In an Under-21 West Midlands derby which saw a tepid start but an exciting finish, West Brom relinquished the chance of earning a draw after leaking a goal in the final minutes. A point would have taken them to 15th in the table with just two fixtures remaining this season.
A good crowd turned up at Villa Park to show their support, mainly comprised of Villa fans. I was in the minority of Albion followers – with only a few shouts and screams being heard when we scored the equalizer – but there’s never usually a large amount of spectators at U21 matches. We were seated in the Trinity road Middle stand which provided a good view.
Baggies boss David Oldfield set his team out with five defenders, two holding midfielders, two wide attackers and one leading striker. The senior figure of Boaz Myhill kept goal, captain Donervorn Daniels ushered the defence, Liam O’Neil covered the midfield while Alex Jones – Albion’s solitary goal-scorer – led the line. I’d never seen this system played with the youth sides before and it revolved around the energy of the wing-backs, Cameron Gayle and Wez Atkinson, to supply defensive duties as well attacking purpose.
In the opening exchanges, the home side enjoyed the bulk of possession and their build-up play was sharp and accurate with no end product. A real source of peril to Albion’s right sided central defender, Kyle Howkins, was Villa’s left winger Jordan Graham. His numbingly quick feet and flair for getting to the by-line caused Howkins all sorts of problems as several of the crosses he swung in were not met. While Villa seemed to have a foothold and outlets in the game, the visitors struggled to muster many chances. It was very congested in central areas and often the wing-backs would be caught in two minds whether to push forward or drop deep.
Moments before the interval, Samir Nabi weaved some magic out on the left and found space but his long range shot was cleared off the line by Brad Lewis. There were no goals to celebrate in the first 45 as most fans descended on the refreshments bar at the half-time whistle.
But the second half really opened up and Villa striker Calum Robinson skewed his shot wide before O’Neil galloped forward and unleashed a speculative effort that goalkeeper Brad Watkins repelled. Kemar Roofe – who was called up to the senior squad for the weekend’s draw against Cardiff – also went close but Oldfield’s side lived to rue their opportunities. Villa skipper Daniel Johnson picked out the aforementioned Robinson, who made a clever run beyond the last man, and he made it 1-0.
Albion soaked up a fair amount of pressure in the ensuing minutes before Jones was threaded through on goal, one-on-one with Watkins, to complete a cool finish. In truth Jones did little for much of the match but when his chance came he took it with aplomb. Oldfield sent on Joe Ward, Shaun Donnellan and Andre Wright – who has been impressing for the Under-18s this campaign – to try and protect the score-line with the possibility of launching a counter-attack in mind. But Robinson popped up to score a last-gasp winner after some fine passing around the box from Villa; Graham set up his teammate to poke home past Myhill.
It was heartbreak at full-time for Albion, who fought hard to calve out a way back into proceedings. On the whole Villa probably deserved the three points for their build-up approach and individual play was considerably better. This was not what Oldfield and the team would have wanted after such a glorious victory over Everton in the previous outing.
Player Reviews (West Brom)
Myhill – Think he was playing purely to get game time but his experience was useful in helping to regiment the back-line.
Gayle – Still not convinced. His touch needs major improvement as well as his positional sense and passing.
Howkins – A big lad who struggled to get to grips with the explosive Graham. Lots of aerial prowess but lack of speed often highlighted.
O’Neil – Made the last few senior squads after making his Premier League bow away at Swansea. Never appears to have a bad game.
Daniels – Another youngster who has been called up to the last few senior squads. I really rate him – a behemoth of a defender and excellent distributor too.
C Jones – Steady, no-nonsense type of defender but needs to refine his all-round game to be in with a shout of making the senior squad.
Roofe – Can either take a game by the scruff of its neck and set the pace or drift and not really make an impact. It was a case of the latter against Villa, I’m afraid.
Birch – Had a quiet game but he can always be relied upon to keep the ball. Lack of pace on counter-attacks can be frustrating.
A Jones – The goal-scorer. Improving with every outing but would love to see him work off somebody in a two-man forward line. Can’t do it all by himself.
Nabi – Marked really tight and his impact was limited. Not much more to say.
Atkinson – A versatile, powerful player whose energy levels are quite amazing. Needs to work on accuracy of passes and crosses.
Ward – Featured in the build-up to Albion’s leveller but needs a run of three or four games to make the desired effect.
Wright – Scoring for fun in the U18s team but his slender frame means he can’t always bully defenders in the same way at U21 level. Definitely a precocious talent, nevertheless.
Donnellan – Predominantly a full-back but filled in at central midfield. An understudy to O’Neil/Birch, perhaps.