Just What is Going on at West Bromwich Albion?

When the decision-makers at the Club decided that enough was enough following a fourth straight Premier League defeat and pulled the proverbial trigger, ending Steve Clarke’s reign as Head Coach in West Bromwich Albion’s continental-style coaching setup, it was hoped that a new incumbent to the role would be swiftly appointed. Just over a fortnight later however, it would seem that we are no closer to an appointment than we were on the day of the firing.

The staff that were left behind when Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen were relieved of their duties have performed adequately in his absence and a return of 3 points from 3 unbeaten games has shown a glimmer of hope in what, to some, was becoming an increasingly miserable season. A strange thing to say perhaps considering some of the results and near-misses of earlier on in the season, not least the 2-1 win at Old Trafford which catapulted Saido Berahino into the national glare of the media spotlight. In football however, there is no room for sentiment and one result, as fantastic as it was, doesn’t grant you immunity when all things are considered.

Well, following the 1-0 defeat away to Cardiff City, all things were considered and a return of just 31 points from 34 Premier League games in the calendar year were deemed wholly unacceptable by Albion Chairman Jeremy Peace. Regardless of the 8th placed finish that Clarke had secured last season, it was deemed necessary to end his association with the club and commence the process of due diligence in unearthing the next Head Coach to lead Albion onwards, and hopefully upwards.

I have a feeling of unease in quoting calendar year records of football clubs solely down to the simple fact that football isn’t played that way or tables calculated in such a manner, rendering the stat pretty useless. Useless in the wider sense it may be, but even I wouldn’t argue that it highlighted a worrying spiral, heading downwards. Do I think that the funk was as bad as that as was experienced under Roberto Di Matteo a few years earlier? Not at all. The problem was that Clarke appeared a little lost. Gone were the attacking Albion of his early days in charge, which resulted in added pressure being put on a defence that had been assembled on the cheap and which was also without its bedrock in Ben Foster in goal. Boaz Myhill, deputising, did an admirable job, but even his biggest fan will tell you that he is a firm second choice to Foster when fit and the longer Foster’s absence became, small chinks began to appear in Myhill’s play.

At the other end of the pitch, the finishing on the whole was poor and games came and went which should’ve been won. Away at Stoke, glorious opportunities for Stephane Sessegnon came and went at the end of each half, whilst he also had the gilt-edged chance to put the final nail in Aston Villa’s coffin before the half time whistle had sounded. He didn’t though and what should’ve been six points became 2 instead and with new life being breathed into various relegation candidates, something had to give. The Hawthorns had become a joyless place, save for that first spell of football against Aston Villa where Shane Long displayed the kind of finishing that fans would love to see from him more often and the place was jumping. There were also a number of highly-publicised penalty decisions that went against Clarke and Albion, which he must look back on and wonder what might’ve been.

Four consecutive defeats, accompanied by inept performances followed though and that was enough for Peace to act. Surely a new appointment shouldn’t be too difficult for Albion to make seeing as the club have sold its fans the notion that they are the impeccably well-run club that other smaller clubs on their way up should strive to emulate and imitate, with a rolling contingency plan for all circumstances constantly in place. As it has materialised, the club would appear to be more of a circus at the moment, with the search now looking likely to drag on towards FA Cup 3rd round weekend. 3 consecutive draws is better than the 4 straight defeats that resulted in Clarke’s sacking but the reality is that with other teams picking up points, Albion are now 2 points nearer the bottom of the league than they were following the defeat at Cardiff. The ship now needs a new rudder.

Following the process of due diligence, the club have apparently put together a shortlist of candidates who will be required to ‘work within Albion’s existing structure’. Fans were already aware that the setup of the club wouldn’t be changing but perhaps what has shocked and stunned some is the fact that the man they had seemingly ear-marked for the role, ex-Real Betis manager Pepe Mel, has pulled out of talks due to the revelation that he would not only have to work within the existing structure, but also work with the same staff too, something he clearly felt uncomfortable with. I fully appreciate his stance, as any new manager (or Head Coach for that matter) is likely to want a number of his own people, trusted comrades and known commodities around him. As it turns out, he apparently wanted to bring two of his own staff aboard which was vetoed by the Board and the search seemingly restarts afresh.

The reasoning behind such a rigid approach to the appointment is a puzzling one to comprehend, as I can only imagine that it rules out a huge portion of candidates. Who exactly are Peace and his aides Mark Jenkins and Sporting and Technical Director Richard Garlick looking for? The only type of appointment that I can envisage working within such a setup and being accepting of such rigid terms and conditions laid down would be inexperienced coaches looking to make their way up the footballing ladder or unknown commodities from abroad. At such a point in the season however, I believe the exact opposite is needed. An experienced head who can come in, realise what needs to happen and also have the authority and command the level of respect within what is a squad full of quality to make it happen. A clone of Roy Hodgson would be perfect. If only we could find one.

What any new Head Coach may deduce upon their eventual arrival is that reinforcements are needed to help push the club up the table during the second half of the season. What any new Head Coach will more than likely be told however is that the squad is currently over-sized and in need of trimming. The hope would be that any funds raised from player sales of the likes of Graham Dorrans, Markus Rosenberg and any others deemed surplus to requirements would then be made available for reinvestment. I won’t be holding my breath on that front, and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to either. The defence has looked shaky and continues to ship goals, with left back looking an increasingly glaring spot to be strengthened and following the returning Nicolas Anelka’s controversial goal celebration at Upton Park yesterday, the attack could also be a man light for an extended period of time, though some would already argue that that is the case with deadline day signing Victor Anichebe spending more time on the treatment table than the pitch.

Whichever direction the Albion Board decide to go with the appointment, they need to face up to the fact that it is a huge one to be making. Now is not the time to fall out of the Premier League and kiss goodbye to the riches on offer. If the next man identified as being the one feels that he needs one, two or even more of his ‘own men’ around him, then the penny shouldn’t be squeezed so hard as to rule that out.

If you were in charge of a Premier League football club, would you rather pay for an extra couple of staff in order to give yourself the very best chance of staying in the division, or risk it with the ‘best of the rest’, someone who was happy to live and die professionally on decisions made with a cast of strangers around him? Choosing the wrong option may be a very costly mistake for all concerned.

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