West Brom have, over the years, been castigated as a ‘yo-yo club’ by many. However, this is a largely irrational argument, ignoring reality.
We cannot ignore the circumstances and evidence when we make comparisons, or when we examine clubs' success – and it is this argument which vindicates Albion. It is, however, not alone and should extend its approach.
Earlier this week in anticipation with the up-coming contest, Albion’s Jonas Olsson acted as the players’ (and clubs’) voice in the press. The left-footed centre-back said that Stoke City, their rivals up in North Staffordshire, are inspirational for Albion and are a package they should attempt to emulate.
This is an essentially comparative way at looking at the two clubs’ recent fortunes, and it’s one I favour. It is far away from my personal distaste over lazy comparisons which rest on the shadiest of factors. Examples of such journalistic sloth include the endless parade over Villas-Boas’ appointment (did you know that he is young, handsome, Portuguese, managed Porto and won the Europa League/Uefa Cup and now is managing Chelsea?! Did I mention José Mourinho did the same things?); or perhaps whenever a player is hailed as the ‘new’ incarnation of a past legend. These comparisons are usually trite because they simply don’t hold up to evidence at all beyond conjecture.
So I’m going to compare Albion to Udinese Calcio, defeated by Arsenal in the Champions League qualifiers this week. Both wear stripes, and occupy or aspire to mid-table security. Ok, beyond the vague comparisons, there is something to this, and it importantly allows us to analyse Albion’s strategy first and foremost. Udinese are one of the stranger clubs you will read about – they punch far above their weight, but they are proof that prudent planning in terms of the acquisition of players can keep a superficially ‘inferior’ club in the top echelons, and even achieve European qualification on a number of occasions. That Udinese have had 16 seasons of consecutive top-flight football as well could be a more comforting record to emulate rather than Stoke City’s three (come May, four, if Stoke do not follow the trend encapsulated by teams like Charlton Athletic of well-structured regional clubs eventually failing in the Premier League).
What is Albion’s strategy then?
If we look at Albion’s recent strategy since their rise to the Premier League during Gary Megson’s tenure as manager, we can summarily describe it as ‘building slowly but surely’. Albion’s financial strategy has been analysed superbly by the Swiss Ramble, who among other things said in summary:
"There’s no doubt that West Brom are a very well run business, but there are two sides to every story and the result of this prudence is a low transfer budget and wage bill. The focus appears to be more on survival off the pitch rather than survival in the Premier League." -- Swiss Ramble
This ‘building’ is, in reality, an off-the-pitch endeavour as much as it is building a squad. There are radical differences between the current playing staff and the roster of only a few seasons ago – some of these departures, such as Neil Clement and Dean Kiely were due to retirement. Most departures, however, have been player sales following relegations. We can observe the high-fee sales of the likes of (then-captain) Curtis Davies to Aston Villa, the brief but profitable stay of Paul McShane who was sold to oft-spending Sunderland. Other sales include Jonathan Greening and Zoltan Gera, both to Fulham, and the controversial left-back Paul Robinson to Bolton Wanderers. There have also been some less successful acquisitions, such as the purchase of Luke More from Aston Villa, who was a very poor purchase considering Albion were able to observe him on loan before making the switch permanent, and as well the only recent departure of centre-back Abdoulaye Meite who spent much of his Albion career in the reserves or looking to restart his career at the club. And then there are the more balanced arrivals and sales, the players who served the club respectably and left for a similar fee to the one they arrive on – Scott Carson and Borja Valero have both departed this summer permanently, although fans will have mixed reactions to their record. So whilst the club has profited greatly from player sales, it has not spent greatly either, usually spending larger fees (relative to Albion’s idea of large fees) on bigger acquisitions such as Carson and Valero.
