Monday, 7 April 2014

Pepe Mel Back Him or Sack Him

 For the last month or so there has been a bit of speculation surrounding  Pepe Mel's future as Head Coach  at West Bromwich Albion. Obviously pressure mounts when a team is struggling at the wrong end of the table and the future of a Coach is on the line if he fails to achieve the sole objective of staying in the league. However even after a couple of wins and a series of creditable draws which have gone a long way to securing the club's Premier League status uncertainty seems to surround his future. 

The latest round of speculation was sparked by Mel's own comment about being uncertain as to whether or not he will be here next year. There have been reports of behind the scenes strife and a players rebellion. Dave McDonough Albion's Head of Recruitment was dismissed (sorry left the club by mutual agreement) and he was instrumental in Mel's appointment. McDonough is now seen as the villain behind much of what has gone wrong at the club this year, whether this clouds the Albion's hierarchy view of the Mel appointment I don't know, but at no point has the club moved to stem the tide of speculation  particularly ahead of the Swansea game. I do not have any particular insight as to the inner workings at the Hawthorns but the mood music is not great.

Despite the background of near constant crisis Mel has remained positive, engaging and has struck a cord with the fans in a way that no Albion coach has since Tony Mowbray. It is plain that he has a philosophy of attacking football played to feet, which is something that the Albion supporters are looking for after a series of progressively more "pragmatic" coaches has reduced the team to a counter attacking long ball operation grinding out enough results to stay in the league. 

The board has a stark choice either back Mel or sack him. Backing him entails giving him license to break up a squad of players who have grown complacent and bring in players that fit his tactical blueprint. It will cost money in fees and wages but the books can be balanced with a little bit of player trading. If they do not want to go down this route or are only half hearted about it then sacking Mel is the only sensible alternative. Install a Clarke mark II coach who will revert to the tactics of the slow retreat, take no risks and be rewarded with a glorious 14th place finish in the Premier League until one season things go a little awry and hello Championship. 

There are consequences of sacking Mel that the club need to consider. Firstly it sends a terrible message to an under performing dressing room. Secondly it runs the risk of further alienating the clubs fan base which has taken to Mel. Neither of which will make a successors task any easier nor indeed make the club a more appealing prospect to potential Head Coaches. 

I firmly believe backing Mel is the only sensible alternative. Yes it is a risk but one that the club has to take for it's long term health. We have a choice of dying on our feet or dying on our knees the outcome might be the same but the former has some pride to it whereas the other carries a burden of shame and a lingering sense of what might have been.       

Thursday, 13 February 2014

All Aboard the Peace Out Bandwagon

Nice banner shame about the owners
The ideal football club owner, is a benign billionaire who works entirely for the benefit of the club for no monetary gain. They cherish the traditions of the club, appoint only the best of managers have the wisdom of Solomon i.e. know when to persevere with an under achieving coach and when to fire him. They give "football people" free reign to run the club even if their decisions seem contrary and cost many millions of pounds. They listen to the fans and respond to the clamor for a player or a scapegoat for failure with just that.

They  build magnificent stadiums and discount tickets to the point where every seat is full and then build an even greater palace of football.  They only associate the club the most wholesome of sponsors (no tacky Money Lenders or On-Line Gaming companies need apply). At the end of his tenure which is laden with trophies he hands over the club to another equally benign billionaire.

Meanwhile in the real world. Owners are motivated by profit,ego, politics, occasionally love of the club but even those increasingly rare birds the "fan" chairman probably is not entirely there out of love. Personally I trust those who are there for the money. Their motives are easily understood and generally if they trying to make money from the venture they are not going to kill the club. Obviously if someone is wealthy enough to buy a club in the first place they are probably have just a bit of an ego, although there is a difference between a healthy self belief and rampant megalomania.

The Americans owners are here because they think they can make money. Those that own Arsenal and Man United have, everybody else is nursing some pretty heavy losses. The notion that sports clubs can be profitable is pretty well established in the USA most NFL teams make their owners money. With the vast quantities of money from TV ,sponsors and other commercial ventures it should be possible to make money from running a Premier League football club. The only fly in the ointment is the prospect of relegation and an absence of any of the balancing mechanisms that make the NFL a competition and the Premier League a series of mini competitions depending on the clubs bankroll.

