West Brom seem destined for an instant return to the Championship next season, and that leaves Luke Dowling and the Baggies hierarchy with an important decision to make this summer.
Sam Allardyce is contracted until 2022, but his contract includes a break clause should he suffer his first-ever relegation from the Premier League. This allows Albion to replace him, should they see fit, at the end of the current campaign.
A similar situation happened with Alan Pardew, although his reign quickly turned toxic to the point of him being put on gardening leave before the season’s conclusion. Whilst the 66-year-old isn’t on that level just yet, any confirmed relegation prior to their final game could see the Midlands outfit follow suit.
Names like Chris Wilder, who was recently sacked by Sheffield United, have already been mentioned, but according to The Athletic’s Steve Madeley, the Baggies’ former under-23 boss Michael Appleton is an ‘obvious contender.’
The 45-year-old has also been touted as Big Sam’s successor by former Birmingham Mail reporter Chris Lepkowski. He told The Liquidator podcast last week:
“I’ve always been really impressed by Michael Appleton. He’s a very progressive coach, he doesn’t rest and he’s not a [Tony] Pulis. He has evolved as a manager and introduced different styles,” he said, before adding: “I know he’s worked with Luke Dowling before, quite harmoniously I believe which certainly helps his credentials in that respect. I would be quite excited to see what he would offer.”
Appleton’s experience at Championship level is rather sparse – his last managerial gig at that level was a short-lived stint at Blackburn Rovers in 2012/13, a season after being sacked by a Blackpool side in freefall, and two seasons after a similar story with Portsmouth.
He has since rebuilt his coaching reputation.
Currently, Appleton’s Lincoln City side are among the League One promotion chasers, sitting in fourth place behind some big clubs in Sunderland and Hull City. However, as Lepkowski mentions, his roles at The Hawthorns would stand him in good stead, should Albion hand Allardyce his P45 in the near future.
A lot of the players he coached at academy level are still in and around the first team, namely Dara O’Shea and Kyle Edwards, although this appointment could be dynamite for faltering prospect Rekeem Harper.
Ever since making his senior debut in 2017, the 21-year-old has struggled to live up to expectations – and his potential. Neither Allardyce nor Slaven Bilic fancied him despite all of the Baggies’ midfield struggles earlier in the campaign.
It resulted in a loan move to Birmingham City, where he has continued to flounder, and that will do his long-term West Brom career no favours.
Harper was linked with both Liverpool and Juventus in summer 2019, but Bilic managed to convince his “powerhouse” to stay. He signed a new three-year deal and has started only nine times for the first team, largely in cup competitions.
The young Albion midfielder currently ranks among the Blues’ three worst-performing players this season, drawing a 6.27 rating, as per WhoScored. If he’s not delivering in the Championship now, then there’s little to suggest that he’d be able to break into the starting XI at The Hawthorns next season.
Once likened to Patrick Vieira and lauded as “fearless” by ex-Baggies boss Darren Moore, Harper’s only chance at redemption could be if Appleton succeeded Big Sam thanks to their work together in the academy system.
If anyone can get the best out of him to finally meet the sort of potential that the Premier League winners were eyeing, then it has to be the Imps boss.
With the youngest squad in League One (average age of 23.3) and a pair of Albion youngsters performing regularly on loan there in Alex Palmer and Callum Morton, he surely is a viable candidate.
Dowling should consider Appleton as a firm option this summer.
AND in other news, Sam Allardyce repeating a big Slaven Bilic mistake at West Brom…