As Baggies fans look forward to next season in the Championship with a mixture of disappointment at relegation, but anticipation of what will hopefully be a much more entertaining season, I’d like to take a look at where it all went wrong for West Bromwich Albion and, while the season just gone could have been rescued on a number of occasions, we have to go back six years to get to the roots of Albion’s decline.
On 1st May 2012, Roy Hodgson was appointed by the FA as England Head Coach. While it was a blow to lose a successful head coach, it was not in of itself a disaster. However, it was the first in a series of events that ultimately led to a decline in the club’s fortunes. It is clear from the adulation he received at Selhurst Park on the final day of this season that Hodgson remains well-respected by the Hawthorns faithful and his performance with Palace this season has proved that he is still a great manager for that mid-low level Premier League team, and if past experience is anything to go by, his two-and-a-half years at Fulham show what he could have achieved if he’d stayed longer in the Black Country.
Hodgson’s departure led to what could be described as a brave decision when the club appointed Steve Clarke as his successor. Like Darren Moore, Clarke had no management experience but in contrast to our newest head coach, the Scotsman had a wealth of experience in first team coaching working under the likes of Ruud Gullit, José Mourinho and Kenny Dalglish – you can add Avram Grant and Gianfranco Zola to that list, however, so it was not all plain sailing!
Clarke guided the Baggies to what remains their highest Premier League finish of 8th in 2012/13, but it was what happened in the autumn of 2012 that is perhaps the most significant event in Albion’s recent history.
Dan Ashworth’s promotion to Sporting and Technical Director in December 2007 was, perhaps, Jeremy Peace’s finest moment. Ashworth’s work on the player recruitment side of the club unearthed the likes of Peter Odemwingie, Claudio Yacob, Youssuf Mulumbu, Graham Dorrans, Craig Dawson and Gareth McAuley while it would be hard to say that any of the head coach appointments during his tenure were mistakes.
Tony Mowbray was already in situ when Ashworth stepped into post, and he subsequently appointed Roberto di Matteo, Roy Hodgson and Steve Clarke before he was seduced by the FA in September 2012.
At that point, Albion were in as healthy a situation as they had been for 30 years. They sat in 6th place following a strong start to the season, including a 3-0 opening day win over Liverpool, and would reach as high as 3rd just two months later and had a side that could challenge the best sides in the country on their day as victories that season over Chelsea and Liverpool and the amazing final day 5-5 draw with Manchester United demonstrated.
If Clarke’s appointment as successor to Hodgson was, at least initially, deemed successful, the appointment of Richard Garlick to replace Ashworth was puzzling. While Garlick was certainly entrenched into the fabric of the club, he had no footballing pedigree and many of the key decisions made by the club from that point onward are open to question.
Firstly, the January transfer window in 2013 saw no incoming signings at all and one permanent departure, that of Chris Wood, not forgetting the Peter Odemwingie fiasco. Albion may have been in a healthy position at the time, and January has never been the best time to do business, but a complete lack of activity smacks of complacency.
That was then followed up by a summer when the headline signings were Stéphane Sessègnon, Victor Anichebe and a certain Nicolas Anelka. Sess and Big Vic did OK for the Baggies, and the loan signing of Morgan Amalfitano was certainly a success, but when you also consider that Popov, Sinclair, Vydra and Lugano also signed that summer and Odemwingie finally got his move away, it could hardly be described as being a successful window.
That puts the start of the 2013/14 season into perspective and it is perhaps no surprise that the side struggled. Every club aims to move forward every summer but Albion definitely hadn’t and, the poor start to the campaign coupled with the tail off in form in the second half of the previous season put Steve Clarke under pressure.
Eyebrows were raised when Clarke was dismissed after a defeat to newly-promoted Cardiff City and, while Peace’s “12-month run of results” argument had some basis in fact, whether a real football man would’ve come to the same conclusion is debatable. And if Dan Ashworth might not have sacked the Scotsman, the appointment of Pepe Mel as his successor would’ve surely been unthinkable on his watch.