Here is the rub because three clubs are always evicted from the rich man's club to the poor house of the Championship often with debts and overheads that cannot be sustained on the meager rations doled out through the parachute payments and much reduced income from other sources. To stay in the League most teams have to spend pretty much every penny they earn on wages and fees, which get bid up constantly and unless a steady stream of new recruits are arriving at a club fans lambaste the board for lacking ambition and coaches grumble about being down to the bare bones etc.

However ultimately three teams will be relegated and then it is a question of what can be recovered from the financial wreckage. History is not kind to those that have over extended during their time in the Premier League saddled with debt's that no honest man could pay many limp on for decades in the twilight world of the championship selling their best players to make ends meet, never quite having the squad to regain entry to the Premier League. It does not have to stop in the Championship, Leeds, Southampton,Norwich City, Wolves Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United ,Portsmouth Bradford City Swindon Town Nottingham Forrest and Charlton have all experienced Premier League football and the delights of the third tier or lower. Only two have ever made it back to the hallowed halls of the Premier League.

All this brings me to the the somewhat awkward position that West Bromwich Albion find themselves in and the  uncomfortable relationship between the fans and the club's owner. There is a body of opinion within the fan base that unless an owner is behaving in the manner described in the opening paragraphs of this post will grumble about the owner being tight fisted and not investing enough in the team. When things are going badly  they are joined by more reasonable fans who think that but for a little bit wisdom on the part of the ownership a couple of better players all would be well at the Hawthorns. I have no time for former but understand the latter. It is easy to be a Monday morning Quarterback and while some of the club's decisions can easily be questioned many were not entirely unreasonable at the time, obviously if you regard the club's ownership as the devil incarnate then you would never give them any benefit of the doubt or credit where it is due.

All that said I think Peace's tenure has run it's course. There was a weariness in his summer interviews, it was if his skirmishes with the the FA & Premier League over youth development and FFP had finally convinced him that he was engaged in an uneven battle that he could not win. Ultimately Peace would probably like to sell up, but he will not sell for less than he thinks the club is worth. If Fulham were sold for £200m then realistically Albion must be worth at least £100m and there are not many people who can buy an asset which lest we forget barely makes a profit for that kind of money.

Assuming a buyer can be found a new owner would still be faced with the fact that Albion have one of the lower incomes in the Premier League. Keeping the club in the league is a challenge. Whatever a new owner does it is unlikely even with a £90m additional investment over the course of say three years that we would be very much better than a mid-table team and the threat of relegation would not be removed, however the consequences of a relegation might be far worse than they are today.

Peace might not be perfect but there are owners who are far worse, they may be prepared to bankroll a club for a short while but they demand changes that fans find unpalatable and when they walk away they leave  problems that might take decades to sort out.

Ultimately I would much prefer the club to be owned by a supporters trust. Unfortunately unless an owner runs the club into the ground to point only the supporters want to own it is rare that the fans get a chance to take a club over. Equally I do not remember the 1990's when the club had it's broadest ownership with any great fondness. Too often the club was riven with factional infighting and at some points it seemed we had more EGM's than home fixtures. The weakness of fan ownership as is often demonstrated in Spain where
too often club's get run in a manner that resembles a dysfunctional town hall because there is a constant need to respond to fan pressure. Those that shout loudest get the most attention in politics and unless the club's officers have some reasonable length of tenure democracy can kill a club almost as quickly as naked greed.

Many fans criticise  Peace but the plain fact is when he does sell up and move on the club will be in a better place than when he took it over. There are not many owners who could make that claim and I do fear the new boss will be the same as the old boss or something much worse, although there is always the possibility of the benign Billionaire rocking up at B71.

Monday, 3 February 2014

We're Independent Are You?

When I write about football I tend to write through the prism of a hardcore Baggies fan who has experienced his fair share of ups and downs. I am biased but I hope it does not make me blind to the faults of my club or the failings the players it employs. Anyway that is my excuse I am left wondering as to what Jon Culley's is for the match report in the Independent of the game between LIVERPOOL & West Bromwich Albion.

I understand that Liverpool the team with a wage bill 3 times it's opponents, a player whose transfer fee would have paid for the entire Albion match day squad with change is the story from a national newspapers perspective hungry for clicks and eyeballs from around the world. However it does not let the writer off writing something which does justice to both sides of the story.

