An enforced three-week break between fixtures for the Baggies seems an ideal opportunity to pause and reflect, and I trust that the club hierarchy are doing exactly that and, moreover, planning for what could be a pivotal summer.
While relegation is not a mathematical certainty, it would take something incredible for Albion to survive and the first question to address is who the head coach will be as the club embarks on another attempt to get back into the top flight. Luke Dowling (pictured) will inevitably be a key part of that decision as the club’s Technical and Sporting Director, but in the shady environs of the West Bromwich Albion boardroom, it is difficult to know exactly who is making the decisions.
Regular readers of this site will know that I was against the dismissal of Slaven Bilić and felt that the appointment of Sam Allardyce would only be justified by staying in the Premier League. That now seems highly unlikely and the club now face a decision on whether to offer Big Sam the chance to bring the club back to the top flight and, lets not forget, Allardyce must also decide whether he wants to put himself through that.
While there is no doubt that there have been distinct improvements in the performance of the team since the end of January, Allardyce has been a disappointment overall. He failed to have any sort of positive impact on the players he inherited, with performances arguably getting worse rather than better, and it was only with the introduction of the new signings that there was any sort of improvement.
I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised – bringing in new players is Allardyce’s MO after all – but I would have expected some sort of reaction. It may be unfair to blame the new man, of course. Bilić was popular and his approach to football is very different to Big Sam’s. The players were always likely to take some time to adapt to his tactics and style, and you can argue that the players were simply not good enough, but just five points and twenty-eight goals conceded in his first ten games in charge was an unmitigated disaster.
Obviously, the biggest positive in his reign has been the loan signing of Okay Yokuşlu who, in my opinion, is by far the biggest reason for Albion’s improvement. There is an assumption that he was identified by Allardyce, but in reality we know very little as to how he was brought to the attention of the club and whether Big Sam was influential on his decision to sign. Ultimately, however, he is on loan and there seems very little chance of a permanent deal so, while he was undoubtedly a good signing, it is a short term solution. Come the summer, he, along with Mbaye Diagne, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Conor Gallagher will be gone and a massive part of Albion’s spine will need replacing.
Short term options are all very well when they solve the problem, but when they don’t work, you are likely to end up in a worse position, and that is exactly where the club will be in the summer. I, along with many Albion fans, would have accepted relegation this season with Bilić in the knowledge that it was part of a long term strategy. The appointment of Allardyce was a lurch in a completely different direction with a very short-term vision – it now looks foolish.
As to whether Allardyce should be retained for next season, in my opinion, it is a resounding ‘no’. It’s not that I have an issue with his style of football, nor indeed do I feel he is to blame for this season’s failure, it’s more that I don’t see him as part of a long term strategy that I would like Albion to adopt.
At 66, he is obviously one of the older managers but, when you look at Roy Hodgson at 73, his age does not rule him out as a longer term option on its own. I’m just not sure he has the appetite for another five year spell at a club, and that is what I think the club needs.
However, the most important reason why Allardyce is not the right option is that he is a divisive character. Be it his supposed long ball tactics, his association with Wolves or his unsavoury reputation, he will never be broadly welcomed at the Hawthorns and the club is once again in need of unity.
First, Darren Moore, and then, Slaven Bilić, were successful in bringing the club together even if their efforts ultimately ended in their dismissal. Albion now need a new man to unite the club.
Chris Wilder has emerged as a leading contender following his departure from Sheffield United. There is no doubt that he has strong credentials having brought the Blades from League One to a ninth place finish in the Premier League in just four seasons with several players having stayed at the club throughout. That followed successful spells with Oxford United and Northampton Town. It has obviously not gone well at Bramall Lane this season with two of United’s three big money signings, Rhian Brewster and Oliver Burke, failing to deliver. Baggies fans could have warned him about Burke and, with no Technical Director in place at the Blades, Wilder will have been the key decision maker for transfers and therein lies my biggest concern.
For me, it is less about his transfer record, as even the best-rated in the market have their mistakes, it is more the fact that one of the main reasons cited for his departure from Bramall Lane is that the club wanted to appoint a Director of Football, something Wilder was unwilling to accept. So if he was not prepared to work in that structure at his boyhood club where he is still loved by the fans despite this season’s disaster, why would he be willing to do it at Albion or any other club?
