West Bromwich Albion are seemingly a club in crisis. After victory at Anfield less than four weeks ago, the signs that the Baggies could recover their dreadful season were positive. Then, after the sudden and tragic death of Cyrille Regis, every Baggie was proud to be associated with the club after its fantastic and widely-lauded tributes to that football icon, but after successive home defeats to Southampton and the adventures of the Cab Four, everything seems to be falling apart.
This weekend’s home game against Huddersfield Town is the first of six fixtures that represent a faint hope that Albion could hang on to their Premier League status, but it is the off-field shenanigans that seem to be most likely to derail any such ambitions. Alan Pardew is right in the middle of it, partly a victim of circumstance but he obviously must shoulder some of the blame.
In my end of season summary in May last year, I commented on how the summer window and the start of the season would be key for Tony Pulis, and drew a comparison with the fate of Steve Clarke whose record-breaking finishing position masked a downturn in the club’s form. While I wasn’t at that point calling for Pulis’s head with the same vigour I had the previous summer, the run in to last season had raised those same doubts once again. Perhaps I was as guilty as the board in being a little seduced by the 12-game spell either side of Christmas, because it is clear in hindsight that the Welshman should have been relieved of his duties last summer, rather than rewarded with a new contract.
You can somewhat understand why Mr Lai was disappointed in his senior management team at the Hawthorns having given Pulis a new contract in the summer, sacked him in the autumn to replace him with a man who had brought an apparent downturn in results. For a man as distant and removed from the club as the Chinese owner is, it is not an unreasonable conclusion to draw. But that is the problem. He is only interested in owning a Premier League club and has given no thought to what the club means to its supporters and its community – not an uncommon complaint with foreign owners.
Few clubs have been so lauded for their handling of the aftermath of the deaths of two key club figures in the early part of this year. Eadesey was a personal friend of mine and the club were fantastic to recognise his services to the club and did everything possible for his family at a very difficult time, while the tributes to Cyrille Regis were simply first class and recognised as such across the footballing world. Those tributes made every Albion fan very proud of their club and yet a few short weeks later, two of the key figures in organising those tributes have been sacked, and the overwhelming feeling towards the club from its fans is one of embarrassment.
Of course, I’m not saying that John Williams and Martin Goodman were blameless in the situation the club finds itself in, but I fail to see the benefit of sacking them in February, other than to save face for the owner. Such things may be important in Chinese culture, but in the business of football, it is prudent to make the major decisions in the close season and only make mid-season changes when you have to. Sacking Pulis was, in my opinion, a decision that should have been made last summer, but given that it wasn’t, it was essential to make it at the time that it was. Removing Williams and Goodman was not essential at this time and has only created upheaval and a sense of unease at the club.
There may be an argument that this contributed to the subsequent events in Barcelona in creating a feeling that the club was something of a basket case, so why bother. It would be a very poor excuse, and the fact remains that the conduct of the Cab Four was utterly stupid, inappropriate and incredible given the individuals involved. It is no coincidence that the four involved were British, as it seems to be players from these isles who are more likely to get up to no good. The stories you hear on the after-dinner circuit from ex-professionals are testament to the fact that these things have gone on for years, and evidently they continue to. Perhaps their main error was getting caught, but you have to question quite how they thought they could get away with it.
If this had happened on a pre-season trip it would have been bad enough, but on a mid-season break given the situation the club is currently in, it is almost unforgivable. Pardew decided to give two of the culprits the chance to redeem themselves on Saturday, and unfortunately they failed. Gareth Barry produced probably his worse performance for the club and I, for one, would happily see him never put the shirt on again. As for Jonny Evans, he was hardly the domineering figure we have seen over the past couple of years, and it was some way short of the captain’s performance that was required, even stripped of the armband.
It is very easy to criticise Pardew for the decision to pick the players involved, and indeed the decision to go to Barcelona in the first place. The trip was booked prior to the Liverpool game and it is a popular time for mid-season warm weather training for many Premier League teams, although Barcelona isn’t that warm at this time of year. Perhaps the victory at Anfield should have put paid to the whole idea, particularly given that the fact that it coincided with half term was reportedly unpopular with some of the players. Maybe that was why Pardew decided to push ahead, to assert his authority – that went well.
I didn’t really want Pardew when Pulis went, but I saw him as the best of a bad bunch when the club said that they wanted Premier League experience. Generally, I think he has done a good job in getting what was ostensibly a defensively-minded team to play some attractive football and score goals. They have still looked solid on occasion, take the trips to Anfield and Wembley before Christmas for example, but he has failed to correct a trait that emerged this season under Pulis, their ability to throw away leads.
He obviously has to take some of the blame for the Barcelona debacle, but these trips can be very beneficial and he was let down by players that none of us expected. In hindsight, he should’ve left them both out of the Southampton game, but had they responded with match-winning performances, that decision would’ve been vindicated. Unfortunately, it is now much worse.
Reportedly, our Chinese friend has given Pardew two games to save his job. If true, that is ridiculous; making another change at this point would end any remote chance of survival in my opinion, and if we don’t win at least one of the next two, it is almost Mission Impossible anyway. League results have not improved since he came in, but I still maintain that Pardew’s Albion have a much better chance of staying up than Pulis’s Albion would have done.
And then there is that other spectre in the background, that of the racism charge hanging over Jay Rodriguez. The vehemence of J-Rod’s statements of innocence lead me to believe, and hope, that this is a case of Bong hearing something that wasn’t said, and that he will be cleared. If not, it could be another nail in the Baggies’ Premier League coffin.
The last two matches at the Hawthorns have been billed as “must win” in some quarters, but having lost both of those, the next one definitely is. I’ve not completely written the Baggies off as yet, but it will be an achievement to surpass the Great Escape if they do pull it off.
The team and Alan Pardew have some making up to do. Pardew could do a lot worse than giving the armband back to Chris Brunt – it would certainly go down well with the fans – and the team should look at James McClean whose performance last weekend was superb. If some of his more talented teammates had his application, Albion could be in the top half. It’s a good squad that is vastly under-performing, and that is why it is still Mission Difficult, not quite Mission Impossible.