Last season was one of stability for West Bromwich Albion, and while this in itself must have felt like a blessed relief for the supporters of the club it had an altogether more prosaic value to the club itself. A season mid-table stability to The Hawthorns brought a tangible and significant return on the clubs policy of living within it means throughout those years when it was boing-boinging between the Premier League and the Championship. This is a club that has been well-managed in recent years, and is now well positioned the reap the rewards of that management – and this, as regular readers of Twohundredpercent will be more than aware, isn’t something that we get the opportunity to say very often.
It is important to get a little perspective on what this all means. The club has so little debt that the amount that it owes is of little consequence. Their season in the Premier League last season will have earned them at least £40m in television money and their eleventh place finish last season was worth around £7.6m. The lack of debt means that this money doesn’t need to be wasted servicing money that it has already spent or, arguably just as importantly, interest accruing on money that it has already spent. As such, they are in a stronger position than many to invest in their team. On top of this, there are plans in place to develop The Hawthorns in order to increase the capacity of the ground to a capacity of around 32,000 – its current capacity is 26,500 – over the next three years. This is again an example of sensible development. By taking time over it, the effect upon match-day revenue will be revenue will be minimised and a sensible increase in the capacity (the temptation to push the boat out and push the capacity of the ground right up to, say, 40,000 must have been high) which will limit costs, the amount of empty seats and, should the team continue to achieve on the pitch, increase revenue for the club on a week-by-week basis.
It is often said that one shouldn’t gamble money that one cannot afford to lose. This principle is broken by football clubs with startling regularity, but Albion have been canny in the transfer market this summer. The arrival of Ben Foster in a year long loan from Birmingham City is low risk investment in a decent goalkeeper, whilst the re-signing of Zoltan Gera is one that will appeal to the sentimental side of the club’s support. If they have gambled in the transfer market at all this summer, it could be argued that this comes in the form of acquisition of Shane Long for £8m from Reading, but Long is a player that has turned heads before and there is plenty of evidence to support Albion’s belief that he can make the step up to the Premier League. One other name linked with the club may have raised more eyebrows, is that of Owen Hargreaves. Hargreaves has, of course, had wretched luck with injuries – just the simple statistic of thirty-nine appearances in four years for Manchester United says enough about that as needs to be said – and it is a reflection upon this that it has been suggested that Hargreaves will likely only be signed on a “pay as you play” contract. If Hargreaves were to sign for the club on a free transfer and stay clear of injuries, he would be an absolute steal as a player. This, however, can hardly be said to be guaranteed.
The defining moment of last season for the club was the appointment of Roy Hodgson following the slightly surprising dismissal of Roberto di Matteo. There were arguments that could be made against Di Matteo’s dismissal, but Hodgson’s success at the club has vindicated that decision. It was a remarkable sending for Hodgson, following his appointment at and departure from Liverpool, and he may have earned a little closure on the episode from his Albion team’s win against his former club at The Hawthorns last season. What we can be reasonably certain of is that Albion supporters are unlikely to be too concerned by his chaotic few months at Anfield and that he now has the chance to do for the club what he managed for Fulham. There can be little question that he was the wrong man for the Liverpool job at the wrong time for anybody at that particular time. It has, however, only taken a few months for him to rehabilitate his reputation.
What may prove to be important for the club over the coming months is the matter of how the expectations of the support has been managed. It seems too much to expect that Albion will surge up the table towards the top six season, but another season of mid-table security certainly seems more than plausible for the best team that the club has had – by some considerable distance – since Ron Atkinson’s team of the late 1970s. Extenuating circumstances of which we know nothing could, of course, disrupt this, but even were the team not to replicate last season’s effort, it seems difficult to believe that they’re not too strong to avoid anything like a battle against relegation. Expectations amongst the support, however, have been well-managed by the club over the years, though, and it is difficult to imagine a mediocre start (or worse) leading to a hysterical reaction that might further destabilise the atmosphere amongst the playing staff.
As with other middle-ranking Premier League clubs, the best chance of immediate success for West Bromwich Albion may come in the domestic cups. Not everybody, of course, can progress the latter stages of the FA Cup or League Cup, but Albion may look to the examples of Stoke City and – subsequent league collapse notwithstanding – Birmingham City as evidence that all silverware doesn’t have to be carved up between the biggest clubs. With a little luck of the draw, knockout football best suits those clubs that are capable of beating anybody on their day, and this is a category of club that Albion would seem to fit into now. If West Bromwich Albion is to evolve into the sort of club that it would hope to become, somewhere near, but certainly not beyond, its wildest dreams, this would appear a next logical step. It remains unlikely that this will happen next season, but that it is something that we can talk of and for it to seem far from outlandish is a mark in itself of the progress that has already been made.
No matter how tight the Premier League might have been last season, the final positions that the vast majority of clubs attained were some way short of being surprising, and this relative stasis has, to a great extent, informed our pre-season previews of the division for the coming season. At some clubs, however, there has been a palpable feeling of optimism, and what is positive about the feeling that has been emanating from West Bromwich Albion over recent months is that the optimism coming from The Hawthorns of late has also been tempered with a clear sense of perspective regarding the club’s capabilities for the future. That said, however, the club was one win from an eighth place finish last season. The potential, it could certainly be argued, is there for improvement on last season, but even matching last season’s achievements will be a challenge, and this is something that West Bromwich Albion supporters should bear in mind.
The hard work, therefore, is yet to come for West Bromwich Albion and if the Premier League is anything like as tight as it was last season, the lesson to carry forward is that every single match may end up mattering. That one win that would have pushed the club up to eighth place in the Premier League would have been worth over £2m in prize money and, for all the club’s relative frugality in recent years, this is money that the club would have found very useful indeed. There are no guarantees that West Bromwich Albion will make progress on the pitch over the next ten months or so, but they are well-placed to do so, in that they are financially comfortable, have a manager that is experienced in bringing the best out of a club of this size and finished last season with a confidence in stark contrast to the sense of flatness that has emanated from some of their rivals over the last couple of months. For West Bromwich Albion, a continuation of the steady progress made last season may well come to reap significant dividends over the course of the season to come.
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