As likeable as the Spaniard was, he was the oddest choice to take on what was to become a relegation battle. Albion were in 16th when Clarke was sacked but it took a month for the former Betis manager to be appointed during which time they lost just once under caretaker manager, Keith Downing, leaving them 14th come mid-January.
Once again, the January transfer window was largely ignored from an incoming point of view, with Thievy Bifouma the only signing on loan from Espanyol. Mel’s Baggies managed just three wins in seventeen games but somehow managed to stay up thanks to three worse clubs, including another of Hodgson’s former charges, Fulham.
The term of Albion’s first, and so far, only, Spanish manager was short and the likeable Madrileño returned to his home country at the end of the season and Jeremy Peace was left to make another head coach appointment.
Without the pressure of a poor league position, Peace could afford to go a little bit left field, but I’m sure that most fans would be looking for someone more inspiring than Alan Irvine. After spells as manager of Preston and Sheffield Wednesday, neither of which was particularly successful, he had returned to the backroom as a youth coach at Everton when Jeremy Peace came calling.
Quite what the Albion board saw in the Glaswegian coach, we may never know, but after a summer window when the high profile signing was Brown Ideye, Irvine lasted half a season before he was dismissed with the Baggies in 16th place with 17 points from 19 games.
And so, having been burned by two left field appointments, Peace went for the tried-and-tested route for his next appointment and, while it was arguably the right decision at that time, it was perhaps the worst of the lot.
How could the club have got into such a bad situation that the man who for so long was one of the most hated men amongst Baggies fans, Albion’s nemesis, the purveyor of evil football, suddenly become the only man to save the club?
The appointment of Tony Pulis was the first of Jeremy Peace’s appointments that I actively disliked – Mel and Irvine were uninspiring but previous good appointments gave the club some credibility – Pulis, for me, was the antithesis of what West Bromwich Albion was about. OK, we may have been promoted playing pragmatic football under Gary Megson, but the club had moved on since then. Pulis’s Stoke City had got themselves established in the Premier League but failed to move forward in a footballing sense under the Welshman, and I feared the same for Albion – rightly so, as it turned out.
However, while I railed against his decision to ignore the two promising full backs that had been signed the previous summer, Pocognoli and Gamboa, the results spoke volumes as Pulis led Albion to safety comfortably in 2015. I’d have been happy to say goodbye there and then, but Jeremy Peace was actively looking to sell the club by this point, and Pulis was seen as a guarantee of Premier League football and, therefore, maximising the club’s value.
Salomón Rondón was that summer’s big signing as Ideye was quietly sold, while James Chester, James McClean, Rickie Lambert and Jonny Evans were also signed along with Serge Gnabry on loan. It seemed to be the most promising window for a while but, while Evans, McClean and Rondón could be deemed to have been successful, the other three turned out to be bad signings for a variety of reasons, with Tony Pulis central to them.
His treatment of Gnabry was similar to that of Poco, Gamboa and Callum McManaman (who was technically his first signing but I doubt he had much to do with it) in that he made his mind up early on and proceed to ignore them, while he bought James Chester, impressive for three years as a centre back at Hull City, and tried to convert him to a full back. Unlike Craig Dawson, it was a challenge that was beyond the Manchester United academy graduate and the only saving grace of his time at the Hawthorns was that we managed to sell him to Villa for a fee that was reportedly higher than the £8m we paid for him.
After a season of largely dreadful football, bouncing around in mid-table, and Albion reached 40 points with seven games to spare. Having won just three points from those final seven games, I was convinced that the time to get rid of Pulis had come. Attendances were dropping, many fans were becoming bored, but Jeremy Peace could only see the pound signs that continued Premier League football would bring and a Chinese billionaire was in the wings waiting to take over.
Alongside the disappointing football, the Berahino saga was dragging on providing another negative story on the club. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decisions taken on both sides, it was an unneeded distraction and a further sign that all was not well at the club.
