17 June 2009: So much for loyalty, then?
I'm always a bit grumpy during the summer months. For starters, I'm not a big fan of hot weather - as my other half will testify, it has me loafing about the place croaking "water.... water...." as though I'd been crawling across the Sahara for weeks in search of an oasis. The lack of football only exacerbates the problem, especially in the years in between World Cups or European Championships, and on top of that it's the time of year we regulars have to cough up for our season tickets.
But this year it's been even worse than usual. While I'm normally looking forward to a trip to Edgbaston to watch a Test Match or a One Day International to provide some alternative matchday experience, the beauracrats at Warwickshire have scuppered that one by introducing new ticket procedures that have made it practically impossible for groups of friends to sit together. The ongoing recession has impacted on work in various ways I won't bore you with - but most of all, the sequence of events around B71 that started with the defeat to Newcastle, led to relegation from the Premiership and culminated in the departure of Tony Mowbray to Celtic have left me feeling the same way as many other Albion supporters: downright miserable.
Ok, one swallow might not make a summer, and one defeat alone doesn't ruin it - but the abysmal performance against the Toon marked a turning point that we got wrong, and apart from a few glimmers of hope towards the very end of the season it always looked as though relegation was on the cards from that point on. Despite that, a lot of us have stood right behind Mowbray - the mass turnout of masks for the last game of the season was a great show of loyalty to the man who, judging by comments on this site and on the BOING mailing list, still had the respect of a sizeable chunk of supporters. Not all, admittedly, but certainly many - despite what can, at best, be described as a disappointing season.
It certainly began with optimism following the spending of record sums of transfer funds, the smashing of the transfer record and the signing of a number of quite exciting players. An actual, current England goalkeeper? I never saw that one coming. Dutch U21 Internationals? Heck. Spanish midfielder for 5 million? Flippin' heck! I've always been pretty cautious in trying to predict our finishing position in the top flight, usually muttering something non-committal about being happy with anything higher than 18th, but this time around I really did expect better. Not Champions League better, or anything stupid, but perhaps pushing towards the top half of the table. There seemed to be plenty of clubs up there for the taking, and the two that came up with us didn't appear at the time to be much of a threat: Stoke, probably got their promotion as much for sheer persistence as for quality of football (one report of their games suggested that most people would rather have their eyes sewn shut with barbed wire than watch that style of play every week). With Newcastle looking to be in turmoil from day one, Middlesbrough seeming to have settled near the bottom for the last few years and plenty of others looking eminently beatable, surely somewhere around 12th or 13th was a realistic target?
Of course, it didn't turn out that way. We came close - if we could just have turned one of our games against Hull into a win we'd have stayed up - but close isn't good enough. Hull managed it, despite a second half season of Derby-esque proportions, but the real pain for Albion supporters came from the fact that Stoke's clogging style succeeded where our entertaining, passing style failed. The fact that we've just passed both Wolves and Blues going in the opposite direction only added insult to injury. What went wrong? A combination of things: our inability to turn posession and pretty midfield passing into goals - not helped by the loss of Ishmael Miller for the season just as he was starting to look the part. The absence of our signing of the season, Jonas Olsson, for far too long as a result of injuries and a lack of experience in those that had to stand in for him leading to lots of stupid mistakes being ruthlessly exposed at the top level. Signings didn't work out for a variety of reasons - Zuiverloon started well but faded mid-season, Valero only showed what he could do towards the very end, Kim turned out to be out of his depth in the top flight and Donk seemed to go off the rails a little thanks - according to rumours - to the distractions of City Centre living. Some managerial decisions could be questioned - Marek Cech's exclusion in favour of Paul Robinson, Robert Koren's regular shuffling of position away from his best one in centre midfield, Bednar spending most of the season on the bench despite being top scorer for most of it, Morrison and Brunt being endlessly swapped around and so on.
Despite the disappointing end, Albion supporters remained optimistic - the We're/We'll be Back Again spirit and the support for Mowbray fully in evidence at the last few home games. The season ended with a plea from Mowbray for his players to show loyalty and give the Championship and promotion another go, and you could see that this looked like a man with unfinished business to sort out. I wasn't even particularly worried when Celtic fired up their media-based recruitment campaign to replace Gordon Strachan - plenty of names get mentioned whenever a job like that becomes vacant, while only one of them ever gets to fill it and it's not always one of the ones that gets mentioned anyway. After plaudits for his style of play and Albion's relegation and lack of resources it was inevitable that Mowbray would be one of the names in a lot of frames over the summer, and after his previous comments about the standard of football in the SPL it was highly debatable as to whether Celtic would represent a forwards or backwards step despite the 60,000 home crowds and the prospect of European football. A few supporters had previously expressed concern that he'd be off to Middlebrough if Gareth Southgate were to be shown the door, but our show of support and his request for loyalty convinced me that even that wouldn't be enough to tempt him away to a club ?80 million or so in debt. But as the days rolled by, and Celtic's approaches for other managers seemed to be dismissed or come up against various problems, it began to look more and more likely that Mowbray would be the one they'd go for and when the official approach finally came last week it seemed pretty much a done deal.
Mowbray has just said in his inaugural press conference he lived his life by "honesty, integrity, humility and respect" and he hoped to bring those qualities to the Celtic team. It's a statement sure to make some Albion supporters feel cheated, angry or betrayed - but has he really done anything wrong? Making no comment at all about the speculation may have been frustrating, but what could he realistically have said? If he'd been honest and admitted that he'd be interested in the job, he'd have effectively finished his career at Albion whether he eventually got it or not. If I could point the finger of blame at someone and say "it's your fault" then maybe I'd be angry about the situation, but I can't. Comments will be made about the Chairman, but Mowbray has had more to spend than any Albion manager ever has before and our wage budget last season was as big as our finances will allow. Peace has made attempts to sell the club, essentially stating that it needs investment to take it further and he's in no position to provide it, and it's hard to argue with that. We can't spend money we haven't got without going into debt to fund it and there are plenty of examples of clubs in serious trouble now because they've not managed themselves well. At least we're in a good position to bounce back if we can find the right man for the job; there will be no fire-sale of players to pay the debts, and any that do leave will provide funds for replacements just as they did two summers ago when we waved goodbye to the likes of Koumas, Kamara and McShane. We've already got a decent compensation package from Celtic to fund our recruitment efforts, although unfortunately everyone knows exactly how much it is - needless to say, it's vital that it gets spent well in order to get us back up within two seasons before the parachute payments run out.
Meanwhile, the Championship fixtures just released have pitched us at home to Newcastle on the first day of the season. Neither club has a manager at the moment, but there the similarity ends because Newcastle have shown that having a rich benefactor as your Chairman isn't always a good thing. Be careful what you wish for...
Please thank Finbarr for stepping up to the plate and saying so much of what I have been thinking. One last idea - as a student I saw a superb musical called "Salad Days", it still gets revivals. The main song was "If I ever start looking behind me" - I think Ossie said he regretted it and TM will too I expect.
- Cliff Harris
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