Frustration growing at The Hawthorns but there are glimpses of a bright future
27 August ~ If West Midlands football seems to struggle for attention in the face of the national media’s obsession with north-west and north-east clubs, West Bromwich Albion sometimes seem to be overlooked even in a local context. This was understandable 20 years ago, when Aston Villa were always at least one division higher, Wolves and Birmingham were loudly targeting promotion or expensive signings, and the most exciting news from The Hawthorns tended to be of the "Stacy Coldicott signs new one-year deal" variety. It is less so now that Albion are the region’s only top-flight club and in the midst of a takeover headed by Chinese businessman Guochuan Lai.
Yet Villa and Wolves have themselves recently been taken over, and in their cases the new investors appear to represent a complete (and welcome) break from previous regimes. Lai’s arrival at Albion has been much more low-key. He did provide home fans with a free drink each before last Saturday’s game against Everton, but was not officially presented on the pitch. Indeed, his takeover will not be complete until October at the earliest, with the outgoing Jeremy Peace continuing to hold an 88 per cent stake in the club.
For Tony Pulis, this represents a frustrating situation at a time when the manager would love to welcome some new players. In fact, he has specifically appealed to Peace and Lai to work together to ensure that transfers can be completed. The only permanent new arrival so far this summer has been winger Matt Phillips, signed from QPR, with Everton’s Brendan Galloway joining on loan. Albion are also trying to fend off interest in Jonny Evans, while there seems to be no end to the tedious saga surrounding Saido Berahino.
One thing the transition from Peace to Lai might do, at least temporarily, is maintain Pulis’s own position. Peace has been more patient with him than he was with Steve Clarke and Alan Irvine, while Albion fans are at best apathetic towards him. Many are alienated by the coach’s apparent suspicion of “flair” players such as Berahino, Callum McManaman and the departed Stéphane Sessègnon, and there were significant numbers of empty seats at the Everton game, continuing last season’s trend of slightly declining home attendances. Meanwhile an Express and Star poll carried out following Tuesday night’s League Cup defeat at Northampton reported that 65 per cent of fans would welcome Pulis’s departure.
Against all that, there does remain plenty of sympathy, with a commonly expressed view being that no coach is more likely than Pulis to keep the team clear of a relegation battle while the takeover is in progress. Given the background, Albion would probably prefer their next game not to be against a newly promoted side enjoying an encouraging start to their league season, but Sunday’s visitors Middlesbrough fit that description. Pessimists among the home support will thus expect the Teesiders to follow the lead of all three of last season’s Premier League newcomers (Bournemouth, Norwich and Watford) by winning at The Hawthorns.
There is cause for optimism too, however, much of it provided by players at opposite ends of the age-scale. Gareth McAuley has scored in the last two games, to add to his defensive excellence, while teenagers Jonathan Leko, Sam Field and Kane Wilson have all been given recent first-team opportunities and shown promising signs. Still, the sense is that Albion’s season, never mind the Guochuan Lai era, will not start for real until the takeover becomes official. As long as that event brings more clarity to the club’s future, the supporters won’t mind too much if events elsewhere attract more of the headlines. James Baxter