West Bromwich Albion & The Risks Of Knee-Jerk Reactions
It’s not as easy as it looks, this Championship football lark, is it?
A lengthy stay in the Premier League can have curious effects on people. Between 2002 and 2010, West Bromwich Albion seemed unable to decide whether they should be a Championship club or a Premier League club. During those years the club was promoted and relegated back on four occasions, a record which suggested that there should be a new division between the two into which they should have been quarantined until they could make up their minds. Eventually, though, the club seemed to have found its level. A couple of finishes in the top half of the Premier League and a couple when they were closer to the relegation places than they might have liked, but ultimately a reasonably secure mid-table Premier League club.
Last season’s relegation from the Premier League was, therefore, not like those suffered by the club over the previous decade. Last season’s relegation was not expected. West Bromwich Albion had finished the previous seasons in thirteenth, fourteenth and tenth place in the table, but when the wheels did fall off the wagon it was emphatic. Alan Pardew managed the singular act of becoming the worst manager in the history of one of the founder members of the Football League. Albion finished bottom of a very mediocre bunch indeed, and that they ended the season only five points adrift of safety was a reflection upon remaining unbeaten for six of their last seven games, as much as anything else.
So, about those last seven matches, then. Darren Moore was appointed as the caretaker-manager of West Bromwich Albion on the 2nd of April after Alan Pardew had overseen the eight consecutive defeats that effectively sealed their relegation. His seven games in charge reaped eleven points, more than a third of their total for the season, and included a win at Old Trafford against Manchester United, a home draw with Liverpool, and a win against Tottenham Hotspur. It wasn’t enough to keep them up, but it was enough to grant Moore the job on a full-time basis. It could hardly be argued that he hadn’t done enough to deserve the opportunity.
With ten games to go of the Championship season, Moore has now been sacked off the back of two defeats – against two of the three teams above them in the table – and a home draw against the division’s bottom club. Prior to this, West Bromwich Albion had only lost twice in the league since the start of November, a record which is pretty difficult to criticise in a division in which anybody, it seems, can beat just about anybody else. This season, West Bromwich Albion have won away to the team that is now coasting clear at the top of the table, put seven goals past Queens Park Rangers, put four goals past Leeds United, Bristol City, Reading and Rotherham United, beaten Sheffield United at Bramall Lane and Aston Villa at Villa Park.
Whilst they remain in fourth place in the table, the other two teams to have been relegated with them at the end of last season, Swansea City and Stoke City, sit in fifteenth and sixteenth places in the current Championship table. The sense of entitlement and the feeling of sheer arrogance would grating were they not so pathetic. Somewhere along the line, this is a club that seems to have come to believe the hype that it, above the plethora of other clubs all scrapping for exactly the same prize, deserved a place in the Premier League, and that if it looks as though that entitlement isn’t going to happen, then a sacrificial scapegoat must be slaughtered in order to appease Mammon. If that person happens to be a club legend, a likeable figure whose very presence at the club lifts it as an institution and who is doing pretty well in their first full-time managerial appointment, then so be it. There’s no place for sentimentality in modern football, this much is true, but there’s no place for a lot of other things as well, it can often feel.
It is peculiar that so many people – and it should be pointed out that there seem to be are plenty of supporters who feel shamed at the owners of their club acting in such a way, so #NotAllBaggies – seem unable to grasp the idea that there are two teams on a football pitch during any match and that both of them want to win, but this seems to be where we are. Everybody wants to win. We get that. But not everybody can win, all the time, and it would be ridiculous to say that supporters of this club are unique in any way. Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost our ability to be able to cope with losing football matches. Or drawing them, if the opposition is deemed to be hopeless enough.
All of which brings us onto the subject of Ipswich Town, a club whose 2018/19 team photograph could be used alongside a dictionary definition for the word “hapless.” So far this season, Ipswich Town have won just three Championship matches – against Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Rotherham United – out of thirty-six, were knocked out of the FA Cup by Accrington Stanley, and were knocked out of the League Cup by Exeter City. Ipswich have spent all bar two of the last twenty-four seasons in this division, and their stagnation should be considered a warning to other clubs. But the problem that Ipswich have had in recent years has been institutional. Over that time, a succession of experienced managers have tried to arrest the smell of dry rot emanating from Portman Road, but this season has turned out to be the season which some Ipswich supporters have been expecting for quite a few years.
Paul Lambert is the current encumbent at Portman Road, and a home defeat against Reading last week had already dealt a potentially lethal blow to his team’s already wafer-thin chances of staying in the Championship before turning up at The Hawthorns yesterday afternoon. Four minutes in, he was served with a harsh reminder that, when luck’s not going your way it’s not going your way when a Stefan Johansen was heavily deflected to give Albion the lead. Throughout much of the remainder of the half, Ipswich were reliant on an excellent performance from goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski to keep them in the game, the value of which was demonstrated when Jon Nolan headed them level three minutes into the second half.
The second half was a bit of a stodgy mess and there were inevitable boos at the full-time whistle, but watching it back this morning the timbre of the second half is clear. West Bromwich Albion looked shorn of some confidence, whilst Ipswich seemed to have finally realised that, whilst there remains – just about – time to save themselves from relegation, they’ve left it a little late and now need to apply themselves in a way that that they haven’t done before this season, that much. A draw was a fair result based on the performances yesterday, and that in itself may well be a reflection upon the tendency for teams that have been struggling all season to realise the depths of the pickle in which they’ve come to find themselves with a quarter of it left to play.
The sacking of Darren Moore came, according to reports, almost immediately after the final whistle, all of which raises questions of its own. Had Albion nicked a late winning goal, would he have been sacked immediately after the match? Why the rush? Why couldn’t it even wait until Monday morning? It also raises further questions about the senior management and ownership of the club. What, exactly, is the plan now? Who’s the successor going to be, and is this sacking a tacit admission that promotion expectations for this season were wide of the mark? Because when a manager is sacked minutes after the final whistle of a match, well, that feels like a reflex reaction, an emotional outburst taken with little thought concerning anything like a long-term plan.
There’s little doubt that West Bromwich Albion’s owners have spent a lot of money this season on trying to bounce straight back into the Premier League, but this is a high-risk strategy, and the road to the Premier League is littered with the bodies of those who overspent because they assumed that money would be enough on its own to buy success. One that springs immediately to mind is that of Aston Villa, who bet the kitchen sink on promotion last season, failed through the play-offs, flirted with financial meltdown during the summer, and currently find themselves in fourteenth place in the Championship table this time around, having sacked and replaced the manager who got them to the play-off final at the end of last season.
There are times when the sacking of a manager say more about those carrying out the sacking than the individual on the receving end of it. Perhaps there is panic at The Hawthorns at the possibility of missing out on a return to the Premier League at the end of this season. But if this is the case, why is that? The most obvious answer is “because they’ve overspent”, and in the absence of anything more sensible to consider we’re left with little alternative to apply the law of Occam’s Razor until we know better. West Bromwich Albion should still make the play-offs come the end of this season, so promotion is still very much possible for the club, even if the last three matches may not have left many people feeling that it’s very likely at the moment. Darren Moore can leave The Hawthorns with his held high. Quite how West Bromwich Albion finish off this season from here is anybody’s guess.