The Premier League Previews 2010/11, Part 17: West Bromwich Albion – Haven’t We Been Here Before?
It feels like we’ve been here before. West Bromwich Albion are promoted back to the Premier League, and have played some beautiful football to get here. Having spent eight seasons in what is now called the Championship, West Bromwich Albion have become a bit of a yo-yo club, so to speak, having not spent more than two seasons in the same flight since. And while they can only continue that trend this season, they must certainly look to this season to lay the foundations to break the spell next season.
The common consensus last time around in the Premier League was that Albion, then under the guidance of Tony Mowbray were too stubborn in their approach to the beautiful game. The suggestion was made by the “experts” that Albion were the key to their own downfall by refusing to drop their principals, in the chase for the points that would have kept them up. In trying to pass out of defence, they would give the ball away and often concede. Instead, the critics claim, they should have parked the bus in front of goal, and just hoofed the ball when on the defence (a tactic that still gives the ball to the opposition, just further up the field). In a lot of respects, they should have been more direct, like Stoke City (a side, given nowhere near as much credit as they deserved).
This policy wasn’t their downfall though, and changing it would have been suicidal. In an era where football wasn’t televised anywhere near as much as it is now, I don’t know what style of football Middlesbrough played, when Mowbray was the heart of their defence, but at Celtic and Ipswich as a player, and Hibernian as a manager, this was how those sides set out to play. In that respect, this is all Mowbray knows in terms of style, and when you look at the strongest teams in the Premier League, this is the style that Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have become successful at utilising. To ask someone to change their beliefs a midway though a season, to please the “experts”, shows those experts up to be nothing more than cliché driven mediocrities. Last season’s table saw a not especially pretty Hull City go down, and Albion joined by an extremely dull Middlesbrough side, and a Newcastle side that had long abandoned it’s principles of style. It had only been a couple of years since a plug-ugly Watford side had gone straight back down, along with a Bryan Robson-led Albion side that never threatened to dazzle the purists. In essence, there is no set formula for survival over relegation, other than how many goals you score and concede, and how many points you pick up in the process.
One are that was seldom mentioned, in a season where two free-spending clubs from the North East had joined them in relegation, was the amount of money spent by Mowbray. Players were brought in, but the transfer budget was low, the commitment to wages was low. The Albion board had made a simple decision, and it was the same decision they had made in earlier seasons when Bryan Robson has been manager. Survivial on the pitch, was much more important off it. In a decade when clubs such as Bradford City, Crystal Palace, Derby, Leicester, Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday had been relegated into near financial oblivion, and a year before Portsmouth imploded before they went down, such a decision is as sensible as it gets. And such a decision remains in place now, with Roberto Di Matteo in charge.
Di Matteo disappointed a lot of people when his first managerial post was with the Franchise, and while few tears were shed when he jilted them to take over the reigns at the Hawthorns, there are a lot who aren’t prepared to wish him well. That said, he has taken Mowbray’s team, made a few changes, and returned to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Midfielder Jonathan Greening and left back Paul Robinson were the only major departures, and the new arrivals included young prospects in striker Simon Cox, left-back Joe Mattock and experience in winger Jerome Thomas. The board also backed Di Matteo, by allowing him to spend £3m on Chilean defender Gonzalo Jara, both as an act of faith in the new manager, but also to prove that financial prudence in the top flight, allowed them to spend a little extra in the event of relegation.
On to the new season. The additions are few and far between, and so far less money has been spent this summer than last. The biggest signing has been Hull City goalkeeper Boaz Myhill, who at £1.5m, seems an expensive acquisition for a second choice keeper, especially considering Scott Carson is club captain. Nicky Shorey brings defensive experience, and at 29 years old, £1m is still a relative snip for someone with five years top flight experience, and the free transfer of Pablo Ibanez, will help to the defensive options, although his rare appearances for Atletico Madrid in recent seasons suggest he’s likely to be here as cover. Considering that the other two signings – Steven Reid and Gabriel Tamas, were on loan last season, that makes only three new faces, with only one set to be a first choice. On the way out of the club have gone Jonathan Greening and Borja Valero – but while £8m may seem a lot to add to the bank balance, the loss will have been felt last season, as both were on year long loans.
The best signing that Albion made over the summer, wasn’t a new signing, or even making a loan signing permanent – it was getting Graham Dorrans’ signature on a new four year contract. Dorrans was a Mowbray signing (£100k from Livingston, potentially rising to £250k), and was gradually introduced during their last Premier League season, and while he didn’t get on the scoresheet that season, his first full season saw him hit seventeen goals from midfield, and was Kevin Nolan’s biggest competition for Championship player of the season. Dorrans scores like a striker, creates like a winger, and tackles like a defender, and is as consistent as they come. A lot will depend on Dorrans making the step up, and with with West Ham United already having had bids of £4m and £5m turned down, and Manchester City reputedly interested too, keeping hold of him in January will be just as important. Making that step up could also be crucial for Scotland’s Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, where a weakened Czech Republic are their biggest opposition for a play-off spot behind World Cup holders Spain.
So, it’s pretty much a case of Di Matteo keeping faith with the squad that got Albion here in the first place, which is a tactic that Newcastle United are also taking on by choice. With Blackpool taking the same route, whether they like it or not, it would be an obvious knee-jerk choice to suggest that at least two of these would go straight down, (with Newcastle size alone, keeping them up). However, I’m not an “expert”, and I’m also aware a number of sides that finished in the bottom half of the table look a little weaker this season – not to mention that the gap between the haves and the have-nots seems to have changed from Premiership to Championship to somewhere in the bottom half of the Premier League. West Bromwich Albion, their Premier League debutant manager, their Scottish sensation, and their team for the future will have a long season, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that they will survive another season on and off the pitch.
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