Baggies didn't expect to be in a relegation fight
21 March ~ Most West Brom fans expected their team to take a small backward step this season. The previous three campaigns had each seen Albion achieve their highest-placed top-flight finish since 1980-81, but there was never a chance of improving on last May's eighth position. On the other hand, we didn't envisage the sort of turbulence 2013-14 has wrought. We didn't expect to be among the favourites for relegation, have three first-team coaches, see one of our players involved in an anti-semitism controversy or have to look on as our club handled that controversy with a curious blend of ineptitude and insensitivity.
At least we can now be fairly sure that Nicolas Anelka has departed (resigning in a strop and being sacked offers little room for doubt), leaving us to focus more attention on the battle to stay in the Premier League. Victory at Swansea last Saturday was as welcome as it was unexpected. A follow-up at Hull tomorrow would – finally – give our season the sort of momentum it has lacked since mid-August.
The pre-Christmas home fixture with Steve Bruce's team encapsulates Albion's campaign. For a start, it was caretaker-coach Keith Downing's first game in charge following the sacking of Steve Clarke. Second, as in 23 more of our 29 matches to date, we failed to win. Yet one reason we're still, somehow, outside the bottom three is that the team has at least developed the habit of staying in games and scoring late equalisers, including Matej Vydra's 86th-minute goal that denied Hull three points in December. Since then, draws have been earned from losing positions against Tottenham, Everton, Liverpool, Chelsea and Fulham. Something, at least, is right with our team-spirit.
Anelka will not be missed on Saturday, but Shane Long, now wearing a Hull shirt, might well be. His sale in January was one many Albion fans opposed, including those of us who recall what happened in 2005-06. That was another season when Albion were supposed to consolidate in the Premier League, following the "great escape" of the previous year. Our chances of doing so were undermined when we sold another striker, Rob Earnshaw, and then failed to replace him; we duly went down with just 30 points.
Victor Anichebe, the man left leading our current attack, is another point of comparison with 2006, when we had Kevin Campbell. Like his predecessor, Anichebe is a strong, hard-working player but nobody expected him to score the goals to keep us up. If we are to survive this season, at least some of the crucial strikes will have to come from midfield.
Still, most outside interest over the closing weeks is likely to centre on our latest coach Pepe Mel, and the wisdom (or otherwise) of his appointment. A personal view is that Clarke would ultimately have delivered mid-table stability and that the citing of the "seven wins in 34 games" statistic to justify his dismissal is misguided. Clarke's one full season in charge was a considerable success and the start of the supposed barren spell coincided almost exactly with the departure of Dan Ashworth as technical director, and his replacement by the less experienced Richard Garlick.
Yet it's impossible not to warm to Mel, or sympathise with him in the "pressure" he – quite ridiculously – finds himself under. The display of Spanish flags at Swansea last week suggests most Albion fans feel the same and that the team and coach can feel assured of some decent backing as they approach the important games to come. Good results at Hull and against Cardiff and Norwich in the following weeks would go some way towards preserving both our status and Mel's job. Then perhaps we could start giving the impression of being a stable, properly run club again. James Baxter