Leicester City emerged as genuine contenders for Premier League survival with a stunning comeback victory on the day West Bromwich Albion paid tribute to former striker Jeff Astle.
The Black Country hero died in 2002 at the age of 59 with a degenerative brain disease which has been linked with heading old leather footballs.
Astle scored in every round of the 1968 FA Cup before concluding a fairytale campaign by doing so again in the final to give the Baggies one of their greatest ever days.
Jamie Vardy burst the Hawthorns bubble, though, in the 92th minute as he galloped down the left flank and struck assuredly to complete a vintage afternoon for the top flight’s bottom club.
Darren Fletcher’s header put the Baggies in front before David Nugent’s well-worked equaliser during a frantic start in the West Midlands.
The hosts were back in the lead moments later when Craig Gardner volleyed in but Robert Huth’s bundled header with ten minutes remaining got the ball rolling on a comeback which gives Leicester every chance of securing their Premier League status.
West Brom, who were wearing plain white replica shirts from that famous afternoon in ‘68 at Wembley, started breathlessly, sweeping down both flanks with intent.
Gardner, a menace throughout, then fizzed a free-kick across the Foxes’ goal only for Joleon Lescott to head wide of Kasper Schmeichel’s far post.
However the home faithful, many of whom were wearing commemorative t-shirts adorned with Astle’s famous no. 9 on the back, didn't have to wait long for a breakthrough.
The deadlock was broken in calamitous fashion, as it usually is when Leicester play, as Scotland captain Fletcher nodded in Chris Brunt’s whipped corner.
Despite goal-line technology injecting an element of certainty over refereeing decisions this season, it didn’t stop the otherwise impressive Esteban Cambiasso from protesting with Martin Atkinson.
It could barely have come at a better time for the Baggies’ fans, with 6,000 of them in the Birmingham Road End greeting the 9th minute of play by holding banners aloft which spelt out ‘Astle: King’.
Considering the significance of the occasion, alongside the glaring reality of Albion’s 4-1 defeat to Queens Park Rangers last weekend, it is perhaps unsurprising that nerves occasionally got the better of the hosts.
They were punished for not building on their frenzied start in the 20th minute. Cambiasso, still aggrieved by the opening goal, played a quick free-kick up towards his fellow countryman Leonardo Ulloa.
The Argentinian striker, who has just nine goals in all competitions this season, then nodded the ball down to Nugent who applied a powerful finish to a makeshift move.
It was hardly a deserved leveller for the Foxes as their early endeavours pointed towards a 19th defeat of the campaign. Rather than capitalising on it, Pearson’s men sunk back into their shells once more.
The visiting supporters could only celebrate for six minutes as Gardner stepped up to volley past Schmeichel – right in front of the long-suffering contingent in the away end.
The former Leeds United goalkeeper appeared outraged, believing a number of West Brom players were in offside positions, although they did not touch the ball.
Nigel Pearson left his seat in the stands and elected to pace the touchline instead - an increasingly common occurrence in recent weeks which always seems to inspire his troops into action.
First Wes Morgan went close with a point-blanc header over Boaz Myhill’s crossbar before Ulloa wasted a tremendous chance to pull his side back into the clash – and the scrap for survival.
Reacting first to Nugent’s perfectly weighted header in the box, the former Brighton man swung out his right foot, missing the ball completely, before composing himself and firing over from four yards with his left.
Leicester emerged after the break with just three men in defence as Pearson gambled with a 3-4-3 formation and replaced Ritchie De Laet with Marcin Wasilewski.
It reaped instant rewards as Cambiasso continued to cut through the West Brom midfield with ease.
The former West Brom assistant manager then turned to one of his January signings for absolution after a poor first half.
Huth, on loan from Stoke City, leapt above two defenders to bamboozle the ball across Myhil’s goal line in the 80 minute.
A stunned silence swept across the ground as bottom-placed Leicester pushed for a winner. It seemed to be beyond them, though, when Nugent squandered a late chance in the penalty area.
But up stepped Vardy with an electric sprint down the left wing, leaving Gareth McAuley in his wake, before the former Fleetwood Town man expertly found the back of the net.
While Astle’s memory will undoubtedly live on regardless of his former club’s stuttering form, this defeat left a sour taste in the mouth for Baggies fans.
Leicester, on the other hand, are now just three points adrift of safety and have a match in hand. If their reaction to the full-time whistle is anything to go by, they are up for the fight.Reuse content