Sam Allardyce will take his seat in the home dugout at the Hawthorns for the first time on Sunday knowing that the result of that first match could have a massive bearing on how he is viewed by the Albion fan base.
The Albion-Villa game is massive even when there is nothing else significant to play for, but with the Baggies in the bottom three and a new man in the dugout, it is even bigger than normal. Should Allardyce manage to start his tenure with a victory, it will go a long way to winning over a fan base that is reeling from a turbulent week at the Hawthorns.
I’ve made my feelings on the dismissal of Slaven Bilić clear in my opinion piece earlier this week, but given that decision was made, it is difficult to argue that Allardyce is probably the best appointment that the club could have made, providing you can overlook the question marks over his character and, for some, his boyhood support of Albion’s other local rivals.
As I said in my other piece of a busy week, I can’t see myself singing Big Sam’s name but I will support the team as I always have done and hope for Premier League survival, the only outcome that will justify the decisions taken by the club hierarchy this week.
With the furore surrounding the change of head coach this week, it is easy to forget what was probably Albion’s best performance of the season at the Etihad on Tuesday evening, and it will be interesting to see whether Allardyce can overcome the inevitable negative impact of the departure of a popular boss and build on that positive display.
Albion played with a back four for the first time since the defeat at Fulham, and I expect Big Sam to do the same but it will be interesting to see who makes his first eleven. There has been plenty of discussion about his football philosophy, although I’m not sure how much of it is accurate or fair, but that first team selection will undoubtedly provide some initial insight.
I’m not going to second guess his approach and will judge him on what he does for Albion rather than what he is perceived to have done previously, but it will certainly be interesting to see.
As for the opponents, Dean Smith’s team will have had two fewer days preparation time since their match with Burnley on Thursday evening, a game they failed to win despite having most of the play and several good chances.
That was Villa’s first draw of the season and their sixth clean sheet in the league, only one short of the total they registered in the whole of the last campaign. They have impressed so far this season, most notably in the remarkable 7-2 victory over Liverpool, but they have looked vulnerable on occasion including the 3-0 home defeat by Leeds United and successive losses to Brighton and West Ham.
They look a much better side than they did last season but are still very reliant on their talisman, Jack Grealish, and I’m sure he will not be upset by the lack of fans at the Hawthorns on Sunday given the driving conviction he received this week. Ollie Watkins is the other man who has made a big difference to the Villains scoring six league goals including a hat trick against Liverpool.
Albion have a dreadful record in the Premier League in their final games before Christmas having not registered a victory since 2008 when a last minute goal from Roman Bednár earned them a 2-1 win over Manchester City. If Big Sam can bring that run to an end, Baggies fans will be able to celebrate Christmas with a little more optimism.