Albion stage the great escape on dramatic day of changing fortunes

West Bromwich Albion 2 - Portsmouth 0
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The Independent Football

They billed it as the great escape, and in Premiership history there has been none greater. In last place at the start of play, West Bromwich Albion propelled themselves to a final position of fourth from bottom with a combination of victory over Portsmouth and a goal at The Valley by a man named Fortune.

They billed it as the great escape, and in Premiership history there has been none greater. In last place at the start of play, West Bromwich Albion propelled themselves to a final position of fourth from bottom with a combination of victory over Portsmouth and a goal at The Valley by a man named Fortune.

There was nothing fortunate about Albion's reprieve from relegation, which was secured by second-half goals from Geoff Horsfield and Kieran Richardson and will be worth £20m to the club. Since the élite division broke away in 1992, no team has survived after propping up the table at Christmas. At that stage, a side still finding their way under a new manager, Bryan Robson, were eight points adrift of safety.

The turning point was a last-gasp own-goal equaliser at Manchester City, a game in which Albion mustered neither a shot nor a header on target. Since New Year's Day, they have collected 24 points, the final three arriving yesterday on an afternoon when the nerves, as well as the history books, were shredded at The Hawthorns.

At just before 4.30, when Albion were cruising to victory against a lacklustre Portsmouth, the Andy Johnson goal which put Crystal Palace 2-1 up at Charlton Athletic killed the carnival atmosphere at a stroke. For several minutes, rumours of a second Charlton goal swept the stadium, only to be proved false.

Then, at last, Jonathan Fortune did snatch the lifeline from Palace's grasp. After an anxious wait, with many Albion supporters turning their backs on the action to implore the press box for news from south London, the ground erupted into cacophonous celebrations.

Robson had asked the Albion fans not to come on to the pitch if they wanted their heroes to do a lap of honour. Fat chance: the playing surface was quickly a sea of striped shirts, while the West Brom battle hymn, "The Lord's My Shepherd'' and the theme from The Great Escape echoed around the ground.

The Portsmouth followers, while disappointed to see their own side end the campaign in such supine fashion, seemed more than compensated by the news of Southampton's demise. "Harry and Jim, they're going down,'' they gloated, with the Albion faithful only too happy to join in before belting out a chorus of the refrain often directed at them in the first half of the season: "Premier League, you're having a laugh.''

When the playing surface was eventually cleared, thousands of supporters massed around the touchlines, held back by rows of stewards and police. Only a phalanx of photographers and the two Albion mascots remained as the players emerged to acclaim that was possibly as disbelieving as it was delirious.

Perhaps nobody should have been unduly surprised by the last-day turnaround at the foot of the Premiership. On each of the previous two weekends, the team lying in 20th place at kick-off had ended the afternoon one rung above the drop zone. Albion knew that they had to beat Portsmouth to have any chance of repeating the feat, and even then they had to hope for the other results to go their way.

During a tense and scrappy first half, it appeared that great escape might prove to be the great anticlimax. Portsmouth, free from relegation worries several weeks ago, played the more composed football while suggesting that they might not fight too fiercely in the event of falling behind.

Albion looked understandably anxious, often misplacing passes and slicing clearances. They could easily have fallen behind after only 12 minutes, when Ricardo Fuller sent his shot wide after being put through the centre by Gary O'Neil. Robert Earnshaw had earlier missed a gilt-edged opportunity for Albion, side-footing wide after the ball was rolled in from the left by Richardson.

Yet the home side, having gone in at half-time to learn that things were going their way - and that one goal might be enough to save them - came out with a renewed sense of purpose after the break.

An injury to Jonathan Greening shortly before the hour proved a blessing in disguise for Robson. On came Horsfield, and within 20 seconds the former hod-carrier from Halifax had broken the deadlock. The goal followed a cross by Zoltan Gera. The ball clipped the head of the Dejan Stefanovic before dropping obligingly to Horsfield as he lurked beyond the far post. The substitute's first touch volleyed the ball through the grasp of Jamie Ashdown, and Albion began to believe.

They made the game safe with 15 minutes remaining - and once more Horsfield was involved. A deft back-heeled pass found Richardson, the on-loan midfielder from Manchester United, who capped a display brimming with industry and invention with a calmly taken goal. There was nothing calm about the scenes that followed.

Robson, whose appointment was not universally popular with the Albion faithful, emerged from the mayhem to admit that "the gods were looking down on us''. He added: "It was a motivational thing. I've said all the way along that there's no reason why the team who are bottom at Christmas have to go down. I told the players, 'Let's make history to make sure we stay in the Premiership.' The lads took that on board and made sure that it happened.''

Goals: Horsfield (58) 1-0; Richardson (75) 2-0

West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Albrechtsen, Gaardsoe, Clement, Robinson; Gera, Wallwork, Richardson, Greening (Horsfield, 58); Campbell, Earnshaw (Kanu, 85). Substitutes not used: Murphy (gk), Moore, Inamoto.

Portsmouth (4-4-2): Ashdown; Primus, Stefanovic, De Zeeuw, Taylor; O'Neil, Cissé, Hughes (Skopelitis, h-t), Kamara (Rodic, 66); Fuller, Keene (Mezague, 81). Substitutes not used: Chalkias (gk), Duffy.

Referee: M Riley (W Yorkshire)

Booked: Portsmouth Fuller

Man of the match: Richardson.

Attendance: 27,751.

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