Albion played their part in a keenly fought contest, Culley managed to name check two Albion players who were not playing but ignored the excellent Claudio Yacob who along with his team mates.matched their more heralded opponents for possession across the game. Did he mention that Sturridge's goal might have been offside  or that Gerrard might have been lucky not to be booked for a cynical foul ten minutes before he was rightly booked for a bad tackle on Yacob? No, perhaps that did not fit with the predetermined narrative.

While the game turned on Toure's dreadful error it was not solely down to Liverpool's ineptitude that the Albion rescued a point from an unpromising position of being one - nil down to a team lest we forget is chasing a Champion's League position. However reading the Independent on line one might get the impression that it was particularly when the match report is accompanied by another five hundred words on how the Liverpool manager forgave Toure for his howler. As an aside is it me or does Brendan Rodgers get more insufferable by the day?

Part of me shrugs and just pours scorn on the London based media rather pathetic attempts to report on the Albion. In fairness I am taking a shot at the Independent but I could have equally taken a shot at any of it's broadsheet competitors (apart from the Times I won't pay for the privilege of being patronised  or ignored in equal measure). However there is a serious point the absence of reasonable press coverage hinders the club in getting even a tiny fragment of the global marketing pie and it reinforces the notion that match officials are there to "protect" the star players from the big clubs and if they make a bad decision against us it is no big deal because it is only West Bromwich Albion.

I know I am biased but at least I have an excuse for that bias. I am not sure the "National Media" does.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Bienvenido Pepe Mel

The Baggies after an extensive search which saw the club linked with every football coach in the known universe have appointed Pepe Mel, most recently of Real Betis.

Like all new coaches he will enjoy a brief honeymoon period and then he will feel the white hot heat of unrealistic expectation. In this case he has roughly two weeks until the end of January when Albion go to Villa Park. His future does not hinge on one fixture but the outcome of the derby will either leave him basking in the warm glow of affection or facing an icy blast of doubt.

Fans are fickle and Pepe Mel has to hope that his new employers will give him time and backing to get a team that has rather lost its way of late back on track. Mel has a reputation for playing an open and attacking style of football, which many fans hope to see at the Hawthorns. That said the coach will have to navigate through the rest of a season with the current squad and if needs be compromise on style in the pursuit of the eighteen points required to secure Premier League survival.

Personally I think any coach needs a minimum of six months in the job and at least one pre season and summer transfer window before any sort of meaningful assessment can be made. He needs an opportunity to stamp his style on the team work out his best eleven and bring in players that best suit his footballing philosophy. The set up at West Brom does not give him the absolute final say in transfers but it is up to him as to what positions the club strengthens and what type of player they look to bring in.

If Mel gets past the first challenge of keeping the club in the division the summer offers him both an opportunity and a challenge. A third of the current squad is out of contract at the end of the season although the club does have options to extend for another year in a number of cases. In addition there are a number of players who although under contract might move on either in January or in the summer. By the start of next season the squad could look very different.

An influx of new players gives Mel a chance to shape a side which can deliver attacking free flowing football but equally it presents the challenge of integrating as many as 10 new players into a squad. That is a difficult balance to strike and will really test Mel's abilities as a coach and tactician. Others have failed this year notably AVB and Di-Cannio who were handed similar challenges to the one that will confront Mel.

The future is as ever uncertain whether the decision to fire Clarke and bring in Pepe Mel was correct only time will tell but the new Head Coach will be steering the club through a pivotal twelve months. I wish him well.  

Monday, 16 December 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls Part II

Steve Clarke in happier times.
My last post (here) concerned the almost rhythmical nature of being the Premier leagues "crisis club" and the fact that being manager of the crisis club was likely to be a job with very few long term prospects. At the time of writing it appeared to be Norwich's Chris Hughton who had the dubious privilege of being that man. I did point out that a couple of good results could place another manager in the line of fire and Martin Jol at Fulham being the obvious candidate. As things turned out Jol was indeed sacked shortly after losing to West Ham in what was deemed a must win game.
What I did not anticipate was the next managerial sacking would happen at the Hawthorns and in truth despite a poor run of form Steve Clarke was fired without ever really becoming the designated Manager under pressure at the crisis club. He was facing a must win game against Hull but the board decided that enough was enough following a pretty dire performance at Cardiff and showed Clarke the door.

