Drained and strained

I WOULD like to begin this blog post by making something clear: I had no problems at all with West Brom’s stewards this afternoon. They did not try to prevent me from attending the post-match press conference, they did not jostle me in the corridor and they did not try to attack me as I got in my car to drive home.

According to Brian Howard, this makes me more fortunate than Reading’s players were after their extra-time FA Cup win at The Hawthorns on Wednesday night. Albion, for their part, insist their stewards did nothing wrong.

Even without that controversy, West Brom could have done without Wednesday night – a draining cup defeat in a clogged fixture list at a time when their season had hit turbulence. It was four games without a win before today’s home meeting against Derby, which was Albion’s eighth game in 24 days.

Manager Roberto Di Matteo is not the first to grumble about fixture congestion. He won’t be the last. A season which had three international breaks before Christmas has been particularly tough on the Championship, which has 46 matches per club to the Premier League’s 38. While today saw Albion’s eighth game of February, they only played three in November, a month which is two days longer. Go figure.

Winning promotion from the Championship is rarely painless, as I discovered from covering Birmingham half-a-dozen times last season. Albion looked to be making rather too easy a job of it until recently, but a few dropped points here and there, coupled with Nottingham Forest’s doggedness, have suddenly made it all rather nervy.

That was reflected in a bitty, foul-ridden first half this afternoon, notable mainly for three rejected penalty appeals – none of which seemed to have much merit – and Robbie Savage’s centre-stage display of pantomime villainy.

As the Derby captain irked the home fans with yet another protest to the referee about something or other, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d missed his vocation in life when World Of Sport stopped showing wrestling on Saturday afternoons. Nothing that I’m advocating Savage should don a leotard and throw himself into a canvas ring. He’s definitely better suited to a football kit.

A word about the kits. West Brom played in blue and white stripes today. Derby also played in blue and white stripes, sporting their Argentina-style away kit. Does this mean colour clashes are OK in football now? I could tell which team was which, but only just.

Derby are doing OK under Nigel Clough, in the sense that they’ve stopped the freefall that began in the Premier League two seasons ago. In the last month, they’ve beaten both Forest and leaders Newcastle. And they looked like they might beat West Brom too when Chris Porter put them in front four minutes after half-time.

It was a tidy finish by Porter, who is still feeling his way back in after missing most of 2009 with a hip injury. It wasn’t, though, particularly tidy defending, as Albion failed to deal with Savage’s chip into the area.

Gilles Sunu, a teenager who recently arrived on loan from Arsenal, fired over a great chance to make it 2-0 as Derby made life increasingly awkward for a weary-looking Albion. But just as it started to look as though Di Matteo’s men were running out of ideas, Chris Brunt stepped in.

Brunt was an unused substitute against Reading on Wednesday, rested because Di Matteo felt he needed a break. Perhaps the break did him good.

Midway through the second half, Derby’s defence switched off, Brunt charged at them and drove an equaliser into the net. The atmosphere, which had been noisy all afternoon, lifted.

With 13 minutes left, Brunt scrambled in Graham Dorrans’ corner as Derby flapped and flailed and failed in their attempts to get the ball away, and Albion knew the game was won. Simon Cox’s late goal only confirmed it.

But the biggest cheer was reserved for the final whistle, as news came through that Forest had slumped 3-0 at Leicester. That score seemed to cheer both sets of fans.

It certainly improved Albion’s mood, as Di Matteo’s assistant Eddie Newton acknowledged.

“It helps having a weekend like this,” Newton said. “When you’ve been working so hard and you get your rewards, it helps the spirit in the dressing room.

“We know it’s going to be a hard slog to the end of the season. Everybody’s fighting for something – promotion, the play-offs or survival.”

So what are Derby fighting for? Possibly survival, although any team that can live with the Championship’s top three as they have done should not have to worry about staying up. Possibly the play-offs, although they’re not quite good enough yet.

“Today was probably a reflection of where we are as a team,” said Clough. “It was a nearly performance, where we could have come away with the three points.

“We matched one of the best sides in the division – if not the best – for the majority of the game, but we’ve not quite got enough at the moment to see it through.”

Albion, after a draining month, can at least look forward to a few days off now. Or at least the players not on international duty can.

“We’ve got 10 internationals going away,” Newton said. “Hopefully the international managers will rest them in training to let them recover.

“We’ve got a lot of European players, so we’ll send the boys away to be with families and get away from the club. Then, when they come back, we’ll gear up for the last push.”

How long are they away for, Eddie? “Three days.”

Oh. “Not long enough in my mind, but the gaffer has spoken.”

I would say that March must surely be a less stressful month for Albion. But I suspect it won’t be.

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