In recovery mode – Interview
Friday, 17th Aug 2018 09:22 by Clive Whittingham
West Brom’s eight year Premier League stint came crashing down around the ears of Tony Pulis and Pards Pardew last year. The Good Doctor Matt Graham therefore returns to LFW to explain where it all went so wrong and how it can get better from here.
Why did it go so wrong last season after so many years of stability?
MG: Where to start with this one? The initial signs of things being uneasy at West Bromwich Albion were apparent towards the end of the 2016/17 season. On the face of it a tenth placed finish looked like a great achievement for a club of our stature, yet for a squad that had been chasing the European places in the February, the team reached the magical 40 points and then metaphorically downed tools, recording only five points in the last 12 matches of that season.
In the summer of 2017, Tony Pulis was given an extended contract by the owners, when it would have been better to have politely thanked him for re-establishing our mid-table credentials, and found a new manager, especially since his ‘pragmatic’ version of football had deeply divided the fan base. Our transfer business was poor, epitomised by the eye-wateringly expensive loan signing of Grzegorz Krychowiak from PSG, who looked like he’d rather be anywhere else than The Hawthorns being shouted at by Pulis, which according to his travel adventures on Instagram he was. The club spent big on transfers and wages, yet regressed in the quality of players brought in to try and evolve the playing style. Perhaps more damagingly to our prospects were the season long injuries to our two key play-makers James Morrison and Nacer Chadli who were never adequately replaced.
Poor signings aside, the team lost the ‘famous’ Pulis defensive solidity, which consequently meant that instead of dogged hard fought wins, supporters were treated to the excitement of the ball being hoofed up the pitch to an isolated and frustrated Salomon Rondon, combined with an inexplicable inability to hold on to a lead; in five of the first 15 matches winning positions were conceded to drop points. The poor performances and terrible form from the previous season simply continued, and the support-base became increasingly mutinous.
Despite the opinions of the pundits and London-centric media, removing Pulis was clearly the sensible idea to try and refresh the club. Yet the decision to replace him with Alan Pardew was incomprehensible. However, with friends in high places (he was best mates with the chairman and technical director, both of whom were sacked later in the season for their decisions to add to the catalogue of failures) in the football world certainly helps. To say this experiment with Pardew was an unmitigated disaster would be something of an understatement. There was no new manager bounce and the results actually got worse with Pardew presiding over one league win in charge; the transfer policy failed again when Daniel Sturridge was signed on loan for several million pounds in January and then was promptly ruled out for the rest of the season with injury; allegations of Pards publicly bullying younger players such as Sam Field which angered the squad morale have emerged; and the less said about the Barcelona taxi-gate scenario the better. The only redeeming feature was Darren Moore’s late efforts to try and pull off a ‘great escape’. All-in-all it was a car crash of a season, and one that all West Brom fans will be happy to see the back of.
MG: I think the good will that Darren Moore (a Baggies playing legend) brought around the club at the end of the last season and the sense of togetherness he generated in the midst of what had become a toxic atmosphere is vitally important to the immediate future direction of West Brom. When he won the Manager of the Month he emphasised it was everyone at club who deserved the award, and he brought together staff and supporters insisting it was all about #wenotme – a great way to re-establish unity and belonging. To have not offered a young, aspiring manager a chance at the job after recording positive results against three of the top four teams in his stint in charge would have been criminal.
It is still something of a gamble. Moore is still clearly learning on the job, and a few of the tactics in the opening games have been questionable, but I do think he is the right manager for West Brom. Moore is a new face beyond the normal managerial merry-go-round, someone who has a close attachment to the club, and a coach who will be given some leeway by the supporters and ownership. Moore has also shown in the opening games that his teams are willing to actually attack, which is a blessed relief after the dismal fayre the Albion have served up over the previous few seasons, although I’m not sure how sustainable shipping six goals in three games will be over the campaign. At least there is now some excitement to be had at The Hawthorns…
That said the objective is still to ensure promotion, but with the Championship a ‘graveyard’ of big teams, and several huge challengers such as Stoke, Leeds, Villa, Forest, Middlesbrough, Swansea, etc. … it is going to be a tough first job for Moore.
