Manager sacked despite avoiding relegation
19 May ~ Much has been unpredictable about West Bromwich Albion's 2013-14 season but, once Premier League survival had been effectively assured, we all knew how it would end. Stoke City always win at The Hawthorns and duly did so again. Meanwhile, Pepe Mel became the latest coach to learn first-hand that you don't publicly challenge chairman Jeremy Peace to "invest in the squad" or "share my vision" and expect to keep your job. The sympathy of Albion fans, including those uneasy about his initial appointment, is nearly all with Mel.
He took a job in a country whose language he had a limited grasp of, yet was asked to work with people he didn't know rather than his own staff. He inherited a struggling team and, in the shape of the Nicolas Anelka controversy, a toxic off-field issue that had been inadequately dealt with.
But, in keeping the club in the top flight, he did all that could realistically have been demanded of him. His critics (who presumably include Peace) will say survival is no great feat and was only achieved because three other teams somehow managed to be even worse than Albion. And his points-per-game statistics are actually inferior to those of both Steve Clarke, the other man sacked by Peace this season, and caretaker-coach Keith Downing.
Statistics, of course, only tell part of a story. Mel's team won their genuinely crucial fixtures, most notably away to Norwich and at home to West Ham. The results and performances in the final three games might have been poor (the display at Sunderland was dire), but they were also of little consequence. And there have been signs, small but significant, that Mel's coaching was improving certain players, mainly Graham Dorrans, who finished the campaign playing his best football since 2009-10, and Chris Brunt, who adapted well to a left-back role.
Even some of the players' apparent misgivings over Mel's preferred style of football have explanations other than those that initially appeared in the media. Gareth McAuley, in a recent interview with the Birmingham Evening Mail, suggested the squad were not so much reluctant to adopt Mel's tactics as insistent on understanding the detail. What they did not appreciate was Dave McDonough, the club's former director of technical performance, attempting to give practical demonstrations of Mel's instructions on the training pitch, rather than simply translate them, as he was asked to do. "The lads didn't want a computer analyst telling them how to play football," was how McAuley put it.
Some pundits have suggested that Mel and Albion were never the right fit. That is not as true as it might be of, say, Sam Allardyce and West Ham. Given a close season, and some of the personnel and conditions he was asking for, Mel might well have enjoyed a happier spell at the club. There was already a degree of mutual affection in his relationship with the supporters; he appeared touched by the display of Spanish flags at the Swansea away game (which Albion went on to win 2-1) and, in one of his final interviews, expressed regret that "[the fans] will never get to see the coach I really am".
Yet there is also a sense in which Mel can only gain in credibility by his departure. If, as he seems to suspect, Peace does not agree to greater investment in the squad during the summer and Albion struggle again next season, his warnings on the state of the club will have been vindicated. The same will be no less true if the chairman concedes that a change in approach is needed and the club thrives anew. James Baxter