If one had been required to define a “nightmare” season for West Bromwich Albion before a ball was kicked last August, there’s a decent chance that it would have included practically falling off the bottom of the Premier League whilst fierce local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers streaking away clear at the top of the division below. Under normal circumstances, this might have been considered “circle of life” by Albion supporters, who have seen the fortunes of both their club and their closest rivals wax and wane over the decades.
But these are not normal circumstances, at least not for West Bromwich Albion. This club has, in recent years, become a byword for the comfortable, lower mid-table anonymity coupled with sound financial prudence. Everything now feels quite different, though, and beginning, middling and ending the blame for what is going wrong at the door of any one individual feels like a facile and glib response to what looks like systemic failure. It’s a failure that may become all too real in the event that it has to take a huge financial hit with relegation from the Premier League at the end of this season.
The decision to both hire and fire manager Alan Pardew at the times that these events occurred both managed to be completely sensible and completely non-sensical at the same time. Upon his appointment at the end of November, the Albion chairman proclaimed that,”We were impressed with what he had to say and what he has to offer and we are looking forward to an exciting new era under his charge.” Pardew was at that time both experienced and available, even though there is something perplexing about the fact that this particular tepidly mediocre Premier League manager should have been appointed by so many different clubs over a such a long period of time.
Pardew first became recognised on account of his success at Reading, where he took the club up from the third tier to the second. This period, however, ended acrimoniously in the autumn of 2003 with him resigning to take the West Ham United job before being put on gardening leave by his (former) employers until a compromise was reached to take him to Upton Park. He got West Ham promoted back to the Premier League and to an FA Cup final, but left in December 2006, after having overseen the worst run of form that the club had seen for more than seventy years.
Since then, though, the record has been no less patchy. He was unable to keep Charlton Athletic in the Premier League or build a team to get them back there. At Southampton, he took a club that was just starting to recover from existence-threatening insolvency to Wembley for a Football League Trophy but then fell out with chairman Nicola Cortese and was fired. He was voted Premier League Manager of the Season at Newcastle United, but it’s arguable that it was the team that Pardew left behind – he departed for Crystal Palace in December 2014 – that was relegated with barely a whisper at the end of the 2014/15 season. Back at Crystal Palace for the first time since he played there, he managed to get the club to an FA Cup final but the roller-coaster in form at Selhurst Park led to his dismissal from that club at the end of 2016.
So yes, there’s the experience, but it might also be considered that Albion’s decision to appoint him at the end of last year highlights a problem within English football that isn’t just limited to this particular club – a complete lack of imagination when it comes to appointing new managers. The same old merry-go-round with the same old faces keeps spinning, a coterie of British managers from the same generation who are repeatedly brought in under the assumption that their experience will see them right. In most cases, there is a grudging sense that a manager’s place on the merry-go-round has some merit to it. Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis have proven track records of keeping clubs above the trapdoor, even if their football might be as appealing as gargling nails. Roy Hodgson might remain a figure of fun for many, but his breadth of experience is broader than any other manager in English football. With Pardew, however, the case for his continual reappointment is considerably more difficult to make.
There is, put simply, no case to make that his time at The Hawthorns has been anything like a success in any way whatsoever. Upon his arrival there at the end of last year, Albion were sitting just above the relegation places in the Premier League. Pardew was the manager of West Bromwich Albion for twenty-one matches in all competitions, of which he won just three matches, and two of those were in the FA Cup. And one of those was against Exeter City, of League Two. Sure enough, his win at Anfield against Liverpool in the next round of the competition provides the flickering flame of a high point for his wretched four months in charge, but a home defeat in the next round against Southampton, another club seemingly in the midst of some form of existential crisis this season, rendered much of the sense of achievement at that result largely null and void.
In front of the media he seemed to say all of the right things to supporters who had become bored to inertia by the attritional nature of the Tony Pulis years, but it soon became apparent that behind the scenes everything was starting to fall apart. Humiliations of players in front of the rest of the squad are ethically dubious at the best of times, but Pardew couldn’t even deliver on them having the effect that he presumably believed they would. Away from the pitch, the club’s now-infamous trip to Barcelona, which resulted in four players narrowly avoiding a court case over the alleged theft of a taxi, sent exactly the wrong signals across the whole of the Premier League at the worst possible moment. With lavish attention being paid to the club’s extra-curricular activities, one might have been forgiven for wondering whether the staff of the club had already given up on this season.
