After a fairly momentous day at the Hawthorns on Wednesday, which saw the end of Valérien Ismaël’s tenure at the club and significant changes in the boardroom, Baggies fans had to wait until Thursday evening for the appointment of new manager, Steve Bruce, on an eighteen month deal. He becomes the first man to lead Albion, Blues and Villa since Ron Saunders.
While it is not an exciting option, it is an entirely sensible one given the current state of the club. Bruce, who turned 61 on New Year’s Eve, has a wealth of experience with 1,000 games managed for ten clubs, excellent man-management skills and a track record of success in the second tier. He guided Birmingham City and Hull City to four promotions to the Premier League between them and also succeeded in getting Aston Villa to the play-off final in 2018.
Furthermore, he will be a figure that the players will know and respect, with a number of the squad having played under him previously. Jake Livermore and Conor Townsend were at Hull City under his tenure, Sam Johnstone at Aston Villa, Adam Reach at Sheffield Wednesday and our newest recruit, Andy Carroll, was at Newcastle United during Bruce’s most recent job. While he may have to win over some sections of the fan base, he will have no issues in the dressing room in my opinion, and he will be able to hit the ground running.
Having said that, Steve Bruce would not have been top of my list of realistic options to replace Ismaël, that honour would have probably gone to Tony Mowbray. That may have not been possible even though his contract at Blackburn Rovers is up at the end of the season – Rovers may not have been willing to release him and I’m not sure that Mowbray is the sort of man to walk out on a club mid-season. The list of former players with limited coaching experience that always comes out from supporters are not appropriate when the club is in need of a man with experience, and I also thought that the calls for the return of Slaven Bilić were both unrealistic and unwise – most of the current squad have already played under him and, if we’re honest, became immune to his charms in the latter part of his tenure.
Uninspiring, perhaps, but Bruce is probably just the ticket at this stage. An eighteen month contract makes sense, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a break clause on both sides in the summer to assess progress. It is not the long term appointment that the club will need to make at some point in the next couple of years, but it is exactly the right choice to navigate the mini-crisis that has evolved in the last few weeks.
In some ways, the appointment of the man who appointed Bruce is the most important development of the week. Ron Gourlay has been working as a consultant to the club since the departure of Luke Dowling in the summer, and his appointment to the role of CEO brings some much-needed football nous to an inexperienced boardroom. With Lai also appointing himself as Chairman, it is the latest stage in his plan to re-integrate himself into the day-to-day workings of the club he has neglected for the last couple of years.
Gourlay’s initial statement was very encouraging, specifically calling out the disconnect between the club and its fan base that has developed in recent years and committing to regular open dialogue with supporters. That will start as early as Monday when he will attend a meeting of the Albion Assembly.
He has a wealth of football administration experience including spells in the boardrooms of both Manchester United and Chelsea, but he is not without his own baggage as supporters of Reading will no doubt attest. His short spell as CEO of the Royals was unsuccessful and he left the Madejski Stadium as a hated figure being blamed for their subsequent financial woes. The words in his statement on Wednesday are in stark contrast with the reputation he has with fans of the Berkshire club – perhaps he has learned from his experience in Reading and is determined not to make the same mistakes again, but it could be that the Royals’ Chinese owners used him as a fall guy for their own misguided decisions.
I’m prepared to take him as I find him, and judge him on results. At this point in time, anyone with a strong background in football administration is an improvement on what preceded him, and his first major decision, the appointment of Steve Bruce, is one that I can get behind. The truth of his words will be judged by his actions.
One other interesting point to note is that Bruce has been appointed as Manager, rather than Head Coach. Albion’s last “Manager” was the aforementioned Tony Mowbray with Roberto di Matteo becoming the club’s first “Head Coach” in the summer of 2009. While it may be semantics, it could signify that the club is no longer looking for a Sporting and Technical Director, a role that has been vacant since the departure of Luke Dowling in the summer. However, Gourlay did say that he “intends to appoint directors with a wealth of football and business experience” so perhaps that role will be filled or new similar ones created.
For now, I hope that the supporters will get behind Steve Bruce irrespective of whether they were behind his appointment. Both Gourlay and Bruce have stated that they still feel that promotion is well within reach this season, but the backing of the fans will be all important if that is to happen.
Seventeen games still to play – Come On You Baggies!