THERE was a degree of poignancy about Scott Carson’s programme notes for West Brom’s game against Plymouth this afternoon, containing descriptions of life at a Championship club during an international break.
Carson appeared on television a few times in the build-up to Wednesday night’s World Cup qualifier between England and Croatia at Wembley. He wasn’t interviewed, though. He just appeared, over and over again, bending down to collect a Niko Kranjcar shot, the ball skipping past him in the Wembley mud. Cut to shot of Steve McClaren under an umbrella.
After Fabio Capello’s England thrashed Croatia 5-1 in midweek to secure a place in South Africa next summer, there was much talk of ghosts being exorcised. It’s hard to believe the memories of November 21, 2007 have gone away for Carson – a goalkeeper who got his big break too soon and seems to have been paying for it ever since.
He hasn’t played for his country since the night that England lost to Croatia and failed to qualify for Euro 2008. He will start World Cup year in the Championship – not that many people expect him to be part of the squad for South Africa anyway. (And yet he went to Germany four years ago, as England’s third choice keeper, behind Paul Robinson and David James.)
For the last fortnight, Carson has been focusing on club business. He was made West Brom captain last month following Jonathan Greening’s departure to Fulham, and his programme notes discussed how the international break might have affected their preparations for the Plymouth game.
“It’s not always easy when you have players going off around the world to play for their countries,” Carson wrote, “but we’ve done some good training and we’re prepared for the next month of games, which is really busy heading into the next break.”
There were no mentions of England or Croatia in Carson’s notes; helping West Brom regain the Premier League place they lost last May is his priority these days. He did, though, discuss Roman Bednar’s return to action.
Bednar today played his third match for West Brom after serving a three-month ban imposed after the News of the World caught him buying cannabis and cocaine from a drug dealer. In addition to the ban, Bednar also picked up a caution from West Midlands Police for possessing small amounts of Class A and Class B drugs.
The striker’s actions were stupid, and at 26, he was arguably – although not necessarily – old enough to know better. But those who know him well say his contrition has been genuine. He’s certainly been keen to say sorry. Elsewhere in the programme, there was a 10-page photo feature in which Bednar apologised profusely for his misdemeanour.
Carson’s notes suggested that Bednar has been welcomed back into the West Brom fold, although he can expect a few verbal digs over the next few weeks.
“He’s back in the dressing room with the lads now and we’re giving him a little bit of banter just to help him settle,” Carson wrote. “We’ve not been too hard on him so far – we’ll just let him get his feet back under the table before we really start on him!”
Carson and Bednar have, for different reasons, had trouble times in their recent career, but this could turn out to be a very good season for them both. For a team who lost a highly-respected manager in the summer, West Brom are doing remarkably well.
Roberto Di Matteo has slotted into the chair vacated by Tony Mowbray, and Albion have started the season by going eight games unbeaten in league and cup. Today’s 3-1 win over Plymouth put them top of the Championship – although Newcastle can overtake them with a win or a draw at Cardiff tomorrow.
Mind you, Carson didn’t get off to the best of starts. He conceded a goal in the 12th minute – and he probably should have saved it. Plymouth striker Jamie Mackie pounced on a lobbed through ball and drove a shot under the keeper from a tight angle. (Carson, though, did later make a brilliant save from Cillian Sheridan’s header.)
At that stage, Plymouth – without a win all season, and with only four league victories in 2009 – were looking the better side. Gary Sawyer should have made it two, but somehow headed wide from 10 yards when he only had Carson to beat.
That seemed to wake West Brom up. And when West Brom are awake, they’re every bit as attractive an attacking side as they were under Mowbray last season. Full-backs Joe Mattock and Gianni Zuiverloon waste no opportunity to get forward, and occasionally remember to defend too.
This match wasn’t going to stay at 1-0 for long. It didn’t. Shelton Martis slammed the ball in from virtually on the goal line after Plymouth keeper Romain Larrieu had missed Graham Dorrans’ inswinging corner. With Albion level, the tension eased. Then Marek Cech took over.
Unlike Carson, Cech probably will be going to next summer’s World Cup. He was an unused sub on Wednesday night as Slovakia all but wrapped up qualification by beating Northern Ireland 2-0 in Belfast. But while his international career has been going well enough, things haven’t always been so cheery at club level.
He’s struggled for games since arriving at Albion from Porto for £1.4million 14 months ago, and looked as if he might leave The Hawthorns during the summer. But Di Matteo persuaded him to stay, and today – at long last – Cech scored his first goals for the club.
The first, five minutes before half-time, was a belter, slammed into the top corner from 25 yards from Bednar’s knockdown. The second, four minutes from time, was a smartly-taken header from a Dorrans cross. In between, he had one ruled out for offside. But he’ll be happy enough with his week.
Not so Plymouth boss Paul Sturrock, who can’t seem to get through a week these days without some fan or other e-mailing the Football League Show or phoning 6-0-6 to demand his resignation. At the very least, a relegation fight is looming.
Sturrock’s side didn’t play badly, but they didn’t defend well enough. He talked of spending 45 minutes on the training ground yesterday practising defensive work at corners. Conceding a goal from a corner must have hurt.
“I’m not one to bemoan bad luck, because I believe you make your own luck,” he said.
“All I want is to get a win on the board, even if it’s the worst performance we’ve ever had in our lives, with people falling over the ball, unable to put two passes together, and the ball hits somebody on the bum and goes in. That’s all I want. And I still think we’re a better team than we were last year.”
On early-season form, it’s unlikely that Plymouth or West Brom will be in the Championship next season. It does not look good for Sturrock. But it does mean Scott Carson could have something to celebrate next summer – World Cup or no World Cup.