And then came the run. Eight consecutive Premier League defeats. It’s possible to make a case, in some situations, that club shouldn’t sack a manager after a burst of poor form. It’s expensive, it’s not guaranteed to bring about an improvement in form, and it can make those running the club look as though they’re little more than trigger-happy or panicking. This doesn’t seem to be the case this around, though. Only two of the eight clubs that West Bromwich Albion have lost to since the end of January have been from the Premier League’s top six, and none of the last five have been. Only one of these defeats – a four-one home loss against Leicester City on the tenth of March – looks authentically bad when taken in isolation, but these eight clubs between them provide a decent enough spread across the entirety of the Premier League, with the truth being that West Bromwich Albion couldn’t find a way to take single point from any of them.
Three of the club’s remaining six fixtures come against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, so with the best will in the world it’s difficult to see where salvation is going to come from at this point, when we consider that the team that Pardew built is already ten points adrift from safety. But is it reasonable to lay all of the blame over an absolute car crash of a second half of the season at the door of one individual? The players certainly seem to have questions to answer. True enough, it seems that there were times when discord in the dressing room was heaped upon them by the manager, but on the money that they earn they should still be expected to a reasonable job once kick-off time comes on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. This. however, doesn’t appear to have been the case and, whilst the buck for what happened in Barcelona ultimately rested with Pardew, the players should probably look within themselves as well, to a point.
Ultimately, though, the costs of relegation will have to be borne by the owners of the club, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the rot within West Bromwich Albion at present starts from the top down. It’s barely been a week since the club’s CEO Mark Jenkins admitted that the club had “no more money for wages” and that “I’ll be honest I’ve come back and I’m shocked at what I have found in some of the decisions that have been made.” Rumours had been circulating that the club was short of money during the January transfer window, but few would have predicted that the CEO would have come out with such a stark message.
Jenkins had been the CEO under previous chairman Jeremy Peace, and his comment that “It’s been painful looking in and seeing the club I and many, many other people had built up to be an established Premier League club… it has all unravelled in the twelve months or more since I’ve been away” seems to indicate that Albion’s days as one the poster boy clubs for financial stability may be coming to an end, and with accounts filed for the financial year to June 2017 showing a jump in pre-tax profits to £39.7m from £1m the year before, it’s obviously tempting to ask the question of where the purported Premier League riches are going at the moment. With several high profile players almost certain to leave through relegation release clauses during the summer, the club’s new permanent manager is likely to have to perform a rebuilding exercise on something approaching a shoestring budget.
Until the end of the season, the West Bromwich Albion players will have to answer to Darren Moore, who has been installed as the club’s caretaker-manager until the end of the season. Moore spent five years at the club as a player between 2001 and 2006, and with avoiding relegation already seeming to be little more than a mathematical impossibility, at least he has the opportunity to lay his case to be given the job on a permanent basis. Meanwhile, the club has an opportunity to make a decision over which it can take a little more time than last time, when only nine days elapsed between the dismissal of Tony Pulis and the arrival of Alan Pardew. This will be an important appointment, too, as those former Premier League clubs currently clogging up the bottom half of the Championship clubs will likely readily attest. It is not one that the club can afford to get wrong, this time around.
Ultimately, though, for all of his shortcomings and for all of the time that he seemed to take leave of his senses over the last four months, to place the blame for West Bromwich Albion’s current woes solely on the shoulders of Alan Pardew seems a little blinkered. The previous manager, Tony Pulis, deserves a mention for setting up the squad that Pardew took over halfway through the season. The players may have been sinned against at points, but few will look back upon this season as a high point in their personal growth. And the owners and senior management of the club were responsible for both appointments and for overseeing everything that has happened since. Alan Pardew’s reported £500,000 pay off to leave “by mutual consent” will sting the club’s balance sheet a little. The relegation for which he seems to have set the club up, however, are likely to have considerably longer-lasting effects on its financial well-being.