At the time of writing West Bromwich Albion sit 7 points clear of relegation with just three games remaining under the tutelage of Tony Pulis, a manager who has never been relegated in his managerial career. While the Baggies are not yet mathematically safe it remains likely that a sixth consecutive season in the Premier League will be secured come the end of May. The 2014/15 season has been symptomatic of Albion’s 5 year stay in England’s top flight with fluctuations between top 7 form and relegation form. Between 2002 and 2010 West Brom suffered 3 relegations and achieved 4 promotions; the archetypal ‘Yo-Yo Club’. However, despite a 17th placed finish in the 13/14 season the Albion have progressed into an established Premier League outfit through a combination of sustainable on-field and fiscal growth overseen by a divisive but ruthless chairman in Jeremy Peace.
West Brom achieved promotion from the Championship in 2010 with a young and dynamic management team featuring Roberto di Matteo as Head Coach coupled with Dan Ashworth as Sporting and Technical Director (The Head Coach oversees on-field matters while the Sporting and Technical Director heads the club’s scouting/transfer policy). Despite relegation from the Premier League in 2009 under Tony Mowbray the Baggies had begun to adopt a policy of signing young, well researched bargains. Graham Dorrans, Youssouf Mulumbu, Jonas Olsson and Gonzalo Jara were bought for a combined total of £2 million and were mainstays of the Championship promotion season alongside the likes of James Morrison and Chris Brunt brought into the club in the summer of 2007. Dan Ashworth was the man responsible for bringing these players into the club and his success in the transfer market continued with the acquisitions of Peter Odemwingie for £2.5 million from Lokomotiv Moscow and Paul Scharner on a free from Wigan Athletic. Despite amassing 90+ points in the Championship and a blistering start to Premier League life that saw the Baggies 4th at the end of October with plaudits for an expansive style and results against Arsenal and Man Utd – a 3-2 win at the Emirates and a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford – a run of 11 points from 16 games lead to Jeremy Peace relieving di Matteo appointing Roy Hodgson with West Brom 17th in the table in mid-February. Albion had flirted with the Champions League places in the early months before crashing back to reality with a torrid run of form, only for a revival of fortunes under Roy Hodgson helped the club to an 11th placed finish after a run of 20 points from the final 10 games of the season with 2-1 home victories against Aston Villa and Liverpool respectively the pick of the bunch. Albion were a proficient attacking outfit under di Matteo but defensively poor. Hodgson brought solidarity and organisation to a leaky defence and the season ended with superb home form and a 3-3 draw with Newcastle on the season’s final day.
The buoyancy around West Bromwich was enhanced by more Dan Ashworth transfer savvy in the summer to follow as Billy Jones and Gareth MacAuley joined on free transfers from Championship clubs Preston and Ipswich, Zoltan Gera returned after 4 seasons at Fulham while 25 goal Shane Long joined from unsuccessful play-off contenders Reading for £4 million. Despite a poor start to the 11/12 season where Albion claimed just 6 points from their opening 7 games, form improved and a 10th placed finish followed with notable away victories against Aston Villa (2-1), Liverpool (1-0) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (5-1). The FA had taken note and plotted a double swoop for the management team of Hodgson and Ashworth with the former commencing his post with immediate effect while Ashworth took up his position as FA Director of Elite Development in March 2013 on the back of a string of superb transfer windows at WBA (incidentally in January 2015 he received a promotion to the position of FA Technical Director).
Ahead of the 12/13 season Jeremy Peace appointed Steve Clarke, former assistant to Mourinho, Robson and Dalglish, as head coach to work alongside the outgoing Sporting and Technical Director who in his penultimate transfer window at WBA pulled of another transfer coup in the form of Claudio Yacob, a full Argentine international from Racing in his homeland, on yet another free transfer while England’s second choice goalkeeper Ben Foster made his loan deal permanent after his season-long loan the previous season for a paltry £4 million. Romelu Lukaku arrived on a season-long loan from Chelsea to an already successful strike-force of Peter Odemwingie, scorer of 25 goals over the previous 2 seasons, and Shane Long. West Brom had ammunition the likes of which hadn’t been seen around B71 since the days of Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham. The Baggies had hit upon a winning formula as the defensive organisation of Roy Hodgson’s West Brom married perfectly with the counter-attacking style employed by his successor and the Baggies were sitting pretty in 3rd place after a 4-2 away victory to Sunderland at the end of November 2012. While a downturn in form was predictable, as Albion had neither the depth of squad nor the quality to sustain a European challenge, a meagre 6 wins between November and May followed. Despite a Premier League best finish of 8th the loss of form was stark when compared with the early season form; no doubt influenced by Peter Odemwingie’s decision to sit in a West London car park one January evening… West Brom have had few players to make the impact that Odemwingie did in his first 30 months nor has a player so roundly gained the affections of the Hawthorns faithful. The final 6 months of his time in West Bromwich saw him booed with the gusto usually reserved for ex-Wolves players. A crying shame given all he had done for Albion’s efforts to consolidate in the Premier League but, given the nature of his actions, not altogether unsurprising.
