A season full of disappointment, and it’s only February. It’s one of those “been here before” stories, but made even more frustrating when so much promise and potential is there. This is West Bromwich Albion. The yo-yo team that stopped yo-yo-ing, and looked like they had made themselves comfortable in England’s ‘elite’. But any Albion fan will tell you; “This is Albion.” And, at Albion, things are never as easy as they seem.
Let me take you back to Sunday 19th May 2013. The last day of the 2012/13 season, Albion are hosting Manchester United, the champions, in a match made even more significant because it’s Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever game in charge of United. It’s a classic. Despite being down 5-2, Albion somehow thought back and, assisted by a Romelu Lukaku hat-trick in his last Albion performance, a remarkable 5-5 draw was the end result. Albion finished eighth, their highest ever finish in the Premier League.
Signs were there that all was not right at the Albion; the week before that Manchester United game, Albion lost to Norwich at Carrow Road 4-0, and since January 1st, the Albion had won only 4 games. But, in finishing eighth, in being so comfortable all season, there was promise that a tide had turned. Albion could look at the issues that were there and fix them in the summer to then, hopefully, enjoy an even better 2013/14 season. Maybe even push for European football.
My reasoning for going back to the last game of that season is because so many of the issues Albion left the season with, ultimately, were not resolved effectively enough.
Everybody at the club knew we were going to lose not only one goalscorer in Lukaku, but two goalscorers with Odemwingie also leaving. The response was to bring in an ageing Nicolas Anelka. Somewhat of a marquee signing given his status but also a complete gamble and one that, so far, has rarely worked out.
As well as losing goalscorers, everybody at the club knew our full back areas were not strong enough. An ageing Steven Reid signs a new contract, and at left back we re-sign Goran Popov on a loan to buy deal (the irony being he was on a loan to buy deal the season before and wasn’t deemed good enough to buy). We strengthened our defence with Diego Lugano. Uruguay’s captain, a decent defender, but a player whose pace would be more likely seen in the All Priests Over 75’s Five A Side team. Not fast enough for the premier league, and, again, an ageing player.
Despite the success of the previous year, Albion refuse to spend money. Two more loan signings come in; Vydra and Scott Sinclair. Two talented players, but one who is not quite good enough for the premier League just yet, and another who is injured all the time.
This season starts. A disappointing defeat to Southampton, a draw against Everton and a win against a mighty Newport County in the League Cup. The first league win will wait until the 21st September. Before that, we have deadline day.
Deadline day is normally one of those days that, as an Albion fan, passes by with little excitement. Not this one, though, as Albion break their transfer record twice. Stephane Sessegnon and Victor Anichebe join, there are rumours that Romelu Lukaku is to return but Albion are unwilling to pay a rumoured £5m loan fee. Albion also make another loan signing, bringing in another midfielder, Morgan Amalfitano. So far, none have produced consistently good form.
Meanwhile, an unexpected turn of events is occurring elsewhere as Albion’s third goalscorer from the 2012/13 season, Shane Long, is having a medical at Hull. The deal breaks down, only to come back to life this January as Long is sold for a reported £7m. A good price for a striker that doesn’t score enough but, as with practically every bit of action Albion had made in the transfer market, a gamble.
Steve Clarke was the first casualty to a poor first half of the season. Luck had been against the club with some diabolical refereeing decisions, but, fact of matter, the performances were not good enough. With all the will in the world, Clarke looked unable to change it. After a run of 4 straight defeats, Clarke is sacked.
Not too long after, Pepe Mel is interviewed for the job. Albion’s first choice. But Albion reject him. Mel wants to bring in his own staff, but Albion don’t want that. The club enter the January transfer window with only 3 wins in the league (the 4th picked up on January 1st) and no head coach. There’s also a media storm around the club regarding Nicolas Anelka and the Quenelle celebration. In mid January, Albion go back to their first choice and hire Pepe Mel, minus back room staff.
Four games in to Mel’s spell, and Albion have drawn 2 and lost 2. The two losses being two of the most frustrating losses because on both occasions it has been dreadful defending that has cost the team. Poor finishing has also cost us, but it doesn’t matter if you score three and the opposition are able to score four.
I feel deeply for Mel. I feel like he has been given a sinking ship to try to repair, but with only the tools he has been left. Selling Shane Long wasn’t a particularly bad move, but only if a replacement is lined up. Thievy, who scored on his debut yesterday, may be that replacement, but, at 21, and with no real top flight football experience, it represents yet another gamble, especially when Anelka is more than likely going to be serving a long ban soon.
The support from the board for Mel has been dire. There should be a backlash against Jeremy Peace, Richard Garlick and co if not for anything else but for the recent news that David Gomez is joining Albion as First Team Coach. The very David Gomez you would presume Mel asked for in his interview in mid December. Garlick stated that the board had always been open to him bringing his own staff in. Since when? If it was always the case why did the club waste FOUR WEEKS in hiring him?
Ultimately, the board wiped out the January transfer market for Pepe Mel by not giving him enough time. Whilst the teams around Albion were strengthening; Albion were wasting time.
Poor decisions have cost Albion big time this year. Poor decisions during games from players. Poor refereeing decisions. Poor decisions in what players to keep on and which players to sign. Poor decisions in the process of hiring a new head coach. Poor decisions when thinking of how to replace gaps created by the loss of key players from the previous season. Poor decisions to allow players to leave without having replacements lined up. Poor decisions from the top. Add to that a sever lack of ambition and therein lies some reasons as to why Albion are where they are right now.
The problem lies at the very top, and I fear it’s too late for Pepe Mel to change anything. It’s not his fault, but when the inevitable happens, those at the very top will not hesitate to use him as a reason.