How was the summer? (For the Baggies, not for you)
MG: It was a mixed summer for the Baggies. There was a mini-mutiny by some of the established players after relegation, which saw Ben Foster, James McLean, and Craig Dawson all go on strike to force moves away, which wasn’t an ideal start to the pre-season; of the three only Dawson was retained, which I think will be vital for the season ahead. Furthermore, there were serious question marks over the futures of Rodriguez, Chadli, Livermore, Gibbs, Hegazi, and Phillips all of whom were linked with moves away. However, the bulk of the squad is still at the club who in the likes of Chris Brunt, Jay Rodriguez, Matty Phillips, and James Morrison should all be able to demonstrate their qualities in the Championship.
The additions of Sam Johnstone in goal, the winger Harvey Barnes who is already looking a shrewd signing, and the loan of Dwight Gayle should ensure we are now a competitive side. On message boards and Twitter there has been some frustration that West Brom has not thrown more cash around at big name players or gone on a supermarket trolley dash, but given the dismal transfer record that we’d had in previous seasons, I think a new approach that sees enthusiastic signings who are willing to prove themselves in the Championship join the club will ultimately pay-off. The squad however is still short in several areas, and a right-back, a box-to-box midfielder, and a striker are all needed to provide depth and balance to the squad.
You’ve had a fairly mental start to the season, what have you made of it? Watched you v Forest and you looked wild, could have won or lost 4-1.
MG: It is definitely different from we’ve been used to! It is great to finally see some goals, some of which have been of genuine quality, and to witness the team set-up with some attacking intent is what all Albion supporters would have wanted from the start of the season. However, it has not been an easy introduction to the Championship and I think it has given supporters and the squad a reality check about the season ahead. In our opening fixtures the Bolton game was ultimately frustrating, the Forest game anarchic (and as you point out should have been far higher scoring), and Norwich far too close for comfort in the end… It has been a gentle reminder about the unpredictable and exciting nature of the league. If we can keep scoring goals as well as seek to tighten up the defence then these opening three games might point to a thrilling season ahead, but one with plenty of ups and downs.
Any suggestion that there may be some loan additions before the end of the month?
MG: Darren Moore has publicly stated that he wants three more loan signings before the window closes to add to Harvey Barnes (Leicester City), Tosin Adarabioyo (Manchester City), and Dwight Gayle (Newcastle United) we already have in the squad. There has been some talk this week of Joel Ward from Palace arriving to shore up the centre/right back position, but aside from that rumour all else is quiet. As I mentioned earlier, a right back and a striker are much needed to ensure squad depth throughout the long season, so hopefully the Albion can identify and sign players soon.
Where is the team strong and where is it weak?
MG: In an usual turn of events for West Brom it has been the inability to defend which has been a key weakness so far. The loss of Jonny Evans, and the non-inclusion of Craig Dawson since his strike have weakened the team as a defensive unit, with the current partnership of Ahmed Hegazi and Kyle Bartley looking fragile and uncertain. The loss of defensive stability is in part due to the encouragement provided to the front four of Barnes, Philips, Rodriguez and Gayle to focus on attack, which has left the less then mobile duo of Jake Livermore and Chris Brunt relatively exposed in central midfield. QPR could get a lot of joy down the left-side if they can target Nyom (if he plays again at right-back) who was atrocious on Saturday.
In terms of strengths, the new keeper Sam Johnstone has been good replacement for Foster so far pulling off some excellent saves and stopping a penalty, despite conceding six in just three games. If Dawson is brought back in to the fold he will add much needed steel to the defence. The two wingers of Barnes and Phillips have had a strong start to the season, and their goals and creativity have provided the impetus to drive the team forward. In front of them, the combination of Gayle and Rodriguez as a strike partnership appeared to be developing nicely against Norwich, and they could be a formidable pairing in this division. Moreover, if Morrison and Chadli can stay fit, and be incorporated into the team as playmakers they should help the Albion breakdown some of the more defensive minded sides this season.
Prediction for the season?
MG: I am sticking with my opening prediction of finishing in a playoff spot, with fourth being the most realistic finish.
The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords, @SAhistoryMatt
Pictures – Action Images
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