Southampton 1 - Albion 3
THIS football management lark really is a bit of a doddle you know.
Or at least that is the way Gus Poyet made it look in his first match as a No. 1.
Of course, there will be many games when it does not go according to plan but, even in his sweetest of dreams, Poyet could not have imagined a more perfect start than this.
What a way for the smooth Uruguayan to celebrate his 42nd birthday.
It was not just the result, impressive though that was bearing in mind Albion had won only one of their previous ten matches and Southampton were unbeaten in eight.
Management is about making decisions and Poyet got just about every key choice right.
Tommy Elphick and the recalled James Tunnicliffe were excellent at the heart of a defence, showing none of the disjointed panic which has ravaged Albion’s season to date.
Poyet gave the armband not to Nicky Forster but Andrew Crofts and what an inspirational move that proved to be.
Forster, consumate professional that he is, helped tear Southampton apart in the first half in tandem with the irresistible Glenn Murray.
Crofts, meanwhile, capped a typically energetic performance in the centre of the park with a high-quality clincher in the closing stages.
Liam Dickinson, on for Forster in a left-sided role, set up Crofts’ goal – another box ticked for Poyet.
Every good manager is a lucky manager as well and a couple of dollops of good fortune also helped Poyet on his way.
He has inherited a fit and hungrier Murray, rather than the forlorn figure plagued by hernia problems and a desire to get away.
There is no better striker in League One than Murray in this mood.
The other rub of the green? That was for Murray’s opening goal in the 16th minute, which coincided with Dean Cox and Elliott Bennett swapping wings.
The main reason was that Bennett’s greater pace was required down Albion’s left to help out Adam El-Abd against the speedy Michail Antonio.
The tactical adjustment paid off instantly in an attacking sense as well. Gary Dicker spread the play to Cox out on the right, he exchanged passes with Crofts to get in behind Dan Harding and crossed for Murray to expertly steer a volley beyond Kelvin Davis.
For the majority of the first half Albion simply played Southampton off a pristine St Mary’s pitch, so much so that it was a breeze for the smart-suited Poyet.
While the tracksuited Alan Pardew prowled his technical area, we only saw Poyet intermittently, urging his pumped-up players at one point to calm down and then, shrewdly as it turned out, to play with the kind of width which led to Murray’s breakthrough.
Radhi Jaidi and Neal Trotman had no answer to Murray and Forster, who had four decent chances in the opening half-hour.
Murray should have been awarded a penalty when he got away from Trotman and was then clipped from behind by the Southampton centre-half in his vain attempt to atone.
No wonder Trotman was withdrawn at the break, presumably to save him from further punishment.
Albion could have been out of sight by then. Murray, fed by Forster, struck again five minutes after his first.
Davis deflected his initial effort onto the far post but the ball rebounded for Murray to slot his fifth in three games into an empty net. It was 34 minutes before Southampton mustered a shot. Albion, although dropping off and beginning to give the ball away, remained relatively comfortable in the pre-interval period until Andrew Whing, back for the suspended Gavin Hoyte, was ajudged to have tugged Adam Lallana from a Lloyd James cross.
Referee Kevin Friend, as Poyet pointed out, took a long time to give the spot-kick, considering he was perfectly placed, and Rickie Lambert duly despatched his 13th goal in 20 appearances.
You feared the worst at that stage, because Albion have not been good at dealing with setbacks this season.
The momentum was with Saints and Dean Hammond skied over a good chance to equalise from eight yards soon after the re-start but Poyet’s side re-grouped and kept them at arm’'s length in the second period, apart from Lallana heading wastefully wide from another cross by James.
The Seagulls were much less of a threat themselves, although Davis produced a fine one-handed save from a low drive by Crofts.
The new skipper was not to be denied. Dicker released Dickinson and he held the ball up before setting up Crofts to drill in the decider.
It was a wonderful finish to a memorable afternoon for Albion and their latest master. Albion (4-4-2): Kuipers; Whing, Elphick, Tunnicliffe, El-Abd; Bennett (Navarro 75), Dicker, Crofts, Cox (Hart 60); Murray, Forster (Dickinson 75). Subs not used: Livermore, G. Smith, Virgo, C. Davies.
Goals: Murray (16) and (21), Crofts (88).
Red cards: None.
Yellow cards: Dicker (54) foul, Murray (58) not retreating.
Southampton (4-4-2): Davis; James, Jaidi, Trotman, Harding; Antonio, Hammond, Schneiderlin, Lallana; Lambert, Connolly. Subs not used: Bialkowski, Mellis, Wotton, Paterson.
Goal: Lambert (43) penalty.
Red cards: None.
Yellow cards: None.