The summer came and Peace disappeared into the sunset while new owner, Guochuan Lai appointed former Blackburn Rovers chairman, John Williams to replace him. Williams was happy to keep things as they were in the coaching staff and, to be fair, much as I felt that Pulis had run his course at the Hawthorns, it would have been a brave chairman to recommend a change as a first act in a new role.
With the Welshman now in complete control of the footballing side of the club, he had a second summer window to play with. Matt Phillips and Nacer Chadli were at least attacking players of promise but, with Berahino still unlikely to play for the club again, the squad was still short up front; Hal Robson-Kanu was never going to be the answer. That summer’s pointless loan signing was Brendan Galloway, although it took Pulis a few games to decide he wasn’t up to scratch, while Allan Nyom joined as a cheap-and-cheerful option at full back.
My dislike of Pulis was wavering as there was a slight improvement in the displays and a marked improvement in performances in late 2106. Berahino was finally sold to Stoke City for £12m in January, arguably some of the best business in the history of the club given his subsequent form, wile Jake Livermore joined from Hull City and the magical 40-point mark was reached before the end of February.
Could it be that Pulis had finally found a way to take a club forward? Was European football within reach? Surely a club record Premier League points tally was a shoe-in with only ten points needed from the final twelve games?
A closer look at the remarkable run of form over the autumn and winter of 2016/17 shows that Albion pretty much got every point that was possible, rode their luck, took all their chances and somehow managed to amass 30 points from just 16 games.
The hopes of European football and reaching the 50 point mark were dashed as the Baggies limped through the remainder of the season picking up just five points from their last twelve games, although thanks to the ineptitude of the teams below them, they still managed to finish 10th, Pulis’s best ever Premier League finish.
As I pointed out in my piece shortly before the end of that season, his record after reaching 40 points is appalling; adding on the last few fixtures of that season, his teams have amassed just 35 points in the 48 games they have played after reaching the establish safety mark. That suggests that he has no interest of taking a club any further.
While a top half finish may have been deemed successful, the end to 2016/17 should have sounded alarm bells in the club’s hierarchy, but rather than make a change, Williams et al handed the Welshman a new contract along with the biggest ever transfer budget in the club’s history.
While most of the transfer window was as frustrating as ever, the last few days of August did spark a little optimism amongst the fans as the solid signing of Jay Rodriguez and the potentially exciting addition of Oliver Burke were supplemented by a good value purchase of Kieran Gibbs and what was deemed a huge coup with the loan signing of Grzegorz Krychowiak from PSG.
As big a name as he was, Polish international was yet another defensive midfielder to add to Yacob, Livermore and Barry, and the club had still to address the obvious failings up front; it was clear that the club needed more that Rodriguez, Rondón and Hal Robson-Kanu to score the goals to keep us free from danger.
The season had started well with two 1-0 wins, including a debut goal for Egyptian, Ahmed Hegazi, but it was his mistake that cost Albion their first points of the season as Peter Crouch scored a late equaliser for Stoke City at the Hawthorns. It was the first of many such occasions as Albion proceeded to drop 26 points from winning positions through the season – just a third of those would have been enough to keep them up.
As the autumn rolled on, Albion were still on the search for a first win since August. Pragmatic football was all very well when the results were coming, but poor football and a losing team was always going to end one way. The vitriol against Pulis I witnessed at Huddersfield was as bad as anything I have seen in my 30+ years following the Baggies and, while he did last one more game, a 4-0 defeat at home to Chelsea was enough for the board to act.
Cue the legions of pundits saying that Albion would regret that decision, and I’m sure many are still saying as much today, but the only bad thing about the decision to sack Pulis was the timing – it was six months too late.
Two games under Gary Megson provided a little hope, including one of the season highlights in a first Albion goal for Sam Field, but it should not be forgotten that the Baggies led both games and won neither. While I, along with many others, was calling for an appointment away from the usual suspects, the board indicated that they wanted Premier League experience and the pool was, therefore, extremely limited. To me, Pardew was perhaps the best of a bad bunch, purely because he was likely to play something a little more expansive, but I, along with Pardew, had failed to truly appreciate how unsuited the squad were to play anything other than defensive counter-attack football.
