Campbell eyes higher plane after Albion perform escape to victory
Tuesday 17 May 2005
Never mind The Great Escape and the insidiously jaunty theme music that echoed around The Hawthorns long after Sunday's final whistle. For the sheer implausibility of the plot, West Bromwich Albion's feat in preserving their Premiership status was more like Escape To Victory.
Bryan Robson, the Albion manager, made the Sylvester Stallone role his own by leading to safety a team once imprisoned in the drop zone. Geoff Horsfield cut an improbable Pele, scoring with his first touch as substitute and deftly creating the second goal in the 2-0 win over Portsmouth.
Fortune favours the brave, they say, and the late equaliser by Jonathan of that ilk for Charlton Athletic against Crystal Palace proved the adage on Albion's behalf. Robson's players had certainly shown the courage of his convictions. This, remember, was the team that started 2005 in bottom place, eight points adrift of the coveted 17th place. In the first 12 Premiership seasons, no club survived after lying 20th at Christmas.
Yesterday, after a night when the horns of flag-bedecked cars blared in rapturous relief on the streets of Sandwell and Smethwick, it fell to the captain, Kevin Campbell, to sound a note of realism.
"The important thing now," said the striker Robson recruited on a free transfer from Everton in January, "is to build on what we've achieved."
Campbell, 35, added: "There will be three virgins coming up from the Championship. That's how we have to look at it - three teams who don't have the experience of being in the Premiership. We have been there and survived. We don't want to be in that position again this time next year. It might sound crude, but we have lost our virginity now.
"I am very happy that we have stayed up but I want West Bromwich Albion to go higher. We don't want to be down there next season. What we want is to become an established Premiership team. To do that, we have to make sure those virgins are the prey, not us. It's a fact of life: when you're new, you're seen as easy fodder. That's how people perceived us, yet somehow we got through it.
"It has been a fantastic journey for the players. We always knew success would be judged on hanging in this division, and even when it looked bad we kept that in focus. I don't think some of the lads will appreciate how much it means until later in their careers. Now, any club that is bottom at Christmas will say: 'We can do a West Brom'. That is history."
History that completed the rehabilitation of Robson. After leaving Middlesbrough, where he endured the ignominy of Terry Venables being brought in to keep the club up, the former England captain's only job was a short spell at Bradford City. Among Albion's supporters he was far from first choice to succeed Gary Megson last November.
Following a poor start, however, his sharp judgements on personnel saw Albion through. A comparison between Sunday's side and his first selection, who lost at home to Middlesbrough after Kanu perpetrated the miss of the season, is instructive.
Only four players began both matches. Some who had fallen so far out of favour with Megson that they were not even on the bench in the weeks before his departure, such as Martin Albrechtsen and Ronnie Wallwork, were soon restored by Robson.
He marginalised the club's highest earner, Kanu, the captain, Darren Purse, and the talented but unreliable Jason Koumas. By shedding Rob Hulse, Scott Dobie, Bernt Haas and James O'Connor, he turned an unwieldy squad into a tight-knit unit, with few players not involved in the drive towards games.
Both his signings, Campbell and the precociously gifted Kieran Richardson, contributed hugely to Albion's revival, the on-loan Manchester United youngster scoring the second against Portsmouth. The appointment of Nigel Pearson as his coach was also vital in challenging the notion that a second relegation in three years was inevitable.
Horsfield identified a midwinter break in the United States as the turning point. "We all got together there, and Bryan and Nigel started instilling self-belief," he said. "I think we'd have lost Zoltan Gera and Jonathan Greening if we'd gone down because they're such good players. We didn't want that yo-yo club syndrome. Now we must try to consolidate and emulate Charlton and my old club Birmingham."
Showing a bruised and bloodied thumb, the builder-turned-striker revealed he had eased the tension the day before the relegation denouement by knocking a wall through at home. "There was nothing to do after one o'clock so I thought I'd fill a skip for five hours," Horsfield said. "I bashed my thumb with a hammer and it's killing me. The gaffer doesn't know."
The final word went to Frank Skinner, the Albion-supporting comedian, who admitted he had been against Robson as manager. "I got it completely wrong. He made one of our best signings ever when he got Campbell, and he has got us playing good football.
"Going up at Wolves' expense two years ago was very special, but this feels better. It's like having sex. You really enjoy it and yet you've worried all through: 'Is it lasting long enough'?"
Albion's victorious escape guarantees it will last at least 12 months longer.
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