Friday, 7 September 2012

The Long and Winding Road to Here

Three games into the Premier League campaign and whisper it quietly so not to tempt fate but West Bromwich Albion look like an established Premier League team not just a Championship team on a short lived trip from the lower reaches of the football pyramid. How did that happen?  It is a long and often winding road which I have travelled with my club.
The question is where did the revival start?  Oddly enough with a funeral of sorts. A poor end to the 1991/92 season saw the club finish seventh in the third tier of English football it's lowest ever position and the fans disgruntlement with manager Bobby Gould spilled over during the final day of the season visit to Gay Meadow and a coffin was passed around the away fans. That was undoubtedly the low point shortly after that Gould was gone and somehow the Baggies managed to snare Ossie Ardelies as manager. That was just over twenty years ago. The revival has had several phases and it has not all been plain sailing

Ossie is on his way Wembley  (1992-1993)

After the gloom and doom of the Gould years Ossie's arrival as manger sparked an immediate revival and more importantly a return to passing football. Ardelies style has always been attacking bordering on the kamikaze his attitude seemed its okay if the opposition scored 3 because his side would score 4. Unfortunately the records show that happened sometimes but equally there were times when the opposition would score 5 and as a consequence the Albion had to get out of the Division the hard way through the play-offs. An epic semi-final encounter followed with Swansea which saw Albion make the play-off final where they swept aside Port Vale in front of the travelling hordes of happy Baggies. We had lift off. As ever with the Baggies there was caveat, barely had we finished the play-off celebrations and Ossie was on his way to Spurs.

Division One Purgatory (1993 to 2001)

Unfortunately Ardelies's departure set the tone for the rest of the 1990's every time we looked like breaking out of the bottom half of Division One we would lose either our manager or have our best players sold. It was a period of financial struggle the club were saddled with the huge redevelopment costs of a somewhat run down stadium and  progress on the pitch was virtually non existent.
During these years we required two last day wins to stay in the division against Portsmouth and Charlton and for most of the time we looked much more likely to be relegated than promoted. 
Off the pitch there was no clear strategy and precious little continuity. The board always seemed to be in a state of flux as various parties struggled for control of the club which by the middle of the decade had been floated as a PLC with an initial market value of about £7m (i.e. less than 12 months wages for Wayne Rooney) .Towards the end of the era there there was an epic boardroom battle and the end of which Paul Thompson emerged as Chairman. At the time I was so used to a club that had elevated mediocrity into an art form and I was more than a bit cynical about Thompson's fine words on taking over at the Hawthorns.
However things changed. Thompson took action when we slid into yet to another relegation battle towards the end of the 1999/2000 season he not only fired the inept Brian Little and hired Gary Megson he also reinforced the team with some signings. The summer of 2000 saw developments at the club pick up pace. Although Lee Hughes was sold to Coventry the club reinvested a substantial part of the fee with a club record fee being paid for Jason Roberts. That season saw Albion's highest league finish in over a decade sixth place unfortunately losing to Bolton in the play-offs.    
Off the pitch the club started to move forward the new East Stand was commissioned and we bought our current training ground having sold our previous one some time earlier to raise much needed funds. 
At the start of the 2001/2002 the club had real forward momentum for the first time in nearly a decade Megson's side ground out results  relentlessly chasing down the Wolves to secure the 2nd promotion spot with a glorious win against Crystal Palace on the final day. 

 The Yo Yo Years (2002 to 2010)

 The new era did not start smoothly. A major row developed between Megson and Thompson over amongst other things the introduction a systematic approach to player recruitment (sound familiar?)  and Thompson quit. This outcome is not the normal one when there is a falling out between manager and chairman at a football club but such was Megson's popularity that Thompson decided to relinquish his post rather than fire the truculent Megson. Cue more boardroom squabbling before Jeremy Peace emerged as the new Chairman in part because of his support for Megson as manager.
In summary the Yo-Yo years went like this
2002 - 2003 Relegation
2003 - 2004 Promotion
2004 - 2005 Survival Megson fired Robson hired
2005 - 2006 Relegation
2006 - 2007 Play off final Robson fired Mowbray hired
2007 - 2008 Promotion cup semi final
2008 - 2009 Relegation Mowbray resigns
2009 - 2010 Promotion Di Matteo hired
The club made mistakes and the lows nearly outweigh the highs but throughout the period progress was being made and the club rarely looked like it was ever going back to the bad old days of the 1990's. Critically there was boardroom stability, whilst not to everyone's liking at least Peace had a plan.
The turning point for me was the firing of Robson and the hiring of Mowbray which marked the beginning of the Football Director model which was first suggested by Thompson and was the catalyst for the row which lead to his resignation, however that still failed to deliver the goods and the fans endured another relegation under Mowbray.  At some point there was a eureka moment at the club and a strategy to focus the resources on players wages rather than fees emerged. This allied to a now excellent scouting network was about to make a step change in the club's prospects 
The summer of 2010 saw the club assemble the strongest squad in the Premier League era the Yo-Yo years were about to end.  

We Are Albion and We are Premier League (2010 to date) 

As new era's go the 6:0 thrashing at the hands of Chelsea on the opening day of the 2010 - 2011 season was not particularly auspicious. However results during the first few months of that season were encouraging and until the end of November things looked rosy. A dramatic slump in form saw Di-Matteo replaced with Hodgson in February 2011.
This was different in earlier relegation seasons the club accepted their fate partly because it was acknowledged that the squad the manager was working with was inadequate. Not this time Peace wielded the axe and Hodgson guided the same squad to a comfortable 11th place finish.
Last year we did it again not only staying in the Division but matching the previous year's points total and finishing tenth.Then the sky fell in and Hodgson left,  no it didn't Hodgson left which was a blow that in previous years would have set us back, but not now we are in a different era. Albion just appointed a new Head Coach strengthened the squad and carried on without much drama. Just like you would expect from a well run established Premier League club, rather than some fly by night upstart that sneaked into the rich man's club while nobody was looking.
This is not to say our current elevated status should be taken for granted those fans old enough to remember the dark days before the long dawn will never do that, but I think our foundations are solid enough to suggest we might stick around the Premier League for the a few more years.

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