Wayne Rooney takes a shot at WBA’s goal at the Hawthorns
Manchester United travel to the Hawthorns on Monday night to take on WBA, who will be looking to bounce back following a narrow 2-1 defeat away at Liverpool. Louis van Gaal will aim to make it three wins on the bounce, after beating West Ham and Everton by the same 2-1 scoreline. David De Gea was superb in the latter fixture, making a last gasp save to deny the visitors a point.
United are still without captain Wayne Rooney, who is suspended following his red card in the game against West Ham. This will surely mean a start for Robin van Persie and Falcao up top, with Juan Mata in behind. The United boss didn’t give away any clues in the press conference regarding team, as the visitors look to continue their exceptional record at WBA.
United haven’t lost in the league (WBA have won in the League Cup) since the 1983/84 season, when Ron Atkinson’s side lost 2-0. However, in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game in charge of the club, both sides were involved in an epic 5-5 draw.
1) WBA just survived relegation last season – how would you sum up the last campaign and what have the fans learnt?
Disastrous on so many levels. Significantly, we lost Peter Odemwingie and Romelu Lukaku went back to Chelsea, we replaced neither sufficiently and Shane Long’s form dipped. Take 25 goals a season away from any side and they’ll be in trouble.
The backbone of the side – the keepers, centre-halves and midfield – remained in tact from successive top-half finishes, we didn’t suddenly turn into a terrible side, just inefficient perhaps: we weren’t converting possession and territory into goalscoring opportunites, invariably the opposition were.
We actually did reasonably well up until around this time last year, your supporters might remember – or have tried to forget – the 2-1 win at Old Trafford. A few weeks later we led 2-1 at Chelsea until referee Andre Marriner (an Aston Villa supporter, incidentally) awarded them a contentious 94th minute penalty. That seemed to spark a catastrophic loss of confidence. A month and four defeats later and Steve Clarke, arguably somewhat prematurely, got the boot.
The Board took over a month to replace him, with a man (Pepe Mel) whose philosophy of pressing teams seemed at odds with the ageing, one-paced squad he had at his disposal. A Spanish-speaking Director of Technical Performance was assigned the task of helping Mel overcome a language barrier with his players, he ended up directing players during training sessions, much to their apparent annoyance; he was sacked.
The players publicly revolted against Mel’s methods, if not his personality. His English barely improved, it was then left to the assistant to virtually run the dressing room. There was the sale of Shane Long without replacing him, Anelka – the less said about him the better – and somehow, just somehow, senior players seemed to drag us over the line. It really couldn’t have been much worse up until the final weeks.
Rather than the fans learning anything, it seems to have shaken the Board into life. They’ve seemingly undergone a PR makeover and we’ve seen a summer of pro-active transfer activity like never before. Contrary to popular national media opinion, I can’t see us suffering anywhere near as much as last season.
2) What have you made of Alan Irvine so far and is he the right man to lead you forward?
I, like many, was shocked and disappointed when we appointed Irvine. It was the club’s chance to get a lot of disillusioned fans back onside (they’ve arguably since done that with player recruitment) and at the time it seemed like an unnecessary risk to take.
As it’s turned out, I quite like the bloke. Historically the club has prospered from under-stated appointments and signings rather than supposedly reputable ones and I hope that’s the case here. We struggled in pre-season and didn’t win any of our first four league games which inevitably brought out the doom-mongers. However, the new recruits are slowly getting up to speed, performances have generally been decent and the players seem to have taken to him. At least now, after a few good wins, he’ll get some time to prove himself.
3) Saido Berahino just can’t stop scoring at the moment. How good can he become and how much do you think he is worth now?
I remember watching Berahino in pre-season a few years ago at Stockport, it struck me then that his touch and his finishing were very good. He burst onto the scene – as many of you will remember from last season – and then got a new contract. There were rumours his body fat doubled in the weeks that followed, his performances dipped and he often found himself on the bench or in a wide role, when he’s quite evidently not a wide player.
Over the summer he seems to have sorted himself out, he looks hungry, lean, is playing in his favourite position and he – and we – are reaping the benefits.
