In February last year West Brom ran out of socks. Too late to order a new bunch of hooped socks, the Baggies played the final eleven games of the season in unpopular plain blue socks. It was a minor detail in a disappointing season, but goes someway to explaining the sense of unease that is permeating the Hawthorns.
After Steve Clarke was sacked in December the club took a month to appoint Pepe Mel. The Spaniard was brought in as a relegation specialist but he did not have a huge impact: West Brom won only three games under his management, and largely relied on the poor form of Norwich, Cardiff and Fulham to stay up.
In Mel’s defence he was given very little support during his time at the club. There were rumours of a changing room ‘clique’ which refused to welcome Mel, while the ramifications of Nicolas Anelka’s quenelle caused chaos in the dressing room, losing Zoopla’s sponsorship money in the process. Chairman Jeremy Peace has come under fire for the way Mel was treated by the club towards the end. No one was surprised to see Mel leave, but many fans have turned on the chairman for his crude handling of the situation.
Peace has since staved off criticism by backing new manager Alan Irvine with significant investment for the first time in years. Yet questions still remain over Irvine’s lack of experience at a high level. If the new signings fail to work together and Irvine comes across the same problems that Mel did then this could be a difficult year for West Brom.
Last season: 17th
In: Andre Wisdom, loan, Liverpool, Brown Ideye, £9, Dynamo Kiev, Sébastien Pocognoli, Chris Baird, free, Burnley, Joleen Lescott, Bosman, Manchester City, Craig Gardener, free, Sunderland, Cristian Gamboa, £1.8million, Rosenborg (dependent on work permit)
Out: George Thorne, undisclosed, Derby, Billy Jones, free, Sunderland, Steven Reid, free, Burnley, Nicholas Anelka, released, Zoltan Gera, released, Diego Lugano, released, Scott Allan, released, Liam Ridgwell, free, Portland Timbers, Cameron Gayle, free, Shrewsbury
In short, a lot. From the new pinstripe kit design which follows the lead of Southampton, to the new head coach there has been a sense of renewal at West Brom over the summer.
Much debate has revolved around the new head coach: Irvine has not held a management position since a disappointing stint at Sheffield Wednesday more than three years ago. Fans remain to be convinced that success with Everton’s youth academy will transfer to the Premier League. Then again, Steve Clarke was appointed from a similar background at Chelsea and went on to take the club to their highest ever points total and eighth place.
Otherwise the defence has been completely reinvented with several high-profile signings. Joleen Lescott offers Premier League experience, even if he has spent the best part of the previous years on Manchester City’s bench. The signing of the Northern Ireland veteran Chris Baird provides further cover at centre-back if nothing else.
The club’s most exciting summer business has been in the fullback positions. Assuming he is granted a work permit Cristian Gamboa may prove to be a shrewd purchase from Rosenborg, especially if he matches his World Cup form for Costa Rica. Sébastien Pocognoli was unlucky to miss out on a place in Belgium’s World Cup squad after sustaining an injury while playing for Hannover at the end of last season, and should be comfortable in the Premier League. England under-21 international Andre Wisdom arrives on loan from Liverpool after a successful loan spell at Derby County, and is a versatile defensive option, even if his driving leaves a little to desire.
Up-front Peace has broken the club record transfer fee to sign Brown Ideye from Dynamo Kiev for £9m. The Nigerian striker scored 33 goals in 74 games while in Ukraine and will be expected to spearhead an attack that was too often limp last season, but the move into English football may prove a challenging one.
Ben Foster was one of the few Englishmen to perform well at the World Cup, albeit in the dead rubber fixture with Costa Rica. While no one will seriously suggest that he should take over Joe Hart’s place as England’s number one, his importance to West Brom is obvious: he was voted player of the season by both his teammates and the fans last year, even though he missed four months through injury.
Although Foster’s career has been defined by mistakes in big games he is consistent in the league, and often had to contend with a shaky defence. If the new defence gels he may well be the lynchpin of West Brom’s safety, if it doesn’t he’ll be as busy as ever.
One to Watch
Last year was an odd one for Saido Berahino. On the one hand he spectacularly broke into the first team by scoring the winner at Old Trafford, West Brom’s first ever victory there. Yet he also displayed a painful naivety at points last season, most noticeably when he squandered possession in the move that gave relegation rivals Cardiff a last minute equaliser at home in March. A fight with James Morrison after the game further questioned his professionalism at the highest level.
This year will be important for the 20 year-old if he is to advance as a player. Irvine has experience with youth players, and if he manages to curb Berahino’s extravagancies then West Brom will have one of the most exciting young English players in the league.
There are too many question marks hanging over Irvine at the moment to have confidence in his ability to keep the West Midlands club in the Premier League. With a final run-in that includes games against Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea there can be no slip-ups beforehand. The opening game at home against Sunderland will set the tone for the season: a defeat would be catastrophic for morale under Irvine’s fledging regime, while victory will reinvigorate a side that has not won successive games for nearly a year.
BPF Prediction: 18th
By: Charles Walmsley / @charlesl_w