Jonathan Greening talks Great Escape, captaining West Brom to the Championship title and says Alex Mowatt is the signing of the season
Now in the third part of his exclusive interview with Ladbrokes, Greening reflects on his time at West Brom which included the Great Escape season and leading the Baggies back to the Premier League.
The Great Escape: Super Kuszczak, the turning point, beers at the training ground… the hairs on the back of my neck still stand up at the thought of it all
There were some really special moments in what was an incredibly tough season for us. Beating Man City 2-0 at home is right up there as a standout match in the campaign because of the timing of it, it was late January and that was just our second win of the season. There were a lot of bad moments in that season, but there were some really good performances, too.
I remember we had a winter break – I think we went to Florida – where we just got our heads down and had a six-day training camp. I can remember Bryan Robson and Nigel Pearson talking to us one dinner time. They’d put together a little presentation and just told us what we needed to do. There were still enough games left in the season to turn things around and they just reminded us of that team spirit.
We all grafted for each other, and Robson told us he firmly believed we could stay up – now he wanted us to believe it ourselves. We came back from that trip and managed some unbelievable results. Some bad results as well, obviously, and some games where the final score didn’t match the performances. But we stuck in there and took it to the last game.
I can actually remember in training the week after the draw at Old Trafford, after the game Tomasz Kuszczak had, he was trying all of these fancy flicks and tricks – I can remember that well. On that United game, Russell Hoult had played most of the games that year but had got injured right at the end of the season, and Tomasz got his chance in the first team.
You expect it from anyone on the fringes of the first team, but when he got his chance he absolutely took it. That game at Old Trafford was just incredible, the amount of saves he made, it was a really special day for him. To be fair, that performance probably got him his move to Man United a few years later.
Going into that final game of the season, in the week leading up to the match, all the boys were really confident we were going to win, like really confident. I remember training being really high tempo, there was such a good buzz about the place. The fans all thought we were going to win as well. I remember going into the game thinking ‘we’ve got this; we just need the other results to go for us’.
We obviously went and got our result, and then at the end of the game there was that two or three minutes where we didn’t know exactly what was going on around the other grounds. If I remember rightly, I think it was Riccardo Scimeca who was on his phone and he got told that results had gone for us, then someone tells someone else, and all of a sudden the whole crowd just bursts onto the pitch. I throw my arms around Geoff Horsfield, everyone starts going crazy, jumping up and down, and then the fans pile onto the pitch. Half of my clothes went missing in all the madness. It was just one of the best days ever in my whole career.
— West Bromwich Albion (@WBA) May 15, 2020
We were in limbo while the other games were going on; it was a different time where we didn’t have live updates on our phones. When you’re actually on the pitch, playing, you don’t really pay much attention to what’s going on in the stands. You hear cheers and all of that sort of thing, of course, but on a day like that you don’t have a clue what’s happening. I got subbed in the second half for Horsfield, who obviously scored to make it 1-0 and people were talking on the bench about other results – you’d hear this team has scored or that team has equalised, but you still don’t know how much truth was in any of it.
That wait at the end of the game is horrible. You can go back and watch it now, we’ve done our job and we’re all just stood around, not knowing how it’s going to go. Then Scimeca gets the call to say that we’ve stayed up and the whole place just erupted. It’s one of those moments where, no matter how many times you look back on it, you can still feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Everyone had put us down, all the pundits had tipped us to be relegated at Christmas, and it was just constant throughout January, February, March and so on. So when we actually stayed up, it was such a massive relief for the players, the manager and the coaching staff, but it was great for all of the people at the club who work behind the scenes.
Everyone was absolutely buzzing after the game; there was loads of champagne being drank in the changing room, music blasting, players dancing. I think what actually made it even better was the fact that the Portsmouth fans were celebrating as well because we’d just sent Southampton down, so literally every corner of the stadium was bouncing.
I know a lot of the lads went out partying, I didn’t because my missus had just given birth – but a couple of days later we had a players’ do at the stadium on the night time, an awards ceremony. Bryan Robson and Nigel Pearson had got us into the training ground early on in the morning for a debrief and there were loads of beers there. They told us to have a few drinks and celebrate what we’d accomplished, then I know a lot of the lads went into town, turning up to the awards do on the night time absolutely steaming. None of the fans were bothered though; I think they were just as excited, and probably just as drunk, as us!