Importantly we must refer back to the Swiss Ramble:
"When defending Albion’s transfer policy last year, Peace claimed that since he had become chairman in 2002, the club had invested a net £38 million in transfer fees plus a further £12 million in infrastructure developments at the Hawthorns stadium and the training ground. That’s a fair bit of cash for a club the size of West Brom, but the counter argument is that if they had increased their outlay, they would have got this back and more through a longer stay in the lucrative Premier League." -- Swiss Ramble
So whilst the stays in the Premier League have not resulted in an immediate, total revamping of the playing squad there has been a steady upgrading of the club’s infrastructure, which is something I have praised in the past as a strategy, and seen a lack of such a framework as a sign of impending relegation.
The off-the-pitch improvements, organisational in nature, have however been in concert with the transfer policy of the club. We come now to the role of the enigmatic Dan Ashworth, a name which does not light up memories outside of Albion’s bubble. He was originally brought in to manage the club’s new youth Academy, and has since gone on to be the partner of Albion’s head coach. It has been said in the past that Albion have a ‘continental model’ which shuns the doctrine of an all-powerful manager, and instead holds dear a prominent board (Jeremy Peace, the chairman and essential owner of Albion, is a vocal ambassador for the club – compare this perhaps to the owners of Manchester United who are seldom seen in the media), and a link between them and their Coach. This is the notorious ‘director of football’ debate which has plagued English football for many years now. What is clear is that you cannot have an all-powerful manager and an all-powerful director of football competing with one another within the club’s power structure. It was this which tore apart Newcastle United and West Ham’s set-ups. Dan Ashworth, however, is more akin to a chief scout than a corporate figure or ‘ambassador’ for the board.
The fruit of Ashworth and the rest of the set-up is rather clear when one examines Albion’s transfer policy. Which is, to acquire players with good “pedigree” as ex-manager Tony Mowbray oft-said when describing a new acquisition of low profile, which includes successes like young playmaker Graeme Dorrans, and failures such as Bartosz Slusarski (don’t ask me what position he operates in). More recently, Canadian forward Marcus Haber was plucked from North America, but did not impress enough to break into the first team. Rather than this being a failure, it’s positive to look at these as learning experiences, or the inevitable lack of success one sometimes meets in life.
Dorrans was the fans’ player of the season in the 09/10 campaign, and I recall the article in my minds’ eye on BBC announcing his signing, because of his youthful gurn in the image, but also by the fact he was plucked from – of all places – Livingston. His fee of £200,000 was an immense bargain, even if Albion had accepted the derisory offers from West Ham United last summer, but he could become a mainstay cog in Albion’s midfield for a decade or more. If that is the case, a mere £200k initial investment is an astonishing piece of business.
Another example of this kind of low-fee success is the 10/11 campaign’s player of the year, ball winning midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu who was signed for an amazingly low fee of £175k from Paris Saint-Germain. The fact that PSG are now fabulously wealthy from their oil-rich Qatari owners is an amusing contrast, as Mulumbu excelled in a league which is arguably far more competitive than Ligue 1. The fact the acquisition was after an eye-catching loan deal during a fateful year of relegation shows the strength of Albion’s approach to push on and make do with the position handed to them after whatever season.
I will not belabour this point, but all of this was because Albion’s approach has been, summarily, to use their scouting network to maximum advantage, and to buy youth players either on the cusp of major moves (Dorrans could easily have gone to an Old Firm club) or from the deadlock of certain teams’ restrictive set-up (Mulumbu has rapidly improved upon his record since PSG), in ‘second tier’ league structures such as Scotland, France and in eastern Europe. Then we have the talismanic signing of forward Peter Odemwingie last summer, whose fifteen-goal haul guaranteed Albion staying in the Premier League and reaching the mental security of 11th place. Cameroonian Winger-cum-forward Somen Tchoyi looks to be a key player in his second season, having been the Austrian Player of the Year whilst at Rapid. Another feature has been the medical rehabilitation of injury troubled players, such as ex-Derby prospect Giles Barnes (who has since departed being restricted in a burgeoning winger department), ex-Millwall utility man Steven Reid and ex-Charlton and Arsenal prospect Jerome Thomas, all of whom contributed to Albion’s arguably best squad in nigh-on 30 years. There are other prospects I simply cannot go into for want of space and sanity.