The “usual suspects” of ex-players have been rolled out once again. Derek McInnes has been linked with Albion on numerous occasions but perhaps the chances are a little improved given his recent departure from Aberdeen. His record at Pittodrie is good with the Dons having not finished outside the top four during his tenure winning the League Cup in 2014, finishing runners up to Celtic for four successive seasons and qualifying for the Europa League every season. It has obviously gone wrong this season but that sort of breakdown eventually happens with every manager at every clu,b with a few obvious exceptions, and to sustain a level of success over eight years is something of an achievement. In my opinion, Aberdeen were undoubtedly the best of the rest during the period when Celtic were in a class of their own in terms of financial muscle and McInnes much take a good deal of credit for that.
Baggies fans who remember the side he played in will always hold McInnes in high regard, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the right man for the club. However, I think his record stands up against most other likely contenders and I wouldn’t be against his appointment.
Michael Appleton is another former player who would seem to be a popular choice with supporters. His promising playing career was tragically cut short following botched surgery to treat a knee injury sustained in a challenge with Des Lyttle in training in 2001. A fit Appleton would probably have been challenging McInnes for the captain’s armband in that promotion season. He started his coaching career at the Hawthorns and has impressed many since despite spells with Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers that each lasted less than 70 days. Prior to that, he was the boss at Portsmouth when they went into administration and it wasn’t until he took the job at Oxford United in 2014 that he got a decent spell in charge. He took advantage winning promotion to League One in his second season and reaching the final of the EFL Trophy twice. After a spell as assistant to Craig Shakespeare at Leicester City, he returned to the Hawthorns as an assistant to Jimmy Shan during his spell as caretaker boss in 2019. He is currently enjoying a successful spell at Lincoln City and would also be a good appointment in my opinion.
Fans are often attracted to former players and, while I think that any candidates should always be assessed on their coaching ability primarily, a connection with or knowledge of the club can be an advantage particularly when there is a need for a uniting figure as there is at West Bromwich Albion. Appleton will be well known to the current club hierarchy having worked at the Hawthorns recently, so may hold an advantage of the two, but he is employed on a long term contract at Sincil Bank, and the current ownership may not be keen on coughing up a fee to release him.
Of course, there will be other options on the list that Dowling will surely have started compiling given the potential for Allardyce to walk away even if the club wanted to keep him. Slaven Bilić was not on many people’s radar before his appointment in the summer of 2019. Eddie Howe is another out-of-work manager that has been suggested by many and, like McInnes and Wilder, he has a strong CV with one club which may or may not translate to another environment. Howe’s dalliance with Burnley was a failure and he quickly returned to Bournemouth, but he would surely be among the contenders should Albion be looking, although he has also been strongly linked with the vacant position at Celtic.
One approach might be to employ a more experienced boss with a view that the Albion legends on the coaching staff, James Morrison and Chris Brunt, would be able to take the reins in a few years, but that needs a long term strategy that I fear is not a priority for the current ownership.
And that is the biggest issue at the Hawthorns – it is difficult to see any real progress without a change in ownership. Since Lai took over, the head coach appointments have been largely unimaginative. Alan Pardew was a disaster, Darren Moore was initially a happy accident and then a populist decision, while Allardyce was straight out of the relegation strugglers’ playbook. The one post-Peace appointment that stands out is that of Bilić and I’d like to see another choice that gives me the same positive feeling.
Ultimately, however, it seems clear that the owners have a short term view to sell, but at a price that is unrealistic in the current market. Their gamble to stay in the top flight has surely failed, and it is anybody’s guess how they will react to that. There have been unconfirmed reports that the CEO “Ken” and Lai have had some disagreements, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some big changes in the boardroom. Then again, I would be equally unsurprised to see Lai’s apparent disinterest continue with nothing changing at the top of the club.
Going back to the question posed by the title of this piece, “what next for West Bromwich Albion?” What I hope for and what I expect are very different. I feel we need a new head coach with the drive and long term vision to take the club forward. Unfortunately, I think we have an owner with a short term outlook with little thought as to the long term impact of his decisions. I have a feeling that Allardyce will be asked to continue.