Will he be world-class? I don’t know, but he will score goals and eventually play for England – that in itself usually puts a good few million on somebody. I read £15m in a red-top paper the other day, I’d personally like to see him stay and develop with a good couple of years of first-team football before he thinks about moving on.
4) Do you worry that there is too much reliance on Berahino up top to get the goals?
Not at all, to some extent Berahino’s only become prolific since the beginning of this season. That there’s so much media hysteria surrounding him on the back of that shows just how vagarious the modern game has become. Ideye Brown was signed for £10m, he had a respectable scoring record for Dynamo Kiev. Victor Anichebe and Giorgios Samaras can hopefully chip in as well.
5) You’ve had good wins against Hull City and away at Tottenham. How did you play in those games and can you take that form into Monday?
We defended resolutely at Spurs and looked menacing on the break. Usually at a top 6 club you ride your luck if you want anything – we didn’t really, we had the lion’s share of territory and chances. Crucially, we didn’t make any errors, against Everton the week before we gifted them two goals, we gifted Swansea the lead the week before that. In truth, I think the margins are pretty fine at this level and I’m sure it’ll be the same on Monday, unless your big players take the game away from us.
6) What have you made of the Manchester United revival under Louis van Gaal?
He seems to be feeling his way in. From the outside, he doesn’t appear to have fully settled on a system or had chance to pick a consistent first XI with all the injuries. Maybe he’s getting a fairer ride than David Moyes and perhaps that’s what he needs, time. Clearly your front four or five can take apart any team in the world, it’s perhaps a case of finding the balance and the quality at the back and in the middle of the pitch. I think a break from Europe will help and fully expect you’ll make the top four, perhaps at Liverpool’s expense.
7) If you had to pick one of the four for WBA; who would it be and why a) Rooney b) Mata c) Falcao d) van Persie
Can’t I pick Scholes?! Err, it’s a tough one. I’m tempted to say Falcao on the basis of his unbelievable scoring record, I guess it’s just whether he transmits it to the Premier League. I’d obviously take the other three if you were offering though!
8) Bryan Robson is one of Manchester United’s and WBA’s best players of all time. What was it like that day captain marvel saved WBA from the drop?
I’ll be honest, I had the most stinking hangover and it tarnished my enjoyment of the day! It was fantastic though, obviously, but especially for him – he was revered as a player at the Hawthorns but much less so as a manager, it was perhaps a victory over adversity. We finished that season with 6 wins and 34 points, I still think we were incredibly lucky to stay up.
9) Who is the best and worst WBA player of all time and can you give us examples of such genius?
Best – tough, really tough. I was born in 1981, we spent 1986 – 2002 outside the top flight so I’m not blessed with the options older Albion supporters would be. In terms of raw talent, Kanu’s touch was unbelievable, he didn’t play in a great side though and didn’t always offer an end product. Jason Koumas was unbelievably talented, just incredibly lazy, he could’ve been so much more successful than he was.
As sour as his exit was, Peter Odemwingie’s a very talented footballer, but as a pragmatist I’ll have to go for Youssouf Mulumbu. He’s not as naturally gifted as the other three, but easily the best midfielder we’ve had in my lifetime. He’s so dominant, he gets everywhere. I’m staggered that nobody has taken him off us in recent years.
Worst? Too many. Chris Adamson, Andy McDermott, Shaun Murphy, Neil Parsley, Mark Angel, Stacey North, Paul Williams – your readers will most likely have heard of none of these but we had to watch some dross in the 90’s, there are many more.
10) What is your best WBA Xi of all time?
In my lifetime? Russell Hoult, Darren Moore, Jonas Olsson, Gareth McAuley, Neil Clement, Jason Koumas, Youssouf Mulumbu, Derek McInnes, Peter Odemwingie, Kevin Phillips, Super Bob Taylor. Not all selected on the basis of technical ability and an unbalanced XI that wouldn’t work in reality!
If you were to ask any Albion supporter over 35, who saw us when we were good, you’d find the names Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Jeff Astle, Bryan Robson, Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown and Willie Johnstone replacing many of those I included.