Pre-season: Good, bad or ugly? Some peculiarly glamorous opposition have notched up some predictably comfortable wins over us in pre-season, Genoa and Hannover reminding us that the mid-table fodder of Serie A and the Bundesliga is rather more technically assured than the domestic fare. Fortunately this Saturday’s run-out against Bologna will be the last we’ll have to worry about tight ball control or tactical discipline before its back to the bread and butter of trying to out-muscle, out-run and out-clobber Swansea, Southampton and West Ham in a low-octane assault on the heady heights of eighth place.
Hopes for the season: Eighth. Assuming Roberto Martinez is successful in holding onto the bulk of David Moyes’s team and keeping them ticking over fluidly there’s certainly nobody else from the top third of the league who are going to shed enough points to allow a team of the Albion’s resources a seat on the top deck, last year’s autumnal dalliance with the top four notwithstanding. Being out of both cups before the end of January was a poor example of the stubborn resilience that’s been built up over recent seasons, especially when Swansea comfortably kept pace with us in the league whilst still managing to invest the resources to sweep them into Europe via Wembley. A crack at the Europa League seems to be the next, and probably final, realistic challenge for this team in the current financial imbalance but with Liverpool and Everton holding a duopoly over the league’s only European berth it would be nice to see Steve Clarke show a little more respect for cold Tuesday night FA Cup replays this time.
Fears for the season: It’s difficult to really fear anything that results can throw at you after a decade that saw three relegations and a lost play-off final. The biggest mistake the club could make would be to believe they’ve risen above flirtatious parlances with the bottom three, and as one the summer’s lowest spenders we’d be complacent in thinking we’ve placed those tensions behind us forever. The worst that could realistically happen would be for the directors to adopt the “top-six is where we belong” fallacy, throwing caution and overdraft limits to the wind in a bid to pack the squad out with high-priced, low-value journeymen. Recent history suggests the club is in responsible hands but fans all over Europe have thought similarly in the last decade and now stare up the divisions like pagans gazing in awe at the sun. Longing for the numbness of mid-table comes with a certain nihilistic quality though, and for some of us the biggest fear is that we might never again know the ecstasy of 2005’s final day relegation escape.
Absolute bare minimum you’ll accept: Relegation would be a major blow for a club that have flown the flag for patient and thoughtful management, but the financial arrangements in place would make it a manageable one. With the club already bumping its head against the ceiling of its realistic ambition it seems bonkers to be setting minimum targets. We’re currently experiencing the closest thing most of us fans will know in our lifetimes to a renaissance and so any modest success that flutters our way is received gratefully rather than expectantly.
Fixture you’re most looking forward to? With Wolves now just a spec in the rear view mirror Aston Villa offer the only fixture that carries any real subtext. The disappointment that hung around the Hawthornes after failing to take all three points from a spirited fight-back last season showed everyone in the Midlands that the balance had really tipped in the Baggies’ favour for the first time in a generation and most fans would swap victories over the Villa for a couple of league positions come May. The spirit-wrenching pessimism that bungs up the arteries in the days leading up to matches at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge is enough to make one long for the less predictable pairings thrown up in the Championship, although the memory of consecutive home victories over Chelsea will add a certain anticipation to the Blues’ visit to the Black Country.
Got the right manager? In many ways it’s a match made in heaven. Steve Clarke, after so many years in the shadow of giants like Zola, Mourinho and Dalglish, needed a low key place to first tread the boards in a leading role, and in Premier League terms it doesn’t come much more low key than the Baggies. Crashing in fourteen goals against the top seven at the Hawthornes suggested that Clarke’s experience of the inner circle had added an extra dimension to the team, certainly in terms of their confidence to take a game to a high-quality opponent. When the bubble burst at the beginning of winter though certain areas of the pitch looked low on imagination and there was little sense that Clarke had much of a plan B in place for when teams learned how to stand up to a hard-working but technically average attacking threat. For a bright young manager with an enviable schooling behind him however, 12/13 has rightly been heralded as a success and it would be in both party’s interests to keep the partnership evolving for another couple of years at least.
