Alex McCarthy denies West Brom as Southampton secure first leg draw

Alex McCarthy denies West Brom as Southampton secure first leg draw

“Breaking down barriers since 1978” was the message on the big screens in the seconds before kick-off, a nod to Laurie Cunningham, Brendon ­Batson and Cyrille Regis, a trio of West ­Bromwich Albion heroes credited with changing the face of the game.

At the end of this bitty playoff semi-final, West Brom were left wondering what might have been after failing to find a way past the ­Southampton ­goalkeeper Alex ­McCarthy, who ensured Friday’s second leg is finely poised.

No one was really surprised by the nature of a tight, twitchy and tough contest. “Everything we expected,” said West Brom’s head coach, Carlos Corberán.

Both teams, however, will look back on the 78th minute as a moment when things could have turned in their favour. McCarthy made a sprawling save to deny Grady ­Diangana after the busy Tom Fellows charged down the right wing, breezed past two Southampton shirts and laid the ball on a plate for his teammate.

Southampton counterattacked and the substitute Ross Stewart, this his fourth appearance of the season, drove infield and his deflected shot looked set to beat Alex Palmer only for the West Brom goalkeeper, diving to his left, to hook the ball clear with his right boot. Afterwards Palmer, who this week received the Championship golden glove, likened the game to a cat-and-mouse contest.

It would have been a timely moment for Stewart, who joined from Sunderland in a £12m deal last ­summer but has missed almost all of the season through injury, to register his first Southampton goal, even if it would have been a touch ­fortuitous. Stewart had only four touches and his sole shot almost brought a rich reward.

“Over a long period he is going to be a really brilliant signing for us but he can be a brilliant signing for us now and be really important for us on Friday night,” said the ­Southampton manager, Russell ­Martin, who is ­optimistic Che Adams will return from a muscle injury in time for the second leg. “For us to avoid any real damage before the home leg was important. We definitely have another gear or two to click through with the ball. On the whole, I’m fairly satisfied.”

Before things got underway ­Martin hunkered down into the shade of the away dugout to watch the closing stages of Norwich’s cagey contest with Leeds on his phone and so the 99 minutes played out here will have been little surprise.

West Brom’s Alex Mowatt (left) shoots over the bar during the Championship playoff semi-final first leg against Southampton.View image in fullscreen

West Brom began full of gusto. They won three corners in the first four minutes and penned ­Southampton in their own half until Kyle Walker-Peters raced upfield, releasing Will Smallbone to earn a corner and some respite after nine minutes.

After absorbing a relentless spell of pressure, Southampton set about making forays of their own, Walker-Peters’s skittled cross-cum-shot cannoning off Conor Townsend for a corner before Palmer repelled a Flynn Downes strike.

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The West Ham loanee Downes pinched the ball on the touchline from Fellows, played a one-two with Joe Aribo and then ­triggered a fine save from Palmer. Adam ­Armstrong sent the rebound against the side netting. A few minutes later Sékou Mara, in for the injured Adams, sent an overhead kick wide.

West Brom came close to ­opening the scoring on 33 minutes but ­McCarthy, who has been third-choice goalkeeper for much of this season, kept out Diangana’s header. Fellows stood up an inviting cross from the right and Diangana, hardly renowned for his aerial ability, beat Downes, Walker-Peters and Taylor Harwood-Bellis to the punch, only for McCarthy to save with both hands.

On the hour Darnell Furlong poked a shot wide with the studs of his right boot after meeting the ­impressive Celtic loanee Mikey Johnston’s cross. But in the end West Brom were left to survive a few nearly-moments. ­Southampton will look forward to resuming the tie in the comfort of St Mary’s.

“Normally I have 15 minutes to ­prepare for the second half,” ­Corberán said. “Now I have four days … let’s use it in the best way we can. The challenge we are going to face on Friday is probably the toughest we will have faced this season.”