To represent the club as captain, and to celebrate with all the players who were great friends, it was just incredible
Playing at West Brom was probably the best part of my career, the most enjoyable part – I absolutely loved it there. From first signing under Gary Megson, which obviously didn’t work out as he got sacked early on in the season, to then going on to work under one of my favourite players as a kid in Bryan Robson. For him to come and join the club and manage me was absolutely unreal.
That first season (2004/05) was just absolutely incredible; the Great Escape. Being bottom at Christmas and hearing everyone saying we were going to get relegated and that the team wasn’t good enough to stay up. To prove everyone wrong was just great. We had such a great team spirit, and all of the backroom staff believed in us. Bryan Robson and Nigel Pearson said from day one that we were good enough to stay up. That final game of the season against Portsmouth, when the final whistle goes and all the fans come running onto the pitch… that goes down as one of the greatest days of my career.
I know that we got relegated in the following season but we played some good football and we were probably unlucky to have gone down. Then in my third season with the club, I think Bryan Robson had some problems with the chairman – things weren’t going too badly, I think we were fourth in the Championship when he got the sack. From there on Tony Mowbray came in and changed a lot of things. We started playing out from the back, we were really good on the attack and it just suited my style. In that first season we got to the Championship play-off final against Derby, which is obviously a day for us all to forget. We passed them off the park, we should’ve won the game. They had one chance, we had plenty, we just couldn’t get over the line.
But then following season we kicked on again and played some incredible stuff to win the Championship. I was very fortunate because Tony Mowbray made me captain, so to play such an important role in that team, and to lift the trophy in front of the fans at the end of the season against QPR was just such a special day. To represent the club as captain, and to celebrate with all the players who were great friends, it was just incredible.
I talk about the team spirit we had in 2004-05, but it was there with these players in 07/08 – the likes of Kevin Phillips and Paul Robinson, Brunty and Mozza – I could name everyone in that team, we just had such a special bond and to get the team back into the Premier League was a really special achievement.
Zoltan came in and didn’t speak much English, the lads soon got him up to speed with all the swear words he needed to know
Zoltan Gera is one of the nicest people you’ll ever wish to meet. He signed for the club at a very similar time to me and Nwankwo Kanu, obviously he didn’t speak much English when he first arrived, but after three or four weeks some of the older boys, Robbo (Paul Robinson), Clem (Neil Clement) and Andy Johnson who was there at the time – he was crackers – were teaching him all the English swear words to get him up to speed!
It’s funny because Zoltan actually rented a place near to where I was living in Sutton Coldfield when he first signed, and I used to take him to training because he didn’t have a car. We bonded well really early doors in that first season, he was playing on the right-hand side, I was playing on the left. I think I set him up a few times; we just had a really good connection. He was very similar to me; a laidback guy who absolutely loves everything about football, loves training, always doing extra before and after sessions. I loved my time with him and I got my chance to play with him again when I signed for Fulham. He’s a great guy.
Alex Mowatt is the Championship signing of the season
I like Alex Mowatt a lot. I watched him when he was at Leeds and I was very surprised they let him go, actually. Towards the end of my career I played against him when I was at Nottingham Forest, and he had such a great presence about him even then. He dictates the pace of the game, he can switch play, he drives forward, he can score unbelievable goals; he’s got an absolute wand of a left foot. I like him a lot. He went to Barnsley and did really well there, so for West Brom to get him for no money whatsoever was one of the best signings of the summer for me, without a shadow of a doubt.
He’s been terrific, he’s scored some really good goals already. I still think he can probably do more because of the quality he’s got on the ball. He’s a great signing, not just for the here and now, but for the next few years for the football club.
I understand the frustration, but West Brom are third in the league… the boss is clearly doing something right
It’s a bit of a recurring theme at West Brom, not spending much money. It happened when I was there for five or so years, but there’s some real quality in the squad, regardless of what they spent this summer.
