There’s something about driving through the wilds of Northamptonshire at midday on a Saturday, when you would really have preferred to be admiring Villa Park from the M6, in splendid time for an afternoon at The Hawthorns. It’s a stomach-tightening, over-stressed adrenalized hour or so diversion which will take its toll later on. I like being early. I take a book so I can read, if I’m in really good time and don’t fancy a stroll. The book I won’t have time to read today is Misha Glenny’s The Balkans. It’s fabulous even if it hurtles through the last century too quickly and desperately needs an update. Even so, my detour means I now know where Althorp is and, in one of those moments that feels like a test of the soul, I languish behind a tractor (“Halt in a lay-by and let the traffic go by? I don’t think so, car-driving scum”) without screaming. Too loud.
Look, I try to leave in good time, I try to avoid travel stress, I try to ensure I don’t have to drive over 80mph, but sometimes the M1 is closed and sometimes my cross-country treks are sprints rather than stroll, even if this one is soundtracked by Cockney Rebel and HIM. Anyway, I arrive at West Bromwich just behind the Reading team coach (it’s a Stewarts; not bad at all for all its obscure provenance and certainly superior to that similarly apostrophe-challenged Kings Ferry one they used to have) moments before they shut off the road that leads to the hack parking they always provide. It’s, ahem, 1.15. See, fuss about nothing.
I haven’t been here in a while – not at all last season I think – but visiting West Bromwich is always a joy. My first pie is so burnt that even I can’t eat it, but the next one’s nice. The tea’s not much cop but there’s cake to Fatten me up and a bunch of hardy fellow travellers to exchange guilt, misery, pain and regret with. That’s how it goes.
We’re at that wonderfully confused, bubblingly optimistic stage in the season where it’s not clear how things are going on the field or in the hackbox. The game soon puts paid to that and the endless fiddling I have to do with their wretched wifi. I’ve been fortunate this season, but this is the exact point where my luck runs out. It’s not an effort problem, it’s merely that West Brom have all the possession but none of the poise and Reading don’t look capable of doing anything beyond hanging on. Much as I admired him at Fulham, Pavel Pogrebnyak seems to be turning into the new Mido. It’s a mid-table Premier League team trying to break down a good Championship one.
At the break, nobody has anything to say about the match. I look at what I’ve written. It won’t be my Pulitzer Prize entry this year. I scrap it, apart from the phrase “Jonas Olsson’s header hits the bar”.
My second draft is better http://thetim.es/QpWZ8t; if a game isn’t good that doesn’t mean your piece on it can’t be beautiful. The wifi is better and the actual second half is better too. Once Reading’s sloppy defending allows Romelu Lukaku to score, it’s done and dusted, aside from Hal Robson-Kanu missing an open goal in injury time.
I’m on double deadline. This means the paper’s going off so early that I must file before speaking to both managers if the clock betrays me. It does, but that’s OK. That adrenaline is good adrenaline.
It’s the first time I’ve dealt with Steve Clarke. I do wish he’d decide whether he’s wearing a tie or not (either’s OK by me; one look at me would confirm that I’m not a constable in the fashion police), but he’s better and more assured than most long-term assistants who get a crack at steering the ship (mentioning no names other than “Terry” and “Connor”). He’s still territory marking (“I’m not afraid of taking big decisions,” etc), but that’s perfectly understandable. He has the unmistakeable ring of authority. I reckon he’d be calm in a crisis and, trust me, West Bromwich Albion will have a crisis before the season’s out.
Like everyone I know, I misjudged Brian McDermott. I thought he was the cheap option, not least since he drones rather than talks. I was wrong: he doesn’t drone, he’s considered and taking Reading to promotion was a brilliant achievement, unfairly swamped by that oasis of optimism Nigel Adkins. Now, Reading are finding it tricky to come to terms with the Premier League, unsurprising given McDermott has a Championship squad. But, quietly authoritative, answers questions properly – mine was about Adam Federici, who thinks he’s been dropped but hasn’t – and like an adult speaking to fellow adults. He knows they’ll have to do better to survive. I do like him. If I were a manager I’d like to think I’d be like him, rather than say Phil Brown. I think we all know where the truth might lie.
Double deadline or not, I’m out of there by just after six. No motorways are closed on the way home.