West Bromwich Albion: cheap and cheerful
As Chelsea sack another boss in a desperate bid to buy success, the low-budget Baggies are snapping at their heels.
Not so long ago, it was every football fan’s dream for their club to be bought by a rich sheikh, international playboy or multibillionaire businessman. Over the past 20 years, clubs big and small – including Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Birmingham City – have all been sold to cash-rich owners who promised to bring top players, management, new stadia and, ultimately, trophies.
Some clubs, however, got left behind in the stampede. Nobody wanted my beloved West Bromwich Albion, despite it being put up for sale by owner Jeremy Peace. ‘We know what we are’, goes the Albion chant, referring to our ‘unfashionable’ status. West Brom: an unfashionable club in a seedy Black Country town, top only of the national obesity chart (if the health panic-mongers are to be believed).
Never mind that we are one of the world’s oldest football clubs, five-times FA Cup winners and 1919-20 English league champions. Never mind that we were the pioneering club that in the 1970s broke down racial barriers with our three black superstars – Regis, Batson and Cunningham. Never mind even that we have the highest ground above sea level or that West Bromwich is home to the first McDonald’s outside of London and the hugely (un)successful arts centre, The Public. History, it seems, counts for nothing.
So on we soldiered. Through the Noughties, we yo-yoed between the divisions, banked the Premiership ‘parachute’ payment each time we were (inevitably) relegated, and stuck grimly to our ‘minimum wage’ pay structure. Meanwhile, our neighbours and arch rivals splashed the cash. Villa, Wolves and even Birmingham City – a club with no trophies and a corrugated shed for a stadium – were now heading towards great things. Or so it seemed.
Then came the crash in 2008 and a ‘new sobriety’ took hold of society, but also, more importantly, of the beautiful game. Football fairytales had turned into nightmares before 2008, but nobody seemed to notice until now. Now there were many clubs that were starting to look shaky. At the end of 2009, high-flying Newcastle and free-spending Middlesborough were relegated (along with West Brom, of course). In subsequent seasons, Birmingham and Portsmouth crashed out of the Premiership and into near oblivion in spectacular style. By the end of the decade, even the most famous club in the world, Manchester United, was mired in debt.
But it’s not just the money. Are any of these rich clubs and their supporters ever really happy? Look at Chelsea, in the news this week for firing yet another manager. Since billionaire Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought the club nine years ago, the club has practically operated a revolving door policy for managers. Chelsea have worked their way through some of the world’s most successful managers and tossed them aside. Ironically, it was caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo who brought the club the prize so coveted by Abramovich, the Champions League. That was a mere six months ago, but after losing only a handful of matches this season, he too has been shown the door.
Now there’s even speculation about the future of Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini, despite him bringing the club its first league title in 44 years. Will City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour (current investment in the club: approximately £500million), display more patience than Abramovich if his team exits the Champions League at the group stage? We shall see.
If media pundits are to be believed, fans are growing tired of big-money owners who chop and change in search of instant glory, show little or no loyalty to managers and rarely consult the fans. Sometimes, league titles and European trophies simply aren’t enough.
But back to our story, where away from the media spotlight the good ship WBA continued its steady course. Throughout the hardship, the taunts and the jokes, West Brom learned to spend and choose wisely, biding their time, taking risks on upcoming talent and offering opportunities to those tossed on to the scrapheap by impatient, cash-rich clubs.
Chelsea gambled successfully on the untested Di Matteo, who went on to lead the team to success (for all the good it did him). His successor at West Brom was Roy Hodgson, so recently ridiculed and humiliated when boss of impatient-for-success Liverpool, who dumped him after only a few months in charge. English football turned its back on the veteran manager but West Brom saw that he still had so much to give. After two successful seasons with West Brom, the man so recently dismissed as ‘all washed up’ went on to become England manager.
Then there’s Dan Ashworth, Albion’s sporting and technical director, working quietly behind the scenes, rooting out bargain talent time and time again. Now Ashworth is set to follow Hodgson to the FA, where he will be ‘charged with overseeing the future of English football’.
With Hodgson gone, there’s a new man in charge of the team and he’s working miracles. Scot Steve Clarke was the assistant to José Mourinho when he was at Chelsea and assistant to Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool, but until West Brom came along, he wasn’t regarded by anyone as Big Boss material. On a threadbare budget that is just 38 per cent of the Premiership average, Clarke has taken West Brom to fourth in the Premiership, having accumulated more points in 12 matches than we used to get for a whole season.
After beating Chelsea 2-1 last Saturday, helping to seal Di Matteo’s fate, WBA are a single point behind the West London playboys and only four behind Manchester City’s multimillion-pound team at the top of the table. So it appears that West Brom may well be the tortoise to Chelsea and Manchester City’s hare.
That said, there is an important lesson to be drawn from all this: if you can’t buy your way to success, you’d better make sure you jump on the nearest moral high horse about ‘money ruining football’ because, despite media criticism and perhaps fans’ complacency, money can and does buy success. Would Chelsea or Man City fans swap their club owners’ millions for West Brom’s enforced penny-pinching? And would the fans of any cash-strapped club turn down an oligarch’s pile of cash in favour of prudence and steady-as-she-goes stability? Most probably not.
Niall Crowley is a writer living in London.
Duleep Allirajah is away.