Championship, January 20 2017
It takes supernatural commitment, a kind of tenacious faux-dependency, to purely connect to football these days. Watching millionaires, spiritually divided from the mob by galaxies, and wondering if they might have the motivation to somehow care, feels more like going to the circus than fanning. Look, everyone wants the players to be as human as they are in the PR videos (“smile, Glenn! Make eye contact!”), but the reality is they’re a bunch of rich athletes, performing for fame and fortune, and most of us are out of shape potatoes trying to imbue meaning into our lives through a costly vicarious yearning.
Anyway, there are games when it becomes comfortingly difficult to remember what a pointless form of belonging football provides, and this – magnificent, bewildering, heroic and convoluted – was one of them. In that way that the seasons inexorably blur into one another, it seemed like years since Wednesday’s visit in May, their fans all ruddy and Yorkshire and ready to drive through the night to get back to work in the morning, powered by the fumes of a date with Wembley. Look who’s laughing now, we might have thought, if they didn’t seem capable of throwing some witch doctor curse on Albion, like when half the squad expired in the semi at Hillsborough.
There might, you feared, be few better teams to extend the tame loss at Preston into consecutive nil points, but then there is Knockaert, the epitome of a player, with all his flailing and moaning at the officials, who you’d detest if he was against you. It’s all fine, because he can get the ball just outside the area, as he did here from a diagonal Hemed pass as part of one of Albion’s grease lightning breaks from their own box, and pull off an impossible balanced sprint which perfectly keeps the ball just beyond whoever tries to stop him, ending with a goal.
There were several elements leading up to Knocky blasting it into the roof of the net which escalated the improbability of the goal: Norwood only just made the clearance which provided Hemed with the ball, and then Hemed underhit the pass, as good as it was, making Knockaert overhit his first touch. Kieren Westwood, the Wednesday ‘keeper, thought he could rush out and gather the ball. Like the entire stadium, he’d underestimated Knocky’s squirrel-like foot speed, and now Knockaert was away, making three defenders dive in their own idiocy, an unstoppable French fireball wheeling, It’s a Knockaert.
The law of the universe dictates that, sometimes, something so brilliant in a game has to be counterbalanced by a daft calamity. A Foristieri cross was met by the flying foot of Norwood, running towards his own goal, to divert it onto a Dunk header – #tbt, it’s a Dunk disaster – which sailed past the already-grounded Stockdale. The timing, right on half-time, was horrible, but the panic didn’t really churn in until another cross, in the 64th minute, led to a shot which caused Glenn Murray to use his hands as a means to avoid decapitation. Technically it was a sending off, but a penalty would have been sufficient punishment, perhaps as a nod to the human right to avoid being knocked out cold. Still, off he went.
It was such a dismal few seconds that you could only have surpassed the feeling of imminent catastrophe if the goalmouth had promptly burst into flames, scorching Knockaert’s gloves while a terrified ballboy desperately tried to extinguish it with a bottle of Lucozade. And then Stockdale (can we call him Save-it Stopdale from now on? Is it possible we could pun this anywhere at all?) rescued fate from the furnace of yet another disappointment against Wednesday, first diving, athletically, to his right to save the penalty, and then producing a follow-up save, the other way, which could only have been more remarkable had he caught the ball and raced down the other end to smash home in front of the North.
Nothing – sunshine, rainbows, fivers falling from the sky – would have been a surprise at this point. Albion were a man down but with their tails up – Murray had been relatively quiet, and all the momentum was theirs. Pocognoli has hardly played this season, but his cross, a glistening arc of solid gold assist, swung beautifully for Knockaert, diving in at the far post, unleashing delirium.
Wednesday, understandably, completely lost their heads at this point, like in Sunday League when you’re knackered and losing agonisingly and bristling with frustrated testosterone. Fletcher, who’d only been on the pitch for half an hour, did that head-shoving thing that footballers count as a headbutt on Stephens. McManaman ran in like the gnarliest back-up guy you’ve ever seen, Stockdale started shoving him in some kind of muted northern royal rumble, Stephens protested. Fletcher was sent off. Just in case that wasn’t funny enough, Hutchinson then flew in two years late on March – if ever his recovery from injury needed testing – in an act that might not have kept him on the hallowed turf even if he hadn’t already been booked.
That was that. What a time to be alive. To recap: no, let’s try to piece it all together in our own time, on Saturday morning, with the telly highlights. Some joke about Wednesday getting revenge in this year’s play-offs seems appropriate but disingenuous. Lady Luck, not least in terms of other teams’ results, has spoiled Albion for a rare six months, to the point where only a brilliant collapse will stop them.