A ‘winnable game’ doesn’t hold much stock for Newcastle anymore. Rochdale was a winnable game, and we had to play it twice. Oxford, too. And yet I still found myself zooming towards the Hawthorns thinking we might actually win this. West Brom are top of the Championship and look like they want to keep it that way – they don’t need even more games sprinkled into their fixture list – surely, surely, we can win this?
There was definitely some doubt after our recent form, but the game at the weekend showed that we can play in a different formation (even if we can’t necessarily score from it), which helped calm my nerves a bit. The team sheet came out as I was arriving at the absolutely gigantic hotel I had booked: no Dubravka, no Hayden, no Gayle. There were rumblings of it not being good enough, but we had ASM and Almirón up front, so plenty of pace. Still hopeful.
We walked over to the ground and joined the five thousand other Mags in the Smethwick stand. I possibly haven’t ever been in an away end that good. So much singing, so much joy. A Tuesday night in the Midlands! A madness. An amazing, amazing madness. The game started and we seemed fairly evenly matched, if not more in control. We were playing further up the pitch than normal, and definitely trying to attack. Almirón and a more disciplined ASM have the confidence and freedom in this formation to find and pass to each other, with Danny Rose going much wider to collect the ball and feed it in.
It was working. In the 33rd minute, ASM passed the ball over to Miggy who navigated round the WBA defence and scored to put the Mags in the lead. Limbs. Everywhere. Also loads of inflatable penises. Almost immediately ‘tell me ma, me ma’ started in the stands and the crowd, defying physics, got even louder. A minute of extra time was announced and I was just saying into our matchday podcast that I thought we might be sitting back a bit and waiting for after the break, when Joelinton passes over to Almirón who left foots it right past Bond. 2-0 and a step closer to Wembley..
We bookended the half time break with Valentino Lazaro netting a scrappy goal to put us 3-0 in the lead in the 47th minute. I don’t think I can articulate how mad the away fans were going at this point. If the signal in the stadium was better I think some would have been booking their Wembley hotels.
Of course, though, Newcastle are Newcastle and an easy win isn’t in our nature. West Brom made a midfield substitution to change the pace of their game, and shortly we brought Almirón off for Shelvey. I struggle between wanting Steve Bruce to strengthen and condition our players and wanting Almirón on for the whole game – he was linking play and worrying WBA – but off he went. For the next twenty minutes, WBA pressed us harder. Bruce brought off Saint-Maximin shortly after they scored their first goal, and it suddenly felt a lot more tense and West Ham-like. Four minutes of stoppage time didn’t help. WBA scored in the 93rd, again, bringing the score to 3-2. At this point I was just clinging on to the arm of the person next to me, holding my breath until the whistle. And there it was. An absolutely mint 65-70 minutes, a tense 10, then an ‘oh-god-please’ 10. But we did it, and I mostly don’t care how we did it. We’re through to a Quarter Final for the first time in 15 years. Fucking brilliant.