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Ged Scott On Saturday: Albion anchor shows mettle; DIVISION ONE: WEST BROMWICH ALBION v BOLTON WANDERERS Michael Ward on the man looking to cement the place he has already earned in Black Country folklore.

Byline: Michael Ward

As they prepare to do battle with Bolton at The Hawthorns tomorrow, West Bromwich Albion will be looking to the experience and expertise of a former Wanderer who knows what it takes to make it into the Premiership.

Richard Sneekes was a member of the Bolton team that won promotion to the top flight via the play-offs in 1994-95, the season they ousted the Wanderers of Wolverhampton 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals. It is the closest Wolves have been to their old gold Holy Grail in 11 years of trying to escape from the First Division.

Bolton have been knocking on the door for the last three seasons and if Sneekes has anything to do with it, his old club will be sent packing like an unwanted salesman.

Now 32, Sneekes was only briefly a Premiership player before Alan Buckley signed him for Albion the season after Bolton were promoted. The Baggies were on their last legs as relegation to the Second Division looked increasingly inevitable.

They needed a saviour and Sneekes came sensationally to their rescue by plundering ten goals in 11 games in the last quarter of the season to ensure their survival.

Although this happened four managers before him, Gary Megson will do well to remember Albion's debt to Sneekes when the play-offs are over and the time comes to sit down with chairman Paul Thompson and talk about who goes and who stays at The Hawthorns.

The Dutch midfielder is out of contract this summer and while that will leave him free to negotiate with other clubs, his heart is genuinely in this corner of Smethwick where he earned his place in Albion folklore five years ago.

Megson's team will need all the know-how at their disposal if they are to take that quantum leap into the Premiership across the three hurdles barring their way between now and Utopia at Cardiff's Millenium Stadium on May 28.

Sneekes is not the explosive goal-scorer he was for Albion in the spring of 1995, or at Bolton's old Burnden Park before then; but only because his role has changed. His surging runs into the box have been replaced by a holding role.

Sneekes is the midfield anchorman and although not the predator of old, he can still pass the ball as well as any First Division player of his type and his form for Albion has never been better. And as a product of the celebrated Dutch club Ajax, Sneekes knows what is required to play at the highest level of league football.

For the moment, he will be concentrating on the towering challenge of bringing Bolton to their knees in the play-offs; by no means an impossible task, for Albion are one of only three teams to have won at the Reebok Stadium this season.

They can derive encouragement, too, from the fact that Sam Allardyce's team is basically the same as the one that bowed to a goal by Jason Roberts on December 30 - Albion's finest result of the campaign.

'Bolton are a quality side who have been gearing themselves up for promotion for the last three seasons, but we've shown that they are beatable,' Sneekes pointed out. 'Apart from Fulham, we have proved ourselves a match for any team in this division when we do things properly. We've beaten Blackburn and Preston at home and played some of our best football on the road. Everyone knows what we are capable of.

'I don't think anyone can doubt that Fulham have been the Manchester United of the First Division this season, but even when we lost 3-1 to them at The Hawthorns, people said to me afterwards that we would have beaten any other side on the day.

'We've had our setbacks where we've played really badly - losing at home to Grimsby was probably the worst - but on the whole we've established a winning habit at West Brom and the fans must have forgotten what it was like.

'For me, it's been a great feeling and the atmosphere around the place is better than I have ever known it in my five years at the club.'

Tomorrow's atmosphere at The Hawthorns will match anything the recent electrical storms have produced and as Sneekes said: 'We need our fans to make it as intimidating as possible for Bolton and I am sure they will.

'The second leg will hold no fears for us and if we can go there a goal or two in front, all the better. Whatever happens, you will hear our supporters above the Bolton crowd.'

Sneekes is loath to think of it in such terms, but something tells him that tomorrow's first leg at The Hawthorns could herald his last appearance in front of the home fans before he bids farewell to the club.

All love affairs in football come to an end sometime and as one of six players out of contract, he knows that there could be a parting of the ways.

Much as Sneekes would have appreciated some kind of signal from Megson that he would like him to sign a new deal, the Albion manager has made it clear that all contract talks are on hold until he knows what division his club will be playing in next season.

'I don't know what will happen, but it has only just hit me that I've already played my last league game at The Hawthorns,' Sneekes reflected. 'I hope that isn't the case but if it is, I'd just like to thank the fans for all the support they've given me over the last five years. I've always had a good relationship with them and I've had some of the happiest times of my career at this club.'

But should it be the end? Megson may not realise it going into the play-offs this weekend, but Albion might not be standing three matches from the Premiership were it not for Richard Sneekes. But for his ten goals in 11 games five years ago, the Baggies might now be languishing in the Second Division. They still owe him one.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 12, 2001
Words:1020
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