Twelve months ago, optimism was high at the Hawthorns. Albion sat on top of the Championship for Christmas after an incredibly impressive first half of the season for new head coach Slaven Bilić.
A 1-1 draw with Brentford on 21st December 2019 meant that the Baggies had a massive 50 points from the first 23 games of the season having lost just once. They were three points clear of Leeds United in second place, and seven points ahead of Fulham and Preston North End who were in third and fourth place respectively.
That seems a world away. That draw with the Bees was the first of a seven match winless run that would erase that lead on the chasing pack, although another great run of form in February meant that the Baggies were well-placed when a world pandemic suspended football two and a half months later.
With the dreadful start to this season resulting in the dismissal of the popular Croat, it is easy to forget that Albion did achieve their aims last season, albeit not as comfortably as we would have liked but, despite the fact that the Baggies are in a higher division, the overriding feeling is that they are in a worse position than they were a year ago.
If you look at pure statistics, it is easy to see why the club’s unpopular owners dispensed with the services of Slaven Bilić. In the last 12 months, Albion have picked up just 40 points from 37 games which, with 26 of those matches in the Championship, is undoubtedly a poor return. The Baggies have won just nine league games in that period, and just one in the last 18 since the win at Hillsborough on 1st July.
It is somewhat reminiscent of another Hawthorns sacking from seven years ago. Jeremy Peace was still at the helm when popular head coach, Steve Clarke, was sacked after a 1-0 defeat at Cardiff City on 14th December 2013. That result left the Baggies in 16th place in the Premier League having won just three of their opening sixteen games. That season had followed what remains Albion’s highest Premier League finish of 8th in 2012/13 but Peace pointed to the Clarke’s poor record over the whole of 2013. Since Boxing Day 2012, the Baggies had won just seven of their 35 league games picking up just 31 points, certainly relegation form.
In some ways, you can trace the Baggies’ decline back to that decision. Peace’s next two appointments were less than impressive – Albion somehow stayed up under Pepe Mel, although it is widely believed that his coaching staff and senior players were more influential than the likeable Spaniard himself, and Alan Irvine was underwhelming to say the least. The failure of two left field choices convinced Peace to turn to the tried-and-tested approach with the appointment of Tony Pulis.
The decision to appoint and retain Pulis was surely an effort to retain Premier League status at all cost and maximise the sale value of the club for Peace. It worked for him and the latest appointment of Allardyce seems like a copycat approach from Guochuan Lai. It was in July 2016, almost 18 months after the appointment of the Welshman that Peace sold the club to Lai. I’m surely Lai would prefer to sell as soon as possible, but Allardyce needs to be a success if he wants to realise anything close to his desired valuation.
Once again, the club is a plaything of an owner who is only considering a short term financial gain rather than the long term health of what is a community asset. My view that football club ownership rules need a complete overhaul is, perhaps, a topic for another day, but the fact that an owner can manipulate the fortunes of a football club for personal or corporate gain without regard to the long term implications is one of the key reasons why legislation is needed to protect these great institutions. There are clubs that have been disadvantaged by unscrupulous owners much more than Albion, but both Peace and Lai have made short term decisions in order to maximise the value of the club ahead of a potential sale to the detriment of the club itself.
And so what next for Albion. While there may be the temptation to hope Big Sam is not a success so Lai gets his comeuppance, that will only prolong his ownership of the club. Staying in the Premier League will maximise the value of the club and, therefore, make the chances of him selling soon much more likely. There have been suggestions in recent days that a deal has already been done and that Allardyce’s appointment was a condition, but whatever the truth, I feel that the club’s future prospects can only be improved by a change of ownership. Of course, there is the risk that any subsequent owner is worse, but the status quo is surely not sustainable.
The record books state that no club has stayed up with less than eight points from the opening fourteen games of a Premier League season, but then no one had stayed up having been bottom at Christmas before Albion changed that in 2005. Whatever you may think of Allardyce the man, if anyone can keep the Baggies up, he can.
2020 has been an extraordinary year. The history books will record that the Baggies achieved promotion but it’s difficult to see that the club has moved forward. If 2021 sees another great escape, perhaps things may look better under new owners by next Christmas.