2022 has been a difficult year for fans of West Bromwich Albion as they have watched the team slump to their worst league position this century, before concerns about the financial health of the club have started to overshadow the great strides made on the pitch in the final few weeks of the year
On the final day of 2021, West Bromwich Albion sat fourth in the Championship, eight points behind leaders Bournemouth under the stewardship of Valérien Ismaël. A positive early start under the Frenchman had faltered badly as the year came to an end and the Baggies won just seven points from their last seven games of 2021 culminating in a 1-0 defeat at Derby County. Just one win in the first six games of 2022 led to Ismaël’s sacking and the appointment of Steve Bruce.
In the week leading up to Bruce’s appointment, controlling shareholder Guochuan Lai installed himself as club chairman and appointed Ron Gourlay as CEO in an apparent effort to wipe the slate clean after the failed appointment of Ismaël. It was Gourlay who appointed Bruce, with no apparent process to consider other candidates, in what I thought was a sensible move. It transpires, however, that I was badly mistaken and that Steve Bruce is very much yesterday’s manager. He failed to get any sort of new manager bounce as Albion secured just one point from his first five games in charge and slumped to mid-table having been 5th when he took over. Victories over promotion favourites Bournemouth and Fulham looked to show what the players were capable of, but each time the next performance was well below par and the Baggies stumbled to a 10th place finish, the club’s worst since 2000.
Calls for Bruce to be sacked were ignored and I’ll admit that I saw the sense in keeping him in place to kick off a squad rebuild. While the quality of the players he brought in during the summer window do vindicate that view to a degree, the club’s joint worst ever start to a second tier season, as it was after 12 games, suggests that Bruce should have been removed much earlier than he was.
The appointment of Carlos Corberán in October has brought about a staggering transformation of the club’s on-field fortunes and while the club’s league position is lower that it was 12 months ago, the feeling around the footballing side of the club is much more positive. Promotion may have been an expectation last season, but it is a real possibility this season if the team can continue their current form.
Unfortunately, developments off the field have left Albion fans fearing for the future of their club should that promotion not be achieved.
While Corberán has managed to turn around the footballing side of the club in two months, Lai’s stewardship of the club has seen it transformed from once of the best run clubs in the country completely free of debt to one that has apparently been required to take out a £20m loan to assist with running costs.
It is difficult to fully understand the reasons behind the club’s financial woes but there are some obvious mistakes to highlight in recent years. My opinion pieces Six Years of Decline in 2018 and Albion’s Wasted Decade in 2019 go into more detail on some of the background, but under Lai, it started a year after he bought the club. The failure to get rid of Tony Pulis in the summer of 2017 after the club picked up just five points from the last twelve games was compounded by the baffling decision to pay Grzegorz Krychowiak in excess of £100,000 a week and the equally baffling choice of Alan Pardew as Pulis’s replacement. More financial mismanagement followed as sicknote, Daniel Sturridge, was also signed on massive wages and then, when Lai saw the light and removed the club’s profligate chairman and CEO, the man he brought it, Mark “safe hands” Jenkins, dallied far too long before dismissing Pardew leaving Darren Moore with an impossible task that he almost achieved.
There is an argument that Luke Dowling should have given Darren Moore a little more time, but his bigger mistakes came with the signings of Ken Zohore and Karlan Grant. Supporters of Dowling and head coach at the time, Slaven Bilić, will each blame the other for the decision, but Dowling controls the purse strings and he had the final sign off. Zohore has been an unmitigated disaster and will surely leave the club on a free transfer next summer when his deal comes to and end, but the Grant situation is something different. He was signed to be a striker in the Premier League and, while he can score goals, he is clearly not a number nine – a fee in the region of £15m on a six-year contract is a massive commitment for a player with his background at the time, particularly in the midst of a COVID pandemic that was already having a massive financial impact on football as a whole.
The pandemic is, of course, the one contributory factor that we can’t blame Lai or any of his appointees for. Promotion in 2020 certainly mitigated the impact in comparison with most other now Championship clubs, but it would definitely have had hurt the club’s coffers. However, decisions since then have been made in full knowledge of that impact, and yet the club finds itself still needing a financial backstop.
The failure of Lai to repay a loan he took from the club to support another part of his business empire during the pandemic only exacerbates the feeling that the club’s financial security is not as stable as we would like. The club did finally issue a statement this afternoon to say that it will be repaid early in the new year, but with two deadlines now missed, observers are right to be sceptical.
The lack of transparency from the club, particularly around the need for the £20m loan, only strengthens the concerns held by the minority shareholders and the club’s fan base as a whole. Does this mean that, without the loan, the club cannot afford to meet its current commitments, or that it wouldn’t should the club fail to win promotion and lose parachute payments? Accounts for the 2021/22 financial year have still not been published leading to fears that there are more financial surprises yet to be revealed.
Loans of this nature are hardly unusual in football, but Albion have been a well run club for more than two decades and I think the only loan they have taken out in that time was to finance the building of the East Stand. That the assets of the club such as the stadium and training ground are being used as collateral for the loan means that the very existence of the club is being put at risk. We’ve all watched the likes of Leeds United, Portsmouth, Derby County and Coventry City amongst others suffer from the effects of financial mismanagement, until now in the smug knowledge that it couldn’t happen at our club. Such smugness is now gone.
I’ve long advocated a change to the regulation of football clubs to recognise their importance to their communities, and that the financial methods open to normal limited companies should not necessarily apply. Lai has done nothing illegal, and could asset strip the club entirely lawfully, and that is the underlying issue – proper regulation would stop unscrupulous owners. The Government is at long last taking some action and a White Paper following the “Fan-led Review” is imminent according the Culture Minister’s statement earlier this month – let’s hope that it is not too late for our club as it is for some others.
It’s important to say that we do not know that Lai is “unscrupulous”, and we also know that he isn’t actually the owner but the “controlling shareholder”, but we do not actually know what he is trying to do and that silence, coupled with these loan issues, makes everyone nervous.
A best case scenario would see Albion promoted this season, the loan repaid and a buyer found for the club, although there are obviously no guarantees that a new owner would necessarily be a good owner. The worst case scenario doesn’t bear thinking about.
So, we move into a new year with hopes on the field, and fears off it. With Corberán at the helm, there seems to be a real chance that the hopes will overcome the fears, but I would urge all Albion fans to support peaceful protests, such as those organised by Action4Albion. What impact they will have is difficult to assess with the intended target half way across the world, but they at least show that we care and we will not stand by as our club is brought to financial ruin.
There are real fears for the future of our club, but there are real hopes as well. My regular readers will know I am an optimist, so I’m hoping for a great 2023 for West Bromwich Albion Football Club!
Can I end by wishing all my readers a very Happy New Year!