In my earlier post I suggested that whoever was going to be next manager fired would not be last as the scrap to avoid relegation hotted up as the season progressed. I also suggested that not all of the sackings would be justified but in a situation when a club's owners are under pressure to do something and unable to go into the transfer market to freshen things up boards tend to axe the manager.

In Steve Clarke's case was the sacking justified ?  During his first season he got off to a blistering start which faded quite badly but none the less took the Baggies to their highest league finish in years by finishing 8th. Unfortunately for Clarke he rather lost his way and in spite of a few highlights this season has witnessed a sharp decline in his team's performance to the point he was operating below expectations.

The National Media and football pundits have been quick to condemn the club for being over hasty but largely on the back of form that is nearly a year old and without having much insight into the increasingly frosty relationship Clarke had with his employers. The better informed commentators have been slower to condemn the club or at least not been surprised by the dismissal

In his departing statement issued through the LMA Clarke suggested that expectations at the Hawthorns had  become unrealistically inflated in part because of his own performance the previous season. This might hold true for some fans but the board at the club is realistic almost to a fault. The bottom line is simple survival in the Premier League is the number one expectation as it is most clubs in the league. To achieve this a manager needs to see his team average a minimum of 1 point a game failure to do that over a sustained period of time and most managers are in jeopardy. The same applies to teams with loftier ambitions of Champions League qualification but here the average is 2 points. Coincidentally across all those teams that are currently averaging less than a point a match in the Premier League only one West Ham have not changed their manager.

In Steve Clarke's case he had dropped below the point a game average for the season but even that might not have been critical particularity as his team was only one win away from getting him back across the right side of the line. Aside from the slump in the team's form and a feeling of drift that was starting to envelop the club what did for Clarke more than anything else he or people close to him had briefed journalists to put pressure on the board on a few issues concerning transfers and Clarke's own future.

Some may argue that it is the modern game and media savvy coaches use briefings to fight their own internal battles over contracts and resources but this is something that is frowned upon at the Hawthorns. Chairman Peace took over in the wake of a power struggle between the then manager Gary Megson and Chairman Paul Thompson which in effect Thompson lost. Peace learnt the lesson well and the management dog does not wag the ownership tail at West Brom and any manager who plays silly buggers in the press had better deliver the goods or else.

Ultimately when a team is under performing and Albion have been for sometime the Head Coach will be given time to put things right but how long rather depends on the goodwill that he has with the club's owners if there is mitigating circumstances and an understanding fan base. In Clarke's case there was little by the way of mitigation he has a big squad and was backed as best as the club could in the most recent transfer window and while the fans were still generally behind him there was a growing sense of unease, however some of his earlier actions had eroded the critical goodwill of his employers.

Unfortunately we will never know whether it was the right decision or not. All football appointments are subject post-hoc rationalisation along the lines of Albion do well for the remainder of the season it is the right move if they do badly and it will be condemned as over hasty. The appointment of  Mauricio Pochettino at the Southampton is the blueprint, roundly condemned by most pundits at the time but now hailed as a masterstroke as Southampton now sit happily in the top half of the Division.

I will stick my neck out and say the decision was the right one the team was on the slide and not to act would be wrong however a lot now hinges on the next appointment and getting the right man in will be critical.


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls

During the first quarter of the Premier League season the Di-Cannio era at Sunderland  has predictably ended in tears and Ian Holloway has departed from Palace. The hunt is now on for the next Premier League Manager that to use the cliche is under pressure and it would appear Norwich's Chris Hughton is the name in the frame. 

The Canaries have just been on the wrong end of a 7:0 thrashing at Manchester City and are currently sitting third from bottom of the Premier League so there is a certain logic given the team's mixed fortunes. It is almost pointless to ask if it is it fair. Ditching coaches in the Premier League has an almost inevitable rhythm there is a cycle where there is always a club in crisis and that club's manager is just a handful of games from the sack.

 Going into the weekend there were a number of candidates for being the crisis club Fulham and Newcastle being among the alternatives . All were playing clubs that were far stronger than themselves and could suffer heavy defeats. Unfortunately for Hughton, Newcastle managed an unlikely win against Chelsea and while Fulham lost it was not a complete rout. So Norwich are this weekend's crisis club and Hughton has to face questions from the Match of the Day interviewer about whether or not he is the right man for the job.

