Sunday 21 December ~

By common consent West Brom were the best team in the Championship last season. Manager Tony Mowbray rightly received acclaim for his declaration that he wanted his team to play football "the right way" foregoing the muscular approach of some of their promotion rivals. There was further praise for Mowbray during the close season when he insisted that the club would not break their wage ceiling when signing new players, or in trying to keep members of their promotion team who wanted improved contracts. One of the effects of that policy was that last season's top scorer Kevin Phillips ended up staying in the Championship, with Birmingham City. Six months on, Albion supporters may feel that they are witnessing a replay of the 2005-06 season. They have a much better manager than three years ago, when the hapless Bryan Robson was in charge, but the end result looks like being the same, if not slightly worse – Robson's side finished 19th while the current team go into today's match with Manchester City four points adrift at the bottom.

With the second-worst defence in the division, Albion have also scored four goals fewer than anyone else. Phillips may be 35 but he could still have been an effective player for a team in the bottom half of the Premier League. In his absence, Ishmael Miller had been the top scorer with a meagre three goals, but an injury against Portsmouth two weeks ago has ended his season. Even if Mowbray brings in a couple of strikers in the transfer window, they may suffer from lack of service – the midfield that cruised smoothly through the Championship simply doesn't look good enough to make an impression at the higher level.

Albion are now in dire need of a win to close the gap on the dozen clubs clustered above them, so there can be no better team for them to be facing today than Manchester City. Even without the flurry of signings they are expected to make in January the talent in Mark Hughes's squad ought to have secured a top half position. Instead there are growing rumours of factionalism at the club, with a group of players said to have had a meeting this week to discuss Hughes's team selections and the distinctly erratic contribution being made by Robinho. Failure to win at The Hawthorns today will mean that City will occupy the third relegation spot going into Christmas.

The owners in Abu Dhabi might have expected to be spending in January in pursuit of a Champions League push, instead even UEFA Cup qualification looks a remote prospect even if the defence is to be marshalled by Gianlugi Buffon on £250,000 a week. It would have been interesting to see what Tony Mowbray with his purist's outlook might have been able to achieve with a transfer budget even one tenth of that likely to be available to Mark Hughes in just over a week's time. Sadly we won't get to find out.

Comments (1)
Comment by ian.64 2008-12-22 08:57:36

Well, certain stresses were allayed by West Brom's 2-1 win yesterday (and had draws against Blackburn or Pompey been turned into wins then the next game against Chelsea wouldn't have been faced with so much anxiety), but it doesn't and shouldn't put a deceptive gloss on how much of a busted flush Albion's season has been so far. Yes, a relegation fight was on the cards, but it needn't have turned out to be a conflict with all the fighting spirit of a Teletubby that's been chloroformed and whacked over the head with a cricket bat.

It's been hugely demoralising to watch and listen to Mowbray this season, as the good sense and positivity of character he displayed as a manager now comes across as apologetic and even severely weak in attitude, hailing positives where little exist and exacerbating callow displays with a one-up-front formation that promises little and yields even less (the 'find the positives' excuses do give the whiff of Bryan Robson at his most hopeless). Keeping strikers that could only operate at their full potential in the Championship and not acquiring those more attuned to the top-flight was also a miscalculation - as well as completely misjudging the pure, lethal nature of the Premiership. A passing game - while much, much more appreciable in concept and practice than a boorish hooforama - can only go so far before better, more incisive opponents dismantle it. And as for Kevin Phillips (who, with every goal he scores for Birmingham, brings sentimental wails of regret from West Brom fans who want him back), even he couldn't bring solace in a malaise which sees the team ship goals with nearly every game. When you're being beaten 3-0 or 4-0, his consolation goals would not be enough.

Fans blame the chairman, Jeremy Peace, for not backing Mowbray enough, but a few million was spent on those players currently languishing down there. Luke Moore, scoring his first ever Premier League goal in December, cost £3m, while the underwhelming Borja Valero was brought in for £4m, with Roman Bednar and Ishmail Miller also bought for a few million, as well as Scott Carson for £3m. Not Chelsea standards, admittedly, but for a club that seeks to survive financial implosion, a substantial packet. Although Peace's accountant's-eye-view of how to spend in the Premiership (where every buy counts and is, even more so, the difference between survival and relegation) does, justifiably, bring complaints from those who see a man not given to taking a gamble on a signing or two that might make all the difference.

Yesterday's win against Man City soothed a few brows, although it's to be thankful that the Brazilian contingent were conspicuous by their abscence. Things may have turned out to be different were they on the pitch.

Will it turn out to be the start of a rally towards another Great Escape or just a nice blip? Time will tell. Yesterday, Mark Hughes had the air of a man who just couldn't wait to use the chequebook given to him by his paymasters. Money will probably save him.

Mowbray, who hasn't any money at all, apparently, must up his game both on and off the pitch. To avoid failure, Mowbray must learn from the harsh lessons taught him so far. There'll be more of them ahead.

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