Are West Brom excited about the new season? Hardly...
The atmosphere in B71 is not what you might expect at a newly promoted club.
Rather than eager anticipation, weary resignation is the most common sentiment among West Bromwich Albion fans on the eve of the new season.
But then, familiarity breeds contempt. It’s been eight years and four promotions since the team’s debut in the Premier League, and most fans routinely expect a fourth relegation to follow this term.
Chairman Jeremy Peace’s sensible and rightly-lauded book-keeping policy may stop Albion from ever ‘doing a Pompey’ — but is also keeping a firm lid on excitement levels at the Hawthorns.
But should Albion fans really be so pessimistic?
Signings so far this summer have been solid, if not spectacular.
The fans have clamoured for strikers. Instead, manager Roberto Di Matteo has given them defenders.
In truth, it always made sense to concentrate on rebuilding from the back, which had changed alarmingly little since shipping 67 goals during Albion’s unhappy relegation in 2008/09.
That season, the team scored 36. Yet last term, Birmingham finished 9th with only 38 goals, Stoke 11th with a paltry 34, and Wolves 15th with just 32. The lesson, which Tony Mowbray’s years as a craggy centre half did not teach him, is that defenders are at least as important as attackers in the Premier League survival stakes.
So Di Matteo has given two loanees from last season permanent deals: the impressive Romanian centre back Gabriel Tamas, costing £800,000 from Auxerre, and the versatile, experienced, yet injury prone Irishman Stephen Reid, a freebie from Blackburn.
Nicky Shorey, who even some Villa fans concede might be a good buy, has arrived for £1m, along with stopper Boaz Myhill, snapped up for £1m from the Hull City fire sale to provide ‘competition’ for Scott Carson — though most Albion fans will be hoping it’s more than that.
However, the bargain of the summer may prove to be Pablo Ibanez, another free, this time from Atletico Madrid. But for a row over a proposed move across town to the Bernebau in 2008, which torpedoed both his club and international career, the central defender may have been lining up in Soccer City for Spain in last month’s World Cup Final.
There is also a bid currently lodged with Portsmouth’s administrators for defensive midfielder and skipper Marc Wilson, though Reid and Chilean right back Gonzalo Jara — who signed a new deal this week — can fill in that role alongside Youssuf Mulumbu.
All in all, the rearguard has a more robust look about it than a summer, or even two summers ago.
But will a bit of attacking red meat be thrown to the fans in the remaining 19 days of the transfer window?
Probably yes. The new 25-man squad rule means a lot of business is likely to be conducted in the last few days of August, at least that’s what Albion’s thrifty chairman is believed to think.
Names in the frame include the Austrian league’s player of the year, Cameroon international winger Somen Tchoyi, who seems set to sign, Swedish club Elfsberg’s young Bosnian striker Denni Avdic (doubtful), and AZ Alkmaar attacker Moussa Dembele (very unlikely), who rejected Birmingham City yesterday.
There are still forlorn hopes of landing David Ngog on loan, though his goals for Liverpool in the Europa Cup have probably scuppered any chance of a deal.
If no attackers are signed — does that spell doom for the team, and the restless fans?
Not necessarily. As noted at the end of last season, there are enough goals and enough experience in midfield to make Albion competitive.
And looking at the competition, not many other clubs have been particularly proactive in the transfer market either — including, as Andy Gray observes fearfully, fellow promotees Newcastle United and Blackpool.
The Sky pundit’s view is that Albion won’t go down. He believes the club has a shrewd manager now in Roberto di Matteo, who has a better understanding of how to survive in the top flight than Tony Mowbray did two years ago.
The Italian certainly exudes assurance and charisma. But the league looks far tougher this year than it did last, when there were two financial basket cases and another club considerably out of its depth.
Di Matteo will have to pull off something remarkable to defy the relegation expectations of his supporters.