Hoult must keep up heroic deeds

Robson's status in the hands of a man used to playing the role of saviour
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The Independent Football

If it's tough at the top, what's it like at the bottom? At West Bromwich Albion, they know about these things; and know which they prefer. In the past five years there has been a grim struggle to stay in the old First Division, then a run to the play-offs and, the season after that, a triumphant promotion campaign. Relegation by some distance was followed last season by a humiliating 4-1 defeat at neighbouring Walsall on the opening day, but then an immediate return to the Premiership, where there has been one solitary victory in 22 games going into this afternoon's encounter at Fulham.

If it's tough at the top, what's it like at the bottom? At West Bromwich Albion, they know about these things; and know which they prefer. In the past five years there has been a grim struggle to stay in the old First Division, then a run to the play-offs and, the season after that, a triumphant promotion campaign. Relegation by some distance was followed last season by a humiliating 4-1 defeat at neighbouring Walsall on the opening day, but then an immediate return to the Premiership, where there has been one solitary victory in 22 games going into this afternoon's encounter at Fulham.

Fated, it seems, to live in interesting times, the club have changed the chairman, the manager and each element of the team except for one. Between the posts throughout this tumultuous period has stood the 6ft 3in, 14st 9lb and frequently heroic figure of Russell Hoult. Not surprisingly, he feels he has been here before: "It's been a bit of a déjà vu feeling. Although we've now got a bigger squad, results this season seem to be going the same sort of way. It was a better start than last time in the Premiership, when we lost the first three games, then won three on the trot. This time, we got a win [against Bolton] and I thought we might have kicked on in the right direction, but we froze again."

The icy blast of a 3-0 defeat against relegation rivals Crystal Palace, after the manager, Gary Megson, had indicated he would not stay beyond the end of the season, meant that he did not, in fact, make it to the end of October. Bryan Robson, a figure associated with more successful times at the Hawthorns, returned as putative saviour, but did not look the part standing on the touchline in motionless contrast to the manic Megson as his former devotees chanted, "You don't know what you're doing".

Now, a chink of light: four of them, to be more precise, with draws against Manchester City, Bolton and Newcastle, followed by an FA Cup victory at Preston last weekend, where little Robbie Earnshaw again stood tall in the goalscoring stakes, while the rest of the Albion strike force have drawn blanks for three months. Hoult treads a careful line in comparing the past and present managerial regimes: "What people saw with Gary was the aggression and the amount of effort he put in, which got a spark from players, and got us promoted twice; it worked.

"When someone new comes in, bringing new ideas, it can give the place a bit of a lift. It's been a little more relaxed, and he [Robson] is trying to play in a slightly different way, tactically, and in the way we approach games, which the players have got to adapt to."

New coaches too, as is the way these days; among those Robson has hired is the former Manchester City and England goalkeeper Joe Corrigan, who had in turn been sacked by Liverpool when Rafael Benitez replaced Gérard Houllier. At Anfield, Corrigan reveals, Hoult was under discussion at one stage as a possible signing: "He was in line for an England cap at that time, then he seemed to go out of the spotlight. I came here and he's been absolutely superb to work with. They were letting in a few, but the boss and [first-team coach] Nigel Pearson worked hard on the defensive side and there's a little bit more understanding now between the whole unit." Conceding two goals in four games, as opposed to 16 in the previous five, is testimony to that.

Corrigan, who first played for City some 37 years ago, sounds a hard taskmaster, refusing to accept that funny new lightweight yellow footballs and rule-changes designed to favour forwards have made modern goalkeeping the impossible job. Apart from conceding that the new balls tend to swerve more when wet, he insists they are "superb, a good test" and believes the back-pass rule to be "the best thing that's happened to goalkeepers". Now, he says, "you've got to be an all-round footballer, pass the ball better, be more alert and aware".

In theory that should suit Hoult, once a young schoolboy centre-forward, who now finds his training drills include standing on the wing like his old Leicester City hero Gary Lineker, controlling the ball with two touches and crossing accurately into the penalty area. Sent out on loan by Leicester to places such as Blackpool and Lincoln, he "matured through experience" in the early Nineties, preferring a game anywhere to goalkeeping purgatory as a perennial substitute, before finding a berth at Derby and then Portsmouth.

A lack of grey hairs at 32 is evidence of an ability to switch off from football and enjoy life at home with three-year-old twins. A sense of humour has not deserted him either. What's the main difference for a goalkeeper between the Premiership and the division below, Russ? "You concede more goals! Plus the speed of play's completely different, the accuracy and the clinical finishing." It all helps to keep a keeper young: "They say you don't really start till you're 30, so I'm OK. Kevin Poole played against us for Bolton the other week, and he's 41. We keep training and keep working hard."

And when work is finished at Albion's training ground, players steer their gleaming Premiership motorcars left on to the A34, immediately encountering a sign that reads "Welcome to Walsall". Please, not again, you hear them praying.

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