How The West Brom Was Won

  In many ways football has come to parallel to show business. Fans pay huge sums to see stars perform in giant cathedrals of entertainment. Rivalries emerge and are devoured through the tabloids by the public before disappearing. The media snatches up every scrap of gossip about whose transferring where and who’s dating who and peddles it in the most sensationalist manner possible. And as Homer Simpson’s brief showbiz career with the “Be Sharps” taught us the immutable law of showbiz is that what goes up, must come down.1 In the football world nobody embodies this principle better than West Brom. Since 2001 the Boing, Boing Baggies have bounced between the Premier League and the Championship six times.

  Except this time it’s different. This time they’re going to avoid the drop. In fact they’re staying up very comfortably indeed. And it was only six months ago that their manager was being derided as the most clueless man in the league. Roy Hodgson has totally turned around West Brom’s fortunes since taking charge having lost only once against Chelsea and racking up 16 points from 9 games. After the debacle at Liverpool, the discourse was that Hodgson was a man promoted beyond his abilities. This is once more being exposed as nonsense.

  Even under Roberto Di Matteo the cycle of promotion and relegation that forever shadows West Brom appeared set to repeat itself as the club rocketed to 4th in the table after 9 games and then proceeded to slump into another relegation battle. West Brom’s recent history has placed them very awkwardly as too good for the Championship but not good enough for the Premier League. Admittedly their plight has not been helped by the defensive calamities that the likes of Tony Mowbray presided over in previous seasons. Even Di Matteo, for all his obvious talent as a manager failed to get the Baggies defending in a reasonable manner.

  It seems harsh to criticise Di Matteo after he took West Brom into the top flight and guided the teams superb start to the season. Moreover, the Italian left a much better squad than the one he inherited. The likes of Peter Odemwinge were brought in during Di Matteo’s tenure while players like Graham Dorrans showed definite improvement under the guidance of the former Chelsea man. Yet the difference between the end of Di Matteo’s regime and the start of Hodgson’s is remarkable to say the least. After beating Fulham, the Baggies lost eleven of their next fifteen games. As sad as it is to see a manager of the calibre of Di Matteo fired, the decision has proved to be inspired.

  In 2007 Hodgson was brought in to save Fulham from relegation. Although his impact wasn’t initially felt Fulham managed a magnificent end of season and avoided the drop by the skin of their teeth. With West Brom the turnaround has been far quicker and more impressive. A defeat against Chelsea aside, West Brom have been excellent so far under Hodgson, culminating in a victory over city rivals Aston Villa. While Fulham barely stayed in the top flight when Hodgson took over, West Brom will not only remain in the Premier League but will end the season in the sort of form which, if extrapolated out over 38 games, would see them challenging for Europa League places.

  It is pointless to continue to argue that Hodgson should have carried on as Liverpool boss. His being replaced by Dalglish and subsequent instalment at West Brom is one of the few instances in football that has benefited all parties concerned. The fans of both clubs are happier, both teams are playing better football and Hodgson certainly seems happier. Yet the narrative during his time at Liverpool was that Hodgson was a man promoted past his ability, that he was incapable of managing a side of that size. This is patently untrue. In much the same way that Rafa Benitez spared Leonardo the inevitable and unenviable task of following Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan, so Hodgson spared Dalglish the difficulties of having to be the immediate successor of Benitez, inheriting the mess that Liverpool were in at that stage with ownership struggles, an unhappy star striker and a gloomy atmosphere around Anfield.

  Hodgson may not be the most charismatic of managers but has the skills and tactical nous to take control at a major club provided he is not beset by critical problems from the outset. Again, this is not to suggest that Hodgson should have been retained as Liverpool manager as that would evidently have been the wrong decision. Rather the issue is whether his time at Fulham was the aberration rather than his time at Anfield.

  While guiding Fulham away from the relegation zone, bringing in a core of top level players like Brede Hangeland and Bobby Zamora and taking them to the Europa League final could be regarded as a fluke, the fact that Hodgson is in the process of doing the exact same with West Brom cannot be ascribed to mere good fortune. Hodgson is evidently very capable at this level. Hodgson’s time at Liverpool was a perfect storm of problems, some of his own making, others external factors he had no control over. He left the club with all the hard work he had done over the years in tatters. His ability to affect an immediate upswing in West Brom’s fortunes should put to rest. After he left Fulham, Hodgson was being talked about as the next England manager. Six months at Liverpool should not obscure the talent he could bring to the table next time the FA are looking for a manager.

1Aside from Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tom Jones etc


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