By Christmas you’ll be… looking with furrowed brow over our shoulder. Christmas has never been good to us in the Premier League. Bottom in 2005 and 2006, it was a dismal run over the festive period that ultimately cost Roberto DiMatteo his job in 2011 and the Hodgson revival didn’t begin in earnest until the clocks had gone forward. Last season narrow victories over Norwich and QPR were the only bright spots in a three month spell that saw us tumble from third to tenth and neither momentum or form were ever recovered. It’s nice to know we’ll still be in the FA Cup by December 25th although presumably our fate will already have been effectively sealed by being matched with a Championship play-off hopeful in the 3rd round. Then we’ll probably just bunker down and wait for the inevitable fizzling sound of a damp cloth being dropped on our promising early season form.
Player you’d most like to sign? Holding onto Lukaku could have made a world of difference to the team, especially since Shane Long often looked insipid last season when left to throw his weight around without the big Belgian to back him up. A player with Peter Odemwingie’s attributes but without the attitude would help Clarke stick to an attacking blueprint that was largely successful last time out, so perhaps a player in Arouna Kone’s mould would have been a nice fit before Everton came knocking. The knack is finding players with the right balance of quality and limited expectations which, as Odemwingie and Lukaku have shown us, is just as tricky as it sounds.
Which player should we look out for? Nicholas Anelka in an Albion shirt should be a novelty for the first few weeks at least although replacing one up and coming Chelsea star with one whose peak is well behind him feels like a regressive step. Not a lot else is really new in the squad, save for the centre-half Lugano from Uruguay who should attract the club a bit of attention from the South American market if nothing else. It’s been another summer of limited outlay on new faces but with the likes of Norwich and Swansea bucking their recent trends and investing more heavily in big names and big wages the Baggies could look stretched.
Which player would you love to ditch? Peter Odemwingie. Twice. The same will probably apply to Anelka once he’s figured out that huffing and puffing around the pitch for the Baggies isn’t much more fun than doing the same for Shanghai Shenhua and he’s spotted camping out outside Harry Redknapp’s house in a wigwam talking to himself in Chinese and drafting himself a contract in crayon. Give it till November.
Opposition hate figure? With so little at stake every week it’s difficult to muster up anything quite so strong as hate. It’s difficult to have very much positive to say about any side as aggressively successful as Manchester United and the nuveau riche continue to attract all the bile they deserve from every right thinking fan. Odemwingie (again) is probably the most conspicuous figure for public scorn, marginally ahead of Goran Popov for his shameful sending off for spitting at Jermaine Defoe in February. It’s a symptom of the existential narcissism that is prerequisite of following the Albion that the majority of the distaste we feel is self-facing.
Tell us something we don’t know about your club? The Hawthornes is the highest Football League ground above sea level. Which was a useful failsafe during all those years when the defence leaked like a colander.
What won’t happen this season? After a pulsating 9 months of flawless football £34million-man Grant Holt scores twice in the final minute of the season to seal a 3-2 victory of QPR and wrench the title from the hands of Aston Villa who are already celebrating on the pitch at Sunderland. Because QPR went down last season. So it can’t happen. Obviously.
Favourite chant? “You’re going down with the Villa” directed at any opposition within spitting distance of the bottom three was a pleasant if unoriginal reminder that it’s somebody else’s turn finally to dance with death (or Cha-Cha with the Championship…)
Where will you finish? The most optimistic thing that can be said about us this year is that we will finish the season somewhere around May.
Any other news? Absolutely not. When over-exposed to the media’s glare the club shrivels and wilts like an orchid in the sun, which explains why the above is the most in-depth and prolonged coverage you’re likely to see of us between now and the end of the season. We must go now and take up our regular spot on Match of the Day just after Manish has given a half-dozing nation a taste of what’s coming up next on The Football League Show. We like it there. It’s warm and dark.