High-minded but pig-headed: the Tony Mowbray school of football management
About three years ago, a Boro-supporting mate joked to me: “You’re doing a great job grooming our next manager.”
At the time, Tony Mowbray was guiding West Bromwich Albion towards the Championship title and an FA Cup semi-final appearance, playing a style of football that had both myself and the purists purring.
Today, my mate’s prediction has come true — with the Middlesbrough legend appointed manager of the team he supported as a boy — but not in the circumstances either of us imagined; the Teessiders are third bottom of the Championship while Albion are sixth in the Premier League.
For the dreams of Mogga’s Baggies during that 2007/08 season would die quickly. Albion finished bottom of the PL the following term, and when the manager left the sinking ship for Celtic Park in the summer of 2009, things hardly improved for him. He was sacked in March after the Bhoys were spanked 4-0 by St Mirren.
How Mowbray’s reputation sank from the lofty heights of three years ago is a story of high-minded ideals being compromised by stubbornness and a refusal to compromise.
Initially, his appointment at The Hawthorns seemed inspired. Mowbray came across as a decent but modest football man, and his philosophy of how the game should be played chimed with Albion’s tradition. He quickly banished memories of the negative Bryan Robson era with a more attack-minded approach.
The tone was set with a 3-0 derby win over Wolves in his first game, but Albion could only finish fourth that season, and lost the play-off final to a Derby side which mustered a record low of 11 points the following term in the top flight.
Some thought it was a poor return, given the ‘golden legacy’ Mowbray had inherited; players like Curtis Davies, Jason Koumas, and Diomansy Kamara were flat track bullies in the Championship.
All these were sold that summer, but the manager was given over £10m to replenish the squad for the campaign ahead.
Most Albion fans would describe 2007/08 as the most enjoyable season in a generation. Sure, it was a white knuckle ride — frequent defensive lapses meant nail-biters like the 4-3 injury time win at home to rock bottom Colchester. But the 88 goals scored in the league, and another 16 in the FA Cup run, made most games far more fun than the grim one-nils ground out under Gary Megson in the last promotion season.
There were, however, a few ominous signs. The 81 points accrued during the season was the lowest ever for the second tier champions (under three points for a win), and no PL team was played until the semi-finals of the cup run.
More alarmingly, the best players during the season had not been Mowbray signings. Many crucial goals in the campaign were scored by Zoltan Gera, who chose to leave for Fulham on a free that summer, and the 34-year-old Kevin Phillips — who Mogga decided to release rather than reward with a two-year deal.
That was inexplicable in itself. But less so than making permanent the loan signing of Luke Moore (0 goals in 10 appearances) for £3m to spearhead Albion’s PL attack. Presumably Mowbray had seen enough during the loan spell to convince him of the Villa striker’s worth — but he was alone in that respect.
Other transfