As we move into a new decade, it is only natural to look back at the last ten years and what has been achieved. Looking back at where Albion were exactly ten years ago, there is a remarkable symmetry – second place in the Championship well placed for a return to the Premier League.
So, does that mean that the last ten years have been wasted? Despite all the progression that the club made in the first half of the 2010s, is it in a better position now than it was ten years ago?
In terms of league position, ostensibly no, although after the 3-1 win at Scunthorpe United on 28th December 2009, Roberto di Matteo’s Baggies were six points behind leaders, Newcastle United, and only two points clear of third-placed Nottingham Forest. This season, despite recent form, Slaven Bilić’s team are in a stronger position given they are second only on goal difference and nine points clear of third.
The “noughties” had seen Albion yo-yo between the top two divisions as Jeremy Peace sought to build the finances of the club to a situation were they could establish themselves as a Premier League side. In that first year of the new decade, Albion won promotion and, thanks to some astute appointments in the coaching and administration staff, and some very clever player recruitment, would go on to achieve that “established” status over the next few years.
However, as I covered in my Six Years of Decline piece in May 2018, a series of poor decisions saw that all fall apart and the club now finds itself back where it started this decade.
So what has changed over the last ten years?
Ownership, of course, has been the biggest change, although the impact of it has been somewhat limited. Jeremy Peace was a very astute finance man who didn’t have a vast fortune to invest and so ran the club within its means. Guochuan Lai does have a fortune, running into the billions, but appears unwilling or unable to invest. However, after correcting the disastrous appointment of John Williams, he does seem to have a decent team in place to at least run the football club on a financially prudent basis.
A key member of the team is, of course, Mark Jenkins who was re-appointed Chief Executive in February 2018 having originally been promoted to the role by Peace in 2010.
Ten years ago, Dan Ashworth was the club’s Sporting and Technical Director, a post now held by Luke Dowling. Ashworth was, perhaps, the key reason behind Albion’s success in those first few years of the decade and they are very large shoes for Dowling to fill. He does, however, seem to be the first one to look like coming close to doing that since Ashworth left in 2012, having overseen a successful transfer window last summer. The upcoming January window will put him firmly back in the spotlight.
As for the Head Coach, most will agree that Slaven Bilić is an upgrade on Roberto di Matteo, but that is probably a view that most will take thanks to hindsight. Di Matteo was a very promising up-and-coming coach when Peace appointed him, and he did a very good job in getting Albion promoted in 2010, but he couldn’t arrest an alarming run of results in the winter of 2010/11 and was sacked in February. Despite winning the Champions League with Chelsea, he has been unable to reproduce his early successes and has not worked since being sacked by Aston Villa in 2016.
Bilić is much more experienced and has certainly started well, although he is now enduring his first real challenging run of results and we all hope that he is able to turn those around and get the team firing once again.
But what of the squad? Given the parity of league position, the quality of the players is probably the best indicator of whether the club has progressed.
The team that started the last game of the noughties was as follows – Dean Kiely, Gianni Zuiverloon, Marek Čech, Gonzalo Jara, Abdoulaye Méïté, Jonas Olsson, Graham Dorrans, Chris Brunt, Simon Cox, Luke Moore and Jerome Thomas; Youssouf Mulumbu, Shelton Martis and Chris Wood all came off the bench. Scott Carson was the Baggies’ regular ‘keeper that season, while Steven Reid, James Morrison, Robert Koren, Roman Bednár, Gabriel Tamaș, Ishmael Miller, Filipe Teixeira and Joe Mattock all made ten or more appearances that season. Meanwhile, youngsters George Thorne, Romaine Sawyers and Saido Berahino were all on the fringes of the squad. Dorrans, Olsson, Mulumbu, Morrison, Brunt, Berahino and, to a lesser extent, Steven Reid would become mainstays in Albion’s Premier League team in the 2010s.
Obviously, it’s difficult to predict who, of the current squad, would be a regular in an Albion Premier League side should they win promotion, but Robson-Kanu, Gibbs, Hegazi, Phillips, Livermore and Austin all have significant Premier League experience, although four of those are 30 years old, and Pereira, Sawyers, Bartley and Ajayi have shown the potential this season that they could be good enough.
In reality, though, there would need to be significant investment in the playing staff in the event of promotion, as there was in 2010, but I feel that the current squad is possibly a little bit better, but not much.
So Albion may have a slightly better squad than ten years ago and a better head coach, but it would be difficult to say that the club is in a better state than it was at the end of 2009. The progress of the first three or four years of the decade was thrown away between 2015 and 2018 and only now are the club getting back on track.
However, does that make it a wasted decade? I would argue not. As football fans, we live for the memories of those special moments – the 3-0 win over Liverpool on the opening day of the 2012/13 season, the 5-5 draw with Manchester United and the 2-1 win at Old Trafford, Livermore’s injury time winner against Spurs and, of course, 5-1 at Molineux.
The club may not be any further forward than it was a decade ago, but the last ten years have seen some great highs as well as the inevitable lows. Also, the last six months of the decade have seen some real strides forward and maybe we could hope for another long stay in the Premier League during the twenties, although hopefully without having to resort to Pulisball!