Marriage of convenience

Regardless of how West Bromwich Albion fare in the Premiership this season, Neil Reynolds explains why the rocky ground between manager Gary Megson and chairman Jeremy Peace doesn't necessarily mean a sacking is on the cards

Gary Megson took over as manager of West Bromwich Albion on March 9, 2000 and saved the club from relegation back to Division Two; in his next season he got them to the play-offs. Automatic promotion to the Premiership came 12 months on, followed by not un­expected relegation and automatic promotion again last season. That’s an impressive record over the past four years, plus he’s young and he’s English. So how can there possibly be any doubt over his future?

Megson fans – there are a lot of them, chanting his name at most Albion games – firmly believe that he should have a contract for life to go with the freedom of West Bromwich that he has already been awarded. Only Vic Buckingham has had a longer tenure as Albion manager and that was 50 years ago; 11 of Megson’s predecessors tried and failed to get the Baggies back to the big time, which he has done not once but twice.

A growing minority, though, demand more than just results. When you’re losing every week you’ll give anything for a few scrappy 1-0 victories; when you get used to winning 1-0, which Megson’s style and tactics achieved with relative ease in the lower division, some people want to be entertained as well, especially those who remember Ron Atkinson’s stylish Seventies side or further back to the days of Jeff Astle and Ronnie Allen. Not only that, it was proved two seasons ago that a defensive style won’t succeed against the pacy for­wards of the Premiership.

These critics may have had a point last year, but now Albion are playing 4-4-2 instead of 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 and are much more entertaining as a result. The biggest criticism of Megson is his man-management and these frequent “personality clashes”. Occasional tiffs with players are part and parcel of the manager’s role, but Megson has managed to fall out with the last three chairmen he’s worked under. This unfortunate trait started at Stockport and continued at Albion when Paul Thompson, who revolutionised the club’s off-the-field activities to provide the platform for success, thought the manager was getting too big for his boots. In stepped Jeremy Peace, whom Thompson had invited on to the board and who thought it essential to retain the manager’s services; Peace ousted Thompson and bought the club. It’s not often a manager prevails over a club chairman; how jealous they must be four miles away at Villa Park. But now he’s had to deal with the manager directly, Peace perhaps has a little more sympathy with the difficulties Thompson faced.

Megson wouldn’t claim to be in the same league as the late great Brian Clough but they do have some things in common, including their egos. Clough actually signed Megson for Forest but didn’t play him at all; Megson was apparently intimidated by the great man and, according to his then team-mate Frank Clark, used to hide from him. On the day he left Forest, Meg­son reputedly plucked up enough courage to give Clough a real mouthful, upon which Clough retorted that if he had spoken to him like that earlier he would have been in the side and wouldn’t be leaving. I doubt that Megson has been frightened of anyone since.

As well as being a master motivator like Clough, Megson is an excellent media manipulator. He invariably comes over well in interviews and has cultivated journalists and broadcasters who seem well disposed to him. There are also a surprising number of leaks from within the club showing the manager in a fav­ourable light and emphasising how difficult his pos­ition is. It’s not known who is responsible, of course, but it seems unlikely that the chairman would want it known, for example, that Megson’s contract runs out in June and negotiations have not yet begun.

Megson has reportedly been given a couple of war­nings as to his conduct and now spends all his time on the training ground so that he doesn’t go into The Hawthorns and see Peace except for their regular, pre-arranged meetings. Despite the chairman’s statements to the contrary, it seems that relations between the two men are irretrievable. Peace knows, though, that he risks the wrath of fans if he sacks the most successful manager in Albion’s recent history and Megson must realise that he may gain a reputation that will scare off other prospective employers, so the two may be stuck with each other for a little while longer.

From WSC 213 November 2004. What was happening this month