Seven points adrift with just ten games remaining, maintaining their Premier League status is no longer the ultimate challenge West Brom face. With relegation now seemingly inevitable, the Baggies’ attentions must shift towards whether the club has the robustness to cope with life in the Championship. The early signs aren’t promising.
Just a quick look at the second tier and beyond shows how hard it can be for former Premier League clubs; Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds, Charlton Athletic, Wigan, Wolves, Bolton Wanderers, Fulham and Sunderland all fall into the bracket of sleeping giant that have struggled to come to terms with the harshness of the Football League and failed to find a way back to the top flight. Seven of those have even dropped into the third tier, and bitter rivals Wolves have even suffered double relegation.
That’s the reality West Bromwich Albion now face; the possibility of double relegation or at the very least, a long and arduous fight back to the money-rich lands of the Premier League. And the overriding concern is how poorly-equipped the Hawthorns outfit are for that challenge at this moment in time.
Currently, they don’t even have a permanent chief executive or chairman after the owner sacked both earlier this month and although there will likely be appointments at the end of the season, the Baggies essentially enter the Championship without a rudder, a figure who oversees all departments and sets the club’s direction.
And speaking of Gouchuan Lai, he doesn’t offer much direction either. The Chinese owner only watches a handful of games per season, and was more eager to maintain the club’s continuity than instigate changes when he took a controlling stake. Excepting the recent sackings, he’s been very much a silent partner – watching the club’s decline from afar.
Many would argue that’s a good thing, considering how tyrannical some foreign owners have become in English football. But it also hints at a limited interest in the club, or at the very least a distinct distance between the owner and the coalface. Often, issues can be lost in translation, especially along lines of communication that cross continents.
That’s just at boardroom level – the more pertinent concern is the state of the first-team. At 29, West Brom have the oldest average squad age of any Premier League team this season and it would be the oldest in the Championship as well. Will West Brom’s ageing warriors really be up for the challenge of 46 gruelling, hugely physical games against younger sides that unanimously view beating a former Premier League team as an irresistible scalp?
It seems inevitable some of West Brom’s elder personnel will opt out of that – the likes of Gareth Barry, Chris Brunt, Gareth McAuley and James Morrison – especially if another club offers them a final chance in the Premier League. The Baggies then face a fight to keep the players in their peak years. We already know Jonny Evans’ contract includes a £3million release clause, and there will likely be interest in Craig Dawson, Salomon Rondon and Kieran Gibbs as well – Premier League standard players who will surely interest other clubs.
Style of play is a huge problem too. In theory, West Brom are built for the Championship through their attritional philosophy, but that also means there’s a lack of differentiation between the Baggies and the rest of the division. They play in a way most second tier teams are accustomed to and deal with weekly, and if anything the philosophy will only level out any difference in quality between West Brom and Championship opponents. That’s part of the reason why West Brom always struggled against Football League opposition in the FA Cup and the League Cup under Tony Pulis.
Of course, the squad could be of a wholly different complexion this season – partly by choice, partly by financial constraints, partly by the situation imposed upon them – and for all of West Brom’s ageing veterans, there are some promising young players at the club too. Oliver Burke, Rekeem Harper, Sam Field and Jonathan Leko all fall into that bracket and the Championship would give those youngsters a better platform to prove themselves than the top flight, especially amid the current climate where every bottom half side is essentially involved in the relegation battle.
But one way or another, a huge squad overhaul is inevitable, and it’s the scale of change required at the club that’s perhaps the most alarming. From the boardroom to the manager to the players, West Brom will be employing almost wholly different personnel come the end of the summer.
That can go both ways; while it may extinguish the negative mindset that often engulfs teams when they enter the Championship from the top flight, the lack of continuity and familiarity can prove equally debasing. New signings need time to gel, just as fans need time to warm to them. If the feel-good factor isn’t there almost instantaneously, it could prove to be a very long season.
For a club much less equipped to handle the Championship than the Premier League, a double-relegation like Wolves’ is a plausible possibility.