West Bromwich Albion & The Peter Principle
Yesterday afternoon, Huddersfield Town defeated West Bromwich Albion by a goal to nil at Galpharm. This wasn’t an especially surprising result in any respect. Huddersfield are still playing as though fired by the momentum that took the club into the Premier League in the first place, whilst Albion’s seven previous seasons in the Premier League have wavered between middling anonymity with the occasional flirtation with the top end of the bottom end of the table, so it perhaps shouldn’t surprise us that they’re having something of a wobble at the moment. The full-time whistle brought a not entirely unsurprising response from Albion’s support, a cacophony of boos sent down from the stand, aimed partly at a group of players perceived as performing some distance short of the expectations placed upon them, but more pointedly at manager Tony Pulis, a man whose limited ambition means that the narrowest of margins have come to define the difference between success and failure during his time as an established Premier League manager.
The suggestion that his teams aren’t easy on the eye has been something that has dogged Tony Pulis since he first broke into the Premier League a decade ago. To this, there has always been a handily convenient counter-argument, that, for all bar six or seven clubs, life in the Premier League can be a precarious existence that can be snuffed out with little more than one dismal run of form and that Pulis, for all his faults, is a manager who can organise a team to reach that minimum requirement of staying in the Premier League. He may not come with many bells and whistles, but he will guarantee you that, and that is exactly what Premier League club owners – and, some might argue, supporters themselves, who’ve been subjected to a narrative that only being in the Premier League should really matter to them – want to hear before anything else, these days.
What the owners of West Bromwich Albion – and, indeed, even for Pulis himself, eventually – are coming to recognise, however, is that this argument for continuing with a manager who coaches in this manner starts to run thin very quickly when the results stop going their way. Tony Pulis cannot guarantee Premier League comfort in perpetuity. There is a small number of clubs for whom perpetual membership of the top division is a given, and West Bromwich Albion do not fall into this category. But the problem for West Bromwich Albion is that their supporters pay a considerable amount of money for their tickets and season tickets, and that with these ticket prices come expectations. And when supporters start to question why they’re paying large amounts of money to watch stultifying football which is being played with no apparent intention of doing anything but ensuring Premier League survival for the club, it’s unsurprising that many of them start to wonder what the point of it all is.
As such, whilst Pulis’ unhappiness with the reaction that his team’s performance yesterday afternoon might be understandable at some level – he is, after all, doing what he is employed to do – what was also striking about his post-match comments last night was just how tone deaf they were to anybody who doesn’t make their living from professional football. To Tony Pulis, saying “Although the results have not gone well, the club is in a much better position than it was when I first took over by a country mile” makes perfect sense. Supporters, however, might easily be forgiven shrugging their shoulders at such an assertion. They might even be forgiven for wondering how skilled Tony Pulis is as a coach if the only skill that years of management has given him has turned out to be the ability to avoid relegation and no more.
To supporters, when such complaints start emanating forth from a manager, it is easy to start asking the question of whether said manager has reached his place in The Peter Principle – which states that the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role, all of which means that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.” It’s very easy to criticise supporters that have reached the end of their tether as being a spittle-flecking rabble, but the evidence of Pulis’s current shortcomings are there for all to see. His team hasn’t won a game since two one-nil wins in their opening two matches of the season, and has scored just nine goals in eleven league matches so far this season, going ten matches without a win in all competititions at the same time. His team is already eliminated from the League Cup, and Pulis is not a manager who treats the FA Cup with any degree of deference, meaning that the likelihood of a decent cup run and a day out Wembley to relieve the torpor otherwise on display seems distant for Albion supporters, to say the least.
So, what should West Bromwich Albion supporters do or say? The likelihood is that The Football Men think that Albion supporters should put up and shut up. Indeed, those were almost the exact words of their current most vocal representative in the media. Sam “I would never have got the Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United, Sunderland, England or Crystal Palace jobs had I been English” Allardyce was quick to tell Gary Lineker on Match of the Day last night that, “West Brom fans – you wonder what they wish for, because Tony Pulis has done an outstanding job there at West Brom. Leave him where he is.” The Football Men, of course, will always defend the other Football Men. And supporters who feel that they’re being short-changed by reductionist football and who would like to see something other than ultra-defensive formations which don’t even bring the results that they’re supposed to bring, well, those supporters should presumably count themselves lucky that at least such torpor is Premier League branded.
This level of cognitive dissonance is nothing new. It’s now been more than thirty-seven years since the then Stoke City manager Alan Durban, following criticism of his team’s formation for a two-nil defeat at Highbury against Arsenal, told a post-match press conference that, “If you want entertainment go and watch a bunch of clowns.” Durban’s managerial career would come to an end six years later after two successive relegations with Cardiff City took that club into the Fourth Division of the Football League. There was – and there remains – a semblance of sense to his original comment. Professional football is clearly something other in comparison with the entertainment industry, and winning forms a big part of all of our enjoyment of the game. This is, after all, why professionalism was embraced in the 1880s and why the amateur game subsequently withered on the vine in the way that it did.
But to a point, perhaps that was only an argument that could be put forward with much justification when it cost only a pound or two to get into a football match. Supporters are asked to make bigger sacrifices than ever, these days, whether through the amount of money we pay, having to buy season tickets to guarantee getting into matches in the first place, or being shunted around like cattle to accommodate the whims of broadcasters over kick-off times, and it is an inevitable consequence of all of this that there will be greater pushback when a manager doesn’t seem to be making any effort towards keeping the people who (partly) pay his wages entertained. And in a profession in which managers are reimbursed lavishly for what they can do for a football club, it is no longer good enough to say that supporters should continue to witness weekly turd polishing because the turd that is being polished is a Premier League branded turd. The Football Men, it sometimes feels, understand the rest of us considerably worse than we understand them.