What has happened at Norwich? Having survived in the Premier League for two seasons with a relatively modest squad mostly recruited from the Championship Norwich spent big in the summer to kick on to the next level. Unfortunately for Norwich they cannot compete with those teams with £100m plus wage bills and there is an absolute limit to the quality of player they can attract and it will never be enough to lift them out of the Premier League's mid table mix. For teams like Norwich the reality is they will never be more than about 3 defeats away from a flirtation with the relegation places and that is their lot. The summer's activity has raised expectations but equally the turnover in players has disrupted what was a tight nit unit and the newcomers are still adjusting to life in a new league and in many cases a new country. All of which has probably had a negative impact on results.

However Norwich's position is far from dire they lie 18th but are only three points adrift from 13th placed Swansea albeit with a much inferior goal difference as a consequence of their recent drubbings. Hughton is a canny and experienced coach who is used to managing in far more difficult situations than those he is currently in and frankly there are no obvious better alternatives waiting in the wings.  

Next week Norwich face West Ham at home and it will no doubt be labelled a must win game. If Norwich win they will swap places with West Ham and in all probability Hughton can pass the baton onto Sam Allardyce who will be managing the new crisis club. At the end of  November West Ham will have a must win fixture against Fulham and provided they win that the crisis club is likely to be Fulham Martin Jol then will be facing an uncertain future.

The point is that the bottom half of the Premier League is very tight all the teams are a pretty evenly matched and giving a coach a handful of games to save their job is unfair and irrational. At the moment it looks like Sunderland and Crystal Palace will be lucky to escape the drop but the third relegation spot will be a tight run race between anything up to 5 or 6 teams so a few poor results will see a lot of managers looking over their shoulders and boardrooms will be wondering if they need to make a change. The crisis club will change almost weekly and I am sure not all the managers will survive to the end of the season and those dismissed will have the right to feel a little aggrieved.  


Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Level 5 Meltdown Alert

Thanks to Lisa Marshall for the above graphic
I don't do seething or at least I try not to certainly about events that are totally and utterly beyond my control and as such I think the most I have ever mustered on the fan meltdown-o-meter was a one which was back in the days of Gould when the Baggies fans in general were off the scale. Maybe I view current events through that prism and cannot get worked up about an owner who is reluctant to spend money on transfer fees while the team is in the Premier League and enjoying sustained success.

I know I am in the minority that looks at the bloated fees in the English transfer market sees no value just risk and is quite happy that the club has been extremely cautious in a market that makes tulip mania seem rational, it can only end in tears all bubbles do. However at the death two hefty fees (for WBA) were paid for Anichebe and Sessegnon however I am reliably informed by the legion of  Football Manager experts that they are wrong big money singings. So maybe I should join them at meltdown level 3 or more likely I won't.

Take the hype away and the reality of Albion's transfer dealings are as follows

Odemwingie, Jara, Lukaku, Thomas and Fortune

Anelka, Sinclair, Vydra,  Lugano,  Amalfitano, Camp, Sessegnon and Anichebe

Across the summer we have increased the squad size so it is hard to argue from a purely numerical perspective that the squad is any weaker than last season. From a perspective of quality and balance that remains to be seen I won't rush to judgement either way. Too often players with burgeoning reputations have arrived only to disappoint whereas more modest signings have flourished so the jury ought to be out. Those fans who wanted the club to splash the cash are disappointed and many are rubbishing the new signings to prove their point that a transfer fee somehow reflects the quality of the player, it does not.

Personally I would have liked the club to seize the initiative this summer and overhaul the squad by trading some of the senior players whose form dipped in the second half of the year and used the funds to bring in a new generation of players. However it was not to be and given that I don't run the club my opinion counts for very little so there is no point in working myself into a lather over it.

The media is obsessed with the transfer window and whether it is the idiot Franks on radio WM whipping up a storm or the over hyped Sky Sports News understanding that something might be happening somewhere, it creates a sense of desperation amongst the fans who get the impression that everything hinges on who a club can sign. It does not. The cohesiveness of a team the coaches tactical awareness and dumb luck count for as much as a marque signing here or there.

The window is now closed the whole circus has packed up and left town. It is time to get over what might have been and get behind the Baggies