New season, same old waiting game…

Published on: Author: Jon Want

We’re on the eve of another Premier League season, Albion’s sixth in succession and their tenth in the fourteen seasons since promotion to the Premier League was first won in 2002. Back in the dark days of the early nineties, top flight football seemed a distant memory and, while most Baggies fans don’t exactly take it for granted, the number of them that have only known Albion as a Premier League or promotion-challenging club is significant.

After the heights of an eighth place finish in 2013, the last two seasons have shown what a few bad decisions could lead to, and that Albion’s coveted Premier League spot will remain precarious for a while yet.

The pre-season campaign has been completed without the usual home fixture against European opposition, and I’ve not seen them in action since the defeat at the Emirates back in May. After losing the opening two matches of pre-season, the Baggies won their remaining five matches – an encouraging set of results although the opposition has not exactly been challenging.

Outgoings

Graham DorransAs per usual, however, Albion’s incoming transfer business has been slow. Ten players have left the club, albeit only three of whom (Dorrans, Mulumbu and Baird) featured regularly in the first team last season.

I doubt many Baggies fans will be sorry to see Chris Baird join Derby County on a free transfer, but both Dorrans (right) and Mulumbu were well liked. Dorrans never really recovered his form for Albion after his family tragedy, and his loan spell at Norwich last season seems to have helped as he netted three times in the Canaries’ promotion run-in prompting the Norfolk club to make the signing permanent. Mulumbu, on the other hand, has been a victim of the recovery of form of Claudio Yacob, combined with the arrival of Darren Fletcher making it very difficult to get any regular first team football at the Hawthorns. He has been a superb servant for the club, and most Baggies fans will wish him well as he joined Dorrans at Norwich – two great signings for the Canaries.

Incomings

At the time of writing, Albion have made just three signings for an expected outlay of between £10m and £15m – I say “expected” as we can never be sure of what the fees actually are given Albion’s propensity for non-disclosure.

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James McClean (right) was the first signing, a rare June excursion into the transfer market, for a fee believed to be around £1.5 million. Born to a Republican Catholic family in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, McClean has courted controversy throughout his career. Having represented Northern Ireland at U21 level, he was selected by Michael O’Neill for the senior squad in August 2011, only for him to withdraw in order to leave himself open for selection for the Republic. Giovanni Trappotini selected McClean for his squad in February 2012, with the winger making his debut as a substitute for Aiden McGeady against the Cezch Republic later that month. He now has 27 caps for Ireland scoring four times.

2011-12 was also a breakthrough season for McClean at club level as he was voted as Sunderland’s Young Player of the Year having made his debut in January 2012. It was later that year that McClean found himself in the news for non-footballing reasons as he opted not to wear a shirt with an embroidered poppy in Sunderland’s match against Everton on 10th November. It is a stance that McClean has maintained since – he did not play in the equivalent “remembrance” fixture when at Wigan in 2013, but he once again refused to wear on in last year’s fixture against Bolton. He has explained his reasons in an open letter at the time, which are that for him to wear a poppy would be to disrespect those who died on Bloody Sunday in 1972. However, his decision not to face the Union Flag during the national anthem prior to Albion’s pre-season friendly against Charleston Battery last month suggests his anti-British feeling may be deeper than his letter suggested. It was at best poor judgment, at worst it marks him as a hypocrit in that he is happy to enjoy life in Britain earning vast sums of money in the richest football league in the world, but still feels able to show disrespect to any symbol of that country.

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I sincerely hope that it was just a case of poor judgment, but we will perhaps never know. Hopefully we can just concentrate on the football for the next few months before the inevitable poppy furore in November, but I fear that his actions will not sit well with a significant portion of the Baggies faithful.

Tony Pulis’s second signing was James Chester (left) from relegated Hull City. The fee was officially undisclosed, but thought to be an initial £5 million rising to £8 million with add-ons. Highly rated, Chester could be a real asset. While Albion seem well-served in the centre back department, Lescott, McAuley and Olsson are all well over 30 and Chester should be seen as the long-term partner to Craig Dawson, assuming Dawson doesn’t make his transfer to full back a permanent one!

Chester’s background in the Manchester United academy is held up as a sign of his obvious pedigree (although let’s not forget Paul McShane) and there seems to be some signs of distress from Tigers’ fans at his departure, which bodes well.

After spending time on loan at Peterborough, Plymouth and Carlisle, Hull City paid United £300,000 to sign Chester in January 2011. The Tigers can thank then-manager Nigel Pearson for what has turned out to be Alan astute piece of business. City won promotion to the top flight in 2013 and Chester is 3 games away from a half-century of Premier League appearances and has six caps for Wales.

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The latest signing of the summer made an immediate impact when he scored twice in the friendly against Bristol Rovers just hours after having put pen to paper in a deal rumoured to be worth about £3 million. Rickie Lambert (pictured left celebrating one of his goals with new strike partner Berahino) endured a tough season following his “dream move” to Liverpool last summer scoring just three goals from 12 starts and 24 substitute appearances, although his goal against Ludogorets means that he has scored in all four divisions, a full international and the Champions League.

Lambert’s Premier League record remains impressive having scored 30 goals from 73 starts over the three seasons at this level. Last season’s experience suggests that Lambert may need regular football to hit form. Assuming no massive bid comes in for Berahino between now and the end of the month, he will be fighting for a place alongside Albion’s star man with Brown Ideye and Big Vic (if he’s fit) when Pulis does opt for two up front. Pragmatic Pulis is more likely to allow Albion to play to Lambert’s strengths than Brendan Rodgers was last season, so he might find things easier at the Hawthorns.

Rumours

It is a little early to get too excited, but I did expect a big bid for Saido Berahino to have been lodged by now. I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that Saido would be gone this summer, but while there has been plenty of talk from Liverpool, Man City and Spurs, the longer it goes on, the less likely Albion are to accept a bid without time to find a replacement, especially with Pulis rumoured to be looking to buy another striker already with Roma’s Ivorian international, Seydou Doubmia, the latest to be linked.

Anichebe and Sessègnon were both rumoured to be available, but there seems to be little movement on either front. Pulis could look to send them out on loan but only if squad numbers increase between now and the end of the window.

Despite this being Albion’s sixth successive Premier League campaign, we still have to accept the club’s position in the transfer food chain. Agents with players looking to move to the England are always going to look at clubs with European football first and then those with a smaller perceived chance of relegation, so the Hawthorns remains fairly low down on the destination list. For that reason, we are always going to be waiting until the last couple of weeks of the window before being able to maximise what buying power we have. Furthermore, as clubs look to maximise their income early in the window, Albion are sensible to wait until the deadline is looming rather than over-pay for players.

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The pursuit of Matty Phillips is a case in point. Albion consider £10 million to be too high and, with no other club prepared to bid that much either despite plent of suitors, it seems to be the right call. As the end of August nears and QPR already in need of funds to stave off further action on Financial Fair Play, Rangers will be more likely to negotiate.

That may prove too late for that deal as Albion appear to be close to signing German U21 International Serge Gnabry (right) on loan from Arsenal, and they also maintain an interest in Nottingham Forest’s Michael Antonio.

My biggest concern ahead of the new season is one that has carried over from the last campaign, and that is full backs. With Wisdom having returned to Liverpool (and then moved on loan to Norwich) and Jason Davidson moved on a free to Huddersfield Town, we are left with Pocognoli and Gamboa as specialist full backs. Pulis did not appear to fancy either of those last year and it seems that Gamboa is available for the right price. Pre-season selections suggest that Craig Dawson or Craig Gardner will play at right back, and either Chris Brunt or James McClean at left back. It would be interesting to know whether McClean is happy to drop further back but I am staggered that Albion have not been linked with a full back over the summer.

Pulis appears keen to bring in another goalkeeper. While having three senior ‘keepers is a reasonable target, I’m surprised that the likes of Wayne Hennessey and David Marshall have been linked given that Ben Foster will be back fit in October. I personally think that Myhill has done a great job in Foster’s absence, and a young prospect would seem a more sensible acquisition rather than an established stopper who will expect first team football.

Perhaps the most intriguing current “target” is Belgian attacking midfielder, Dennis Praet. The 21-year-old Anderlecht player, who has one senior international cap, is appearently on Arsenal’s wanted list but the Baggies are rumoured to have lodged a bid, albeit below his club’s valuation. It would be a major coup if that came off, but Albion have been close to many a major coup over the years so I won’t get too excited yet.

Off the field

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Two of the most important events affecting the club over the summer have been away from the transfer market. The announcement that Terry Burton had left his post as Technical Director and Mervyn Day had departed from his position as Head of Recruitment potentially marked an end to Jeremy Peace’s stated philosophy of appointing a Head Coach rather than a traditional manager. While Tony Pulis’s job title remains unchanged, it seems clear that he has taken full control of the footballing side of the club. I am not surprised by this development given the Welshman’s management career, and I suspect that he would not have taken the Albion job without some assurances that this would happen in the summer should he keep the club in the Premier League.

Should Pulis remain at the Hawthorns long term, this will prove to be the right decision and Pulis could build a sustainable model as he did at the Britannia Stadium, but if things don’t go well, it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Such a decision may not, of course, be down to Jeremy Peace. Negotiations to transfer the ownership of the club continued throughout the close season before Peace pulled the plug on the deal last month. Obviously, we will never know the full details, but I’d like to think that this decision is some proof that our chairman does have the interests of the club at heart, and will not just accept a deal from the highest bidder.

Too early for a prediction

And so what will the new season bring? While the transfer window remains open, it is very difficult to say. The squad is still very thin but, with two or three good signings, it will start to look significantly better than at the start of last season. The threat of losing Berahino is, I hope, receding, but if we were to lose his goals without a replacement, it would be a massive blow.

Given our opening fixtures, we may not have added too many to the points column come the end of August, but let’s hope we have added a few more to the squad that will give us the ability to make the most of September and October when the fixture computer has given us a run of eminently winnable games.