Preparations for life in the Championship already seem to be underway at The Hawthorns but a Cup run could salvage some fun from their season
16 February ~ FA Cup fifth round weekend is upon us, but the current hot topics at West Bromwich Albion are a distant owner sacking the chairman and chief executive, and a league run of one win in 25 league fixtures. Saturday’s meeting with Southampton seems to have been almost forgotten.
The timing of Guochuan Lai’s decision to dismiss John Williams and Martin Goodman seems to have mystified most observers more than the action itself, but the explanation might be fairly simple. If there were some Albion fans who retained hope of Premier League survival ahead of Monday’s 3-0 defeat at Chelsea, there were very few by the end of the evening. Lai may well have joined supporters in accepting that the club are going down, and decided that planning for the Championship might as well start now.
This has been a strange season at The Hawthorns. Chris Brunt, an Albion player since 2007, is on record as saying that the current squad is the best he has been a part of. Summer signings Ahmed Hegazi, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Jay Rodriguez and Gareth Barry certainly felt like improvements, though only Hegazi has been consistently impressive. As for performances, the only truly abject defeat has been the 4-0 reverse at home to Chelsea, but even that could partly be explained by the fact that Tony Pulis was clearly about to be sacked.
Yet, since the first two games of the season were won, only the FA Cup games have provided hints of optimism. The third round win at Exeter, Alan Pardew’s first in charge, was quickly followed up by the only other league victory of the campaign, 2-0 against Brighton. The allegations, and subsequent charge, against Rodriguez, of racially abusing visiting defender Gaetan Bong, meant little pleasure could be taken in that result. In the fourth round, Albion played their best football of the season to beat Liverpool 3-2 at Anfield. Three more league defeats, and the dismissals of Williams and Goodman, have followed.
In this context, Saturday’s game becomes all the more important. Some Albion fans have become bored with the Premier League, and were certainly not prepared to accept the football played under Pulis as the price of staying in it. As such, Pardew will not be widely vilified if (when) relegation happens. He will, however, be expected to do all he can to sustain the Cup run, and that will mean rectifying selection errors made for the recent league match, lost 3-2, against Saturday’s opponents. Picking Barry and Claudio Yacob as a central midfield pair against a trio of much more mobile Saints players was one mistake. Resting Rodriguez in favour of newcomer Daniel Sturridge (now injured) in attack was another.
In recent seasons, Albion have been as good an example as any of a club who achieve Premier League safety while (mostly) making little or no impression in cup competitions. This year, it would be nice to wonder if we might emulate Birmingham and Wigan – the most recent teams to be relegated and win a major cup in the same season – for at least a few more weeks. James Baxter