I watch the team as much as I can, I’ve seen a lot of them this year. I still speak to Brunty and Mozza quite regularly and I keep in contact with the fans, so I understand the frustration a little bit when it comes to the style of play. West Brom fans – certainly in this division – are used to an attacking and exciting brand of football. They’re very direct at the minute; they play a lot of long balls into the box, a lot of long throws into the box. I was watching a game a few weeks back and Darnell Furlong was taking two minutes to get a towel and dry the ball for a throw-in and I’m not going to lie, it was frustrating the life out of me.
I was a bit more of a ball-playing midfielder, so I liked to get the ball down and play it. I like to switch play and dictate the tempo, especially when I was playing in central midfield. When I was playing out wide I used to like taking players on, getting balls into the box, doing a chop or two, or three or four.
The West Brom fans like attacking football; good attacking football and a good speed, they like players who control the game and create lots of chances. At the moment, we look strong defensively, but I think we can probably get the ball on the floor a bit more. Listen, at the end of the day, they’re third in the league, so I don’t think we can be too critical of the manager, because he’s clearly doing something right.
I want to see the wingers taking players on, keeping the ball on the floor, beating their man and getting balls into the box. That’s where they’re at their most dangerous, and with that, you get the fans off their feet a little bit more. I think it’s just a little bit too stop-start at the moment, trying to play the percentage game, and it has worked; the stats speak for themselves and we are dangerous from those set-pieces. But as a fan, frustration is creeping in because results – certainly away from home – just haven’t been going for them.
It happens a lot in the Championship when you’re at a club like West Brom; I experienced it in my time with the club… teams come to The Hawthorns and just get behind the ball, letting us have possession and asking us to break them down. With our team, we were very patient, we picked our times, we switched play a lot and we had clever players who’d find little pockets of space.
Zoltan would often come in from the wing into a more central position and we’d fizz balls through the line into him, the same with Jason Koumas – he was very clever; he didn’t just stay out wide, he found space in behind the front two. When we did that, we attacked at pace and we had clever strikers like Kevin Phillips, Ishmael Miller and Roman Bednar. They were all lethal for us.
Koumas, Brunty, Mozza, Zoltan, Teixeira, we had all of these attacking options and all of them used to drive at defenders. Robert Koren would always like to get forward and score goals as well. Teams always used to set up to try and frustrate us, it’s always going to happen when you’re West Brom in this division.
04/05 v 07/08
It’s hard to pick my favourite team to have played in for West Brom because it was two different squads from two different eras. Obviously in the first season we had some great players like Nwankwo Kanu, and other names like Neil Clement who brought proper experience to the side. I was playing in a different position out on the left-hand side, with Zoltan Gera on the right. Jason Koumas would either play in that number 10 role or back in midfield.
But then going back to the Tony Mowbray team, we probably played better football, more attacking football, more enjoyable football. We probably had that little bit more grit and determination under Bryan Robson because of the position we were in in the table. We didn’t have much money to spend, we had to really grind out results to stay up in 2005, whereas in 07/08, we had some absolute bargains in that team.
One name Baggies fans will remember; Filipe Teixeira… what a player he was. He could ghost past players like they weren’t there, he could go on either foot, he could assist, he could score goals, and before he got his knee injury, he was probably going to be our player of the season. He was that good a player, and a huge miss for us in that season.
We had some really good players in that squad; two club legends in Brunty and James Morrison – but we still had some really good experience, myself and Paul Robinson being up there. Robbo was undervalued and underappreciated in my opinion, not by the West Brom fans but just in general throughout his career. I think he made his debut for Watford when he was 17, so to play until he was 38 was just absolutely immense – it just shows his character.
To choose between the 04/05 and the 07/08 teams is too hard for me. The first was enjoyable because of that team spirit and work ethic, and we achieved something unbelievable, but in the second team we were better in possession and were so good going forward.
We had Kevin Phillips up top, who is one of the best strikers I’ve ever played with. He was the ultimate professional, in training as well as in matches, he could score all kinds of goals – you just never knew what he was going to do. He did so much for that club as well as all of the goals he scored. When we did get promoted to the Premier League that season, I honestly believe even to this day that if we’d have kept him for that season, we’d have stayed up, without a shadow of a doubt.