The season ended with a 5-5 draw in Alex Ferguson’s final game as Manchester United manager and Romelu Lukaku said his farewells to the Midlands with a hat trick to end the season with 17 goals, the most of any Albion player in the Premier League. The most significant departure of the summer was Dan Ashworth; deservedly rewarded for his work behind the scenes at a now established Premier League outfit. However, all of Ashworth’s hard work was jeopardised by Peace’s decision to appoint Richard Garlick as his successor. Garlick, a former legal director, had no background in player recruitment and this became patently evident in the club’s transfer policy in the summer of 2013. While Ashworth’s signings were scouted in depth and were incredibly successful given the minimal financial outlay the same cannot be said for Garlick’s. West Brom lost Lukaku at the end of his loan deal while Odemwingie was shipped off to South Wales embarking on an unsuccessful stint at Cardiff. With 22 goals between them in 12/13 they were replaced with Victor Anichebe and Stephane Sessegnon. Both canny players on their day but in the nigh on 2 seasons that have followed they have a combined total of 10 goals in 83 league appearances. When you consider that Shane Long was sold for £7 million in January 2014 and not replaced it becomes clear that Albion’s atrocious 13/14 season was entirely predictable.
Steve Clarke was sacked after 16 points from 16 games with Albion in 16th place after 38 points from 38 games in the calendar year of 2013. Peace saw the figures and feared regression and thus relieved Clarke of his duties. The following month saw Albion fail to appoint a Head Coach as Keith Downing became caretaker. Albion finally appointed Pepe Mel, a man who spoke next to no English and was not afforded a single backroom member of his choosing and if you believe what you read had little control on the training ground; his work delegated to Downing and Kiely. Yet he gained cult status at West Brom despite only 3 victories in half a season. An act of defiance against a management structure who offered him no support or as an act of good will towards a man who conducted press conferences in English despite possessing next to no command of the language? A bit of both. Whatever the reasoning supporters were fiercely unhappy at 12 months of regression following season after season of incremental improvement. 17th place was not good enough after 11th, 10th and 8th between 2011-13.
Peace shook up the infrastructure of the club and Garlick retreated into an administrative role and was replaced as Technical Director by Terry Burton while Mervyn Day was recruited in the restructuring of the scouting department. The two would work in tandem and recruit new signings ala Ashworth. All this seemed promising, as there appeared to be a tacit admission from Peace that there had been considerable failings in 2013/14. What the fans wanted was a statement of intent with a big name or faith in a young manager in the Mowbray or di Matteo mould… Alan Irvine was appointed much to supporter dismay. Lauded as a superb training ground coach and universally spoken of positively in the football world, unfortunately, Irvine was the wrong man. It was clear from the outset yet, from the outside looking in, you can understand the rational. A training ground coach to mould a side capable of challenging for the top 10 coupled with a new recruitment infrastructure. The plan was falling apart at the seams within weeks as Albion adopted a scattergun transfer policy; 11 incoming players, 6 of which had never played in the Premier League. Irvine lost 7 of his final 9 games and the writing was on the wall by the turn of the year. A nice man, a dignified man but the wrong man.
2013 and 2014 saw Albion achieve 8 home wins in 39 home games. 2015 saw Tony Pulis appointed and Albion embarked on a run of 6 wins in his first 7 home games with 6 clean sheets and there is now growing confidence among supporters that Jeremy Peace has learned from the Mel and Irvine fiascos and appointed a manager with a proven track record in the Premier League. Jeremy Peace is not universally popular at West Brom but has made a series of important decisions when required. The sackings of di Matteo, Clarke and Irvine were ruthless but probably justified given the tens of millions resting on Premier League survival. Albion are as close to solvency as is possible in the Premier League with debts amounting to just £1 million. The future seems brighter with Tony Pulis at the helm but a big summer of recruitment lies ahead. Chris Brunt and Craig Dawson are not full backs and Craig Gardner is not a left winger but needs must for the Baggies as the season draws to a close. It will be interesting to see where West Brom are in 12 months time once Pulis has had the opportunity to make his mark on a club now established at this level.