The 200% Premier League Pre-Season: West Bromwich Albion
You may not have been able to hear them shouting it for all the shrieking about racism, biting or the decline and fall of western civilisation that was no Premier League clubs reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League, but the supporters of West Bromwich Albion Football Club had their best season in more than thirty years last season. Albion hadn’t finished as high up the English league system as the eighth-placed finish that they managed last season since 1981, and on top of that the continuing decline of their bitter rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers will have added an extra layer of gloss to a job extremely professionally done.
It probably wasn’t supposed to be like this, either. The appointment of Steve Clarke as manager last summer came with inherent degree of chance about it. Clarke had become a professional assistant manager and coach through his previous roles at Chelsea, West Ham United and Liverpool, and there were those who questioned whether he would be be able to make this step up into the higher pressure environment of the manager’s seat. These were questions that were answered with room to spare, not lease in terms of his club’s handling of the situation that blew up in the club’s face as a result of the petulant behaviour of Peter Odemwingie when the club wouldn’t give him the “transfer of his dreams” to Queens Park Rangers. Crisis averted. Highly respectable league position achieved.
Of course the problem with such an achievement in your first season is that expectations will start to swell, even though the job of even matching last season’s finish doesn’t become any easier. In a congested bottom two-thirds of the Premier League, Albion were the best of the rest and to match that isn’t going to be easy, but everybody wants their club to be in a perpetual state of progression and the possibility of the pressure starting to rise should the club not get off to the flying start with which they began last season does remain on the horizon. Fortunately, Albion have one of the easier starts to the season that any club has. The opportunity is there to get points on the board early on and bed in for a nice season of mellow fruitfulness in the middle of the table.
The complete imbalance of the resources of clubs in the Premier League can be seen in the thorniest challenge that the club has had to face this season. Albion’s top goal-scorer last season, Romelu Lukaku, was on loan to the club from Chelsea and his return to Stamford Bridge this summer had an air of inevitability about it and the club have opted for experience in replacing him with Nicolas Anelka. Now, Anelka comes with his own peculiar form of baggage, but he is a fine striker on his day and the early signs from his performance in the pre-season is that he has arrived at The Hawthorns with his head in the right place. If he can match Lukaku’s achievement last season, then Albion might just start to wonder whether they can match or perhaps even better last season’s performance.
Other than that, it was a relatively quiet summer for the club, with Diego Lugano joining the club from Paris St Germain, Matej Vydra and Goran Popov arriving on loan from Dynamo Kiev and Udinese on loan and Zoltan Gera returning to the club after a short period as an unattached player following the injury that ruined last season for him. The spine of the team is strong. Goalkeeper Ben Foster has found himself after not quite living up to the lofty weight of expectation that was placed upon his shoulders at the start of the season, Youssouf Mulumbu a rock at the centre of their midfield, and a fine young defender in the form of Callum Jones, who was given an opportunity by Steve Clarke towards the end of last season and may well flourish this time around. Obviously too good to go down – a prediction which may, of course, come back to bite us on the backside come next spring – this is a squad that seems built to consolidate rather than try to set the Premier League alight this season.
And there’s nothing wrong with this. After several seasons of yo-yoing between the Premier League, West Bromwich Albion are now seasoned contenders at this level. Exceptionally well run from a financial perspective and now set to cash in as the voluptuous new television deal agreed with Sky and BT Sport starts to kick in, the club may well start to turn its attention to bringing some silverware back to The Hawthorns. Many middle-ranking Premier League clubs may well have watch Swansea City lift the League Cup at Wembley last season with an air of envy. Not all of them, of course, can match this achievement, but West Bromwich Albion are better placed than most. It might turn out, of course, that Clarke decides, as modern fashions dictate, that all that matters is Premier League survival, but if the ambitions of those that do wish to progress beyond last season’s final league position are to be assuaged, the domestic cups may off Albion their best chance of further development on the pitch and the possibility of European football.
If West Bromwich Albion are to match the achievements of last season, then they are going to to need Nicolas Anelka to be at his best and, while his absolutely best years may be behind him, his pre-season has been strong enough to suggest that he might be capable of following Romelu Lukaku with distinction. Another season in the middle of the Premier League, wondering what tweaks might be made to try and challenge those just above them in the table, awaits for the club. Steve Clarke, however, beat all expectations when he succeeded Roy Hodgson as the club’s manager in the first place and it would feel foolish to bet against him pulling another rabbit out of the hat this time around.
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