion's jubilant supporters know a winner when they see one. Filling the Bridgford End of the City Ground for Friday night's game against Forest, they directed as much vocal backing at Megson as they did at the team. His skills were listed to the tune of "Winter Wonderland" and the man himself never failed to acknowledge what their backing meant.
What Megson himself has meant, the difference he has made to the toiling club he joined exactly two years ago, was pinpointed in Nottingham by Albion's midfielder, Andy Johnson, who has played for both clubs this season. Out of action because of an injury sustained in the Battle of Bramall Lane a week ago, Johnson was asked at half-time what Megson would be saying to his players in the dressing room. "I couldn't repeat that in front of the cameras," said Johnson.
Megson agreed afterwards a rollicking had been issued. It was necessary, he argued, because his 10 outfielders had been playing, in his estimation, as if feet were nailed to floor. It worked, of course. Bob Taylor's late goal, another boring old 1-0 win for the Baggies, and Megson had, in effect, pocketed six points from two away games in the space of little over 24 hours after the Football League formally declared them winners of the abandoned game with Sheffield United.
"What happened at Sheffield is forgotten now," insisted the man who called Sheffield's team and management "an absolute and total disgrace". "What went on was nothing to do with us. I feel sorry for my club and everyone connected with West Brom that we are associated with the only game that has not finished in the Football League's history. Everybody and his dog expected us to be given those three points, it was the only decision that could be made. But it has been a strange week, waiting for that to happen instead of concentrating on getting a result up at Forest. It was just as if time stood still from last Saturday until Thursday when we actually found ourselves on 70 points with 39 games played."
By Friday that had improved to 73 points with six still to play, one point more, Megson affirmed, than had been accumulated in the whole of last season. That statistic clearly meant much to him. He is a believer, like Field Marshal Montgomery, in campaigning from a position of strength.
Cold water is poured from a great height on any attempt to suggest that Albion's great rivals and neighbours, Wolves, are catchable and that automatic promotion, rather than a play-off spot, is not beyond his club. "We are not looking at Wolves, we are looking at the team that's seventh from top. We have two massive teams above us. They have been there all season and they've got the wherewithal. They are both sure to buy somebody before the transfer dealine on Thursday. They have already got a headstart on us, so we are just looking to consolidate our place in those play-offs.
"We lost our first two games of the season and were bottom of the league. After that, we wanted to try to get 50 points to make sure we would be safe, then push on. It would take an almighty slip for us to catch them. Nobody at our place has ever mentioned the top two and I won't start doing so now."
Two years ago, when Megson took on the job, nobody at the Hawthorns was mentioning top two or top anything. Survival was the word. Megson had hardly set the world of management alight in his five years at four clubs (Norwich, Blackpool, Stockport and Stoke), but he went into the fifth job in praiseworthy fashion. Invited by Albion's directors to come and watch a game before signing, he turned up two hours early and sat in the car park to reassure himself about the size and commitment of support.
Then, rapidly recognising a wrench rather than fine-tuning spanner was needed, the 42-year-old Megson set about demolishing and rebuilding in the two months of the season remaining. Nine players out of a squad he labelled "the laziest group I've ever been involved with", were shipped out. Five new men were brought in and Albion survived, one place and three points clear of the drop.
Then came the revival, summed up by a local paper headline "Tough-talking Megson shakes a sleeping giant out of a comatose state". Taking a little longer to put his plans into operation than it must have done to compose that headline, the manager banned alcohol, brought in a nutrition expert with the memorable comment, "We need to educate the players that eight pints of lager and fish 'n' chips is only acceptable for the management staff" and tightened up lax training.
Players accustomed to arriving at 11am were fined 10 per cent of their week's wages if they turned up a minute after 10 o'clock. Megson was aiming, he explained, to arrive at a situation where "if we lose, we all hurt". There has not been much hurt around this season, a rash of injuries excepted, as West Brom head for the division their support, their history, and their manager demand. After all, if he can expend all that energy on the touchline, so should they.
He smiles at the thought of it. "That's me, right there on the line. If I sat in the dug-out or went up in the stand, that would be me being something I am not. But I wouldn't say I use up more energy now than when I was a player. My biggest asset then was my work rate." Not much change there, then.Reuse content