In conclusion then we can see that Albion’s strategy is punctuated by:
- Off-the-pitch and organisational expansion
- Financial prudence
- The exploitation of less watched leagues to sign eye-catching and low fee players, most with international experience
- The reliance and Dan Ashworth and other key staff to be the spine of the club even as playing and managerial staff depart and arrive: the departure of Roberto DiMatteo and the rapid success and ‘gel-ing’ of Roy Hodgson.
- A steady upward progression which has not lured the club into financial hedonism
All of this recognises the problems which Albion have, such as close neighbours who divide areas of supporters, and a local and domestic body of shareholders (contrast this to all of Albion’s local rivals who all have some kind of big-money benefactor providing some security). It also takes advantage of Albion’s respectable history as a club, being one of the founders of the Football League, having a proud and independent tradition.
Comparison with Udinese
Don’t worry if you forgot this was a comparative article. Udinese’s strategy is much the same, which can be garnered by reading even the briefest of articles on the Bianconeri. The difference, however, between Albion and Udinese is that Udinese are fully committed to the scouting approach that Albion only partially commit to. Whilst Albion clearly focus on Eastern Europe and Scotland (even ex-manager Tony Mowbray was plucked from Hibernian), Udinese have found their rich vein of prospects in Africa, South America and central Europe. Alexis Sánchez, who was sold for an eye-watering ‘26 million Euros with added variables of 11.5 million’ (whatever that means) was purchased for a mere €2 million as a 16-year old. His development was helped by the fact he had loan spells at South American clubs such as Chilean giant Colo Colo (from whom Albion purchased utility player Gonzalo Jara), and Argentinean titan River Plate. This mirrors the approach of Albion, who last summer purchased Rochdale’s prospect Craig Dawson and immediately loaned him back to the League 1 club. He is now part of Ashworth’s ‘development squad’, and after impressing in the Carling Cup has been called up for the England under-21 squad.
Udinese have ‘sold their way’ to the top as much as they have scouted their way up there. The exorbitant fees for their products at Friuli, of which Sanchez is only the most memorable, has helped to finance the continuation of their policy, with reportedly 50 scouts worldwide netting talent – and it’s interesting and heartening in an era of spectacular fees, and summer spending sprees running up to 9 figure sums at the likes of Manchester City, PSG and Malaga that a club can consistently produce football talent and at reasonable and fair prices and salaries. Much of the criticism of Arsenal, for example, rests upon the latent assumption that their approach is cheap, temporary and usually unrewarding. Arsenal is a variation on the theme, with a much larger budget than Udinese. West Brom under Tony Mowbray were often compared to Arsenal too, and it is this comparison, of which I will speak of last is perhaps the most telling for the future.
Dan Ashworth, the brains behind the scenes at Albion, was brought in to manage the Academy. And it is the Academy which is perhaps the most exciting prospect. I have attempted to add clues to this being the crux upon which my analysis lasts, with the tests of players like Dorrans and Mulumbu culminating in Ashworth’s new ‘development squad’ attacking the challenge of the reserves. Whilst such an innovation may seem trivial, on an ideological level it is immensely important and indicative. With the Premier Leagues’ compulsory, maximum 25-man squad (over the age of 21 that is) the shift is logically turning towards youth talent. Why spend millions on a player to sit on the bench when one can acquire a player such as Craig Dawson or a more experienced player, such as Billy Jones or Gareth McAuley, for free or a reasonable fee?
And whilst West Bromwich Albion continue with this approach, keeping their record purchase at far below many of their rivals, and then later selling for larger fees (even for so-called ‘flops’ like Valero) then Albion will remain, on some levels, Udinese-esque, approaching the governance of its own domain within footballing culture in a rational fashion. That is something, in the view of this writer, something extremely desirable and noteworthy.
Images via Wikimedia