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Hughes - what a scorcher; West Bromwich Albion 3 Gillingham 1.

Byline: Michael Ward at The Hawthorns

Lee Hughes enjoys a liberal sprinkling of chilli in his curries and his finishing for West Bromwich Albion was of the purest vindaloo on Saturday. The hottest First Division striker this side of the Watford Gap is back to his searing best.

The carrot-topped predator walked off with the match ball, trailing a welter of statistics behind him.

It was his first hat-trick in nearly two years, enhancing his current form to eight goals in nine games and his total for the season to 11. His first came just 94 seconds into the game and at this rate, Hughes has every chance of meeting manager Gary Megson's challenge to top the division's scoring charts when the curtain falls in May.

The difference between the two sides in Gillingham's historic first visit to The Hawthorns came down to one player on the day. It was thanks to his marksmanship that Albion moved up to seventh place with their tenth league win of the season - as many as they managed in the whole of last season.

Gillingham will see the scoreline as a gross distortion and they have a point. On the balance of chances, a 5-5 draw would have been a fairer result. If luck evens itself out over a season, Albion were dealt their entire share of good fortune in the space of 90 minutes.

'Maybe we did have a few things go our way,' Megson agreed. 'But what about the six or seven penalty kicks we haven't been given this season when Jason Roberts had his legs taken away in the box? It's all relative. When all is said and done, you can't argue with the quality of Lee Hughes's finishing.'

Indeed not. The fact that Roberts was missing through suspension and Bob Taylor sidelined with an ankle injury made Hughes's contribution all the more critical. He had to go it alone against the Gillingham defence, for his recalled front-line partner James Quinn lacked the fitness or know-how to act as an effective accomplice.

Gillingham had looked the more likely to draw first blood before Albion cut them to ribbons to score with their first counter-attack. Neil Clement launched a long cross-field pass to Richard Sneekes, who launched the ball towards Hughes who was making for the angle of Gillingham's penalty area.

Ruel Fox saw it as his ball, but Hughes muscled him out of the way and instinctively stroked the ball into the far corner of former Wolverhampton Wanderers goalkeeper Vince Bartram's net.

Gillingham retaliated and it needed a full-stretch leap from Brian Jensen to claw away a shot by midfielder Paul Smith, who singed the goalkeeper's palms with a 20-yarder soon afterwards. If Jensen's first-team place was under pressure, he went a long way towards relieving it with a one-handed save from Paul Shaw in the 18th minute.

The big Dane also kept out a 25th-minute shot by Gillingham striker Iffy Onuora and for much of the first half, Albion's midfield players were guilty of failing to close down space or their opponents, leaving the back three exposed behind them.

But as the action switched from one penalty area to the other, Albion summoned another incisive thrust in the 38th minute. Fox bewitched the Gillingham defence with a jinking run before slipping through a pass for Hughes to flick home his second goal with nonchalant ease.

Hughes and Fox both had close-range shots blocked before Albion struck for the third time.

Portuguese midfielder Jordao continued his fine form as he sliced through the Gillingham cover and Hughes was on hand to take the pass and hit a low shot under Bartram's despairing lunge.

Jensen blotted his copybook somewhat by straying into no man's land and allowing Gillingham substitute Marlon King to salvage a 75th-minute goal for the First Division newcomers with a looping header, but Megson was willing to forgive him.

'Brian has read in the newspapers about how I've been trying to sign a goalkeeper (Stockport County's Carlo Nash), so he's been feeling a bit down lately,' Megson said.

Saturday's performance will have perked Jensen up and while Megson has made no further progress on the transfer front, his team continue to make great strides as a genuine force. To think that Megson found them on Skid Row eight months ago.

Scorers: Hughes (2, 38, 62) 3-0, King (75) 3-1.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION (3-5-2): Jensen; Butler, Carbon, J Chambers; Lyttle, Fox, Sneekes, Jordao, Clement; Quinn (Oliver, 73), Hughes. Subs: Adamson, Burgess, Sigurdsson, A Chambers.

GILLINGHAM (3-5-2): Bartram; Pennock, Ashby, Hope; Patterson, Hessenthaler (Saunders, 67) Shaw, Smith, Gooden; Thomson (King, 59), Onuora (Browning, 73). Subs: Southall, Lewis.

Referee: D Laws (Whitley Bay).

Bookings: Albion - Jordao, Sneekes (fouls); Gillingham - Hessenthaler, Onuora (both dissent).

Attendance: 16,410.

Albion man of the match: Lee Hughes - vindaloo finishing from the curry-lover.

CAPTION(S):

West Bromwich Albion's Lee Hughes wrong-foots the under-fire Gillingham defence during Saturday's matchPicture/DALE MARTIN
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Title Annotation:Football
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 20, 2000
Words:823
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