Albion face pre-season promotion favourites, Stoke City, at the Hawthorns on Saturday sitting higher in the table than the Potters notwithstanding what can be best described as a mixed start to the season. And with them are three former Baggies all with a point to prove.
James McClean made the switch to the Britannia over the summer, joining Darren Fletcher and Saido Berahino in having made the short journey up the M6 to the Potteries in recent years.
Gary Rowatt’s team failed to register a victory in their first four games this season despite what was felt by most to be a very impressive strengthening effort in the transfer window. Sam Clucas, Adam Federici, Benik Afobe, Tom Ince, Ashley Williams, Cuco Martina and Oghenekaro Etebo all moved to the Britannia Stadium, along with McClean, but after an opening day defeat at Leeds United, the Potters drew at home to Brentford and away to Preston before the low point of a 3-0 home defeat by Wigan Athletic. Nonetheless, City also managed to add another loan signing this week as the much sought-after midfielder, Ryan Woods, moved from Brentford.
They finally broke their duck last weekend with a 2-0 win over Hull City and followed that up with a 2-0 Carabao Cup win over Huddersfield Town. That match was notable thanks to a forty yard own goal by Junior Bacuna, and also a first goal for Saido Berahino since February 2016.
That will concern Baggies fans as the Burundi-born striker returns to the club where he spent most of his career potentially looking for revenge against what he felt was unfair treatment by Jeremy Peace and Tony Pulis, although both men have, of course, since left the Hawthorns. Should he play, it will only his second match at the Hawthorns in opposition colours having made a single substitute appearance in Stoke’s 1-0 defeat in February last year.
Berahino wasn’t the only player to score a first senior goal for his club on Tuesday evening as both Jon Leko and Kyle Edwards found the net for the first time for Albion in the 2-1 win over Mansfield Town. Moore made ten changes to the side that started against Middlesbrough on Friday evening with only Toisin Adarabioyo retaining his place. Craig Dawson, who finished the game at the Riverside, was the only other player involved in that match to start the game, although both Dwight Gayle and Harvey Barnes were late substitutes on Tuesday.
Tyrone Mears, also started following his loan signing earlier on Tuesday, a move that has been less than enthusiastically received by many of the Baggies faithful. However, his energy levels belied his age as he got up and down the wing well and put in a solid performance that suggests he should be an upgrade on the erratic Allan Nyom he replaces.
Meanwhile, the performance of Craig Dawson was particularly disappointing and suggests that he is not yet ready to be the permanent solution to the leaky Baggies defence that we were all hoping.
Conversely, the performances of Rekeem Harper and Gareth Barry in the middle of the park were encouraging, suggesting that the struggling middle two of Livermore and Brunt might have some competition. Unfortunately, Sam Field’s performance in the back three was less impressive than his first outing in that position against Luton.
Ultimately, it was not as comfortable as Big Dave would have liked with Mansfield equalising with twenty minutes to go, and having a number of good chances late on after Edwards put the Baggies back in front. But progression to the next round was assured and the first team will be largely rested ahead of an important game on Saturday.
As for the league, the defeat at Boro was disappointing and leaves the Baggies in mid-table with just seven points from a possible fifteen, their worst start to a second tier campaign since 2001. Losing at home to Stoke would represent a major set back ahead of the international break, although with Birmingham, Bristol City, Millwall and Preston to come in September, there should hopefully be opportunities to pick up plenty of points before the subsequent break in October.
Last August, a mistake by Ahmed Hegazi allowed Peter Crouch to equalise for Stoke late on at the Hawthorns as Albion dropped their first points of the season – let’s hope that last Friday’s mistake from the Egyptian doesn’t spark as similar run of form!
Darren Moore is still looking to add to his squad before the loan window closes on Friday, but it’s unclear as to whether there are any specific areas that he is looking to strengthen. HRK has so far proved to be a better back up striker than I expected, and there are more attacking options in Burke and Edwards available although neither are really pushing the current starting line up. Central defence remains a concern, and I wonder whether the club would be big enough to go back to Gareth McAuley after his revelations this week – perhaps not. Mears appears to have filled the whole at right back, at least until January, which leaves some more creativity in the centre of midfield as the one area perhaps in need of another body.
Stoke’s position as Albion’s bogey club was largely diluted during Pulis’s spell at the Hawthorns with December’s 3-1 defeat under Alan Pardew their only reverse in the last seven meetings and the Potters have not won at the Hawthorns since May 2014.
Prior to the start of the bogey period, neither side held sway in the fixture although Albion’s last win before the first 10-year winless spell was a 6-0 win in 1988 under Brian Talbot when a trio of Baggies, Gary Robson, Don Goodman and John Paskin, all bagged a brace. That was Albion’s biggest win over the Potters although they also managed six 23 years earlier when John Kaye scored a hat trick to add to goals from Bobby Cram and Tony Brown, along with an own goal from Maurice Setters, in a 6-2 win at the Hawthorns.
City’s biggest win at the Hawthorns came just eight years ago when two penalties, one from Matthew Etherington and another from Jon Walters, plus another goal from Walters earned the visitors a 3-0 win in November 2010.
Famously, of course, Stoke were Albion’s first ever opponents in the Football League on 8th September 1888 at the Victoria Ground with the Baggies winning 2-0, and they completed the double at Stoney Lane in December, also winning 2-0 thanks to goals from Joe Wilson and Billy Bassett. The clubs’ first ever meeting at the Hawthorns was in November 1900 when four goals were shared – Ben Garfield and Archibald Dunn were the Baggies’ goalscorers.
I’m not expecting a tight game as we came to expect from matches against Stoke. Albion are dangerous at both ends, and the Potters have certainly proved to have holes at the back – I think there’ll be goals and I fancy the Baggies to maybe nick one more than the visitors.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
23 Dec 2017 – Premier League
Stoke City 3 (Allen, Choupo-Moting, Sobhi)
West Brom 1 (Rondón)
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
27 Aug 2017 – Premier League
West Brom 1 (Rodriguez)
Stoke City 1 (Crouch)
4 Feb 2017 – Premier League
West Brom 1 (Morrison)
Stoke City 0
Albion’s Record against Stoke City
Pictures courtesy of Laurie Rampling.