Nonetheless, while the results were still not great, the performances were initially better under the new man, and the new year brought optimism as a first win for months over Exeter in the FA Cup was followed up with a vital home league win over Brighton and then that remarkable win at Anfield in the fourth round.
Rather than cancel the planned trip to Barcelona over the fifth round weekend, Pardew insisted that it go ahead even though they would have just four days between the league game at Chelsea and the cup tie at home to Southampton.
That decision was, in my opinion, the principal reason why Pardew failed to save Albion. It obviously led to Taxigate, the subsequent decision to keep Evans and Barry in the team and the resulting loss of respect that Pardew had both inside and outside the dressing room. The players were no longer playing for the head coach and it should have been clear to the board, but unfortunately, the owner had decided to sack Williams and Goodman while the team were in Barcelona, so by the time Mark Jenkins had returned and realised what was happening, he felt it was too late for a new man to have an impact – how wrong he was.
So where did it all go wrong?
This may appear to be just a potted history of the last few years at West Bromwich Albion, but after Hodgson and Ashworth left to the FA, there have been a series of bad decisions that ultimately led to relegation.
The first few were down to Jeremy Peace – the appointment of Richard Garlick to replace Dan Ashworth with was the first bad move, which led to two pretty dreadful transfer windows in 2013 and, ultimately, the decision to sack Steve Clarke. That was compounded by the appointment of Pepe Mel but it looked like the club had got away with it by staying up in 2014.
However, another bad transfer window and another bizarre appointment, Alan Irvine, and the club was reeling again and forced to turn to the enemy, Tony Pulis. Albion should never have got themselves into that position and, while it was an understandable move at that time, Pulis’s appointment was the major factor that led to relegation, in my opinion.
He built a squad of largely old, slow, combative players and managed to give himself far too much power, something that Peace must take the blame for. He alienated a large section of the fanbase with his style of football, but managed to convince the board with results.
When the board finally woke up to reality, they made what was ultimately a dreadful appointment, if understandable at the time, and then Pardew shot himself in the foot with Barcelona. The timing of the sacking of the board probably led to the delay in sacking Pardew, and the Big Dave miracle came just too late.
This season could have been saved a number of times, but in my view, last summer was the best opportunity. A discussion with Pulis to say “thanks for all you’ve done but it’s time to part” would’ve been understandable and welcomed by the fans, and who’s to say that Roy Hodgson might not have been back at the Hawthorns?
While Pardew could cancelled have Barcelona, I’m not sure I’d prefer to be in the Premier League with him in charge than in the Championship with Darren Moore.
Eight consecutive seasons in the Premier League does make you wonder whether it is all worth it, particularly when you’ve endured Pulisball for three of them. Can any Baggies fan say they’ve really enjoyed more than the odd game since Steve Clarke left? If that is the case, then what is the point?
The facts of life in the Premier League are that the bottom fourteen clubs are generally worried about relegation and go into virtually every game with a fear of losing rather than a desire to win. That is driven by the finances and with a maximum aim in the league being the remote possibility of a Europa League spot, it becomes less interesting the longer you stay in the division. All you can hope for is a decent cup run and a few good results against the big boys, or your local rivals (when they haven’t all been relegated).
I’m looking forward to the Championship – we might win a few games and we have a head coach in place that is pretty much universally popular and has real affection for the club. It could all go wrong very quickly, of course, but it might not, and the club now has the chance for a reload. The chance to move away from the Tony Pulis way, to the Darren Moore way, whatever that may be.
To be honest, we don’t know what Moore’s philosophy on football is, and do we actually know if he has one? His time in charge so far has been about motivation, unity and organisation, so he hasn’t had a chance to influence a style, but the further away from Pulisball he can get, the better. His choice of number two may shed light on that, but not until August will we have a clear idea.
It may take us a few years to get back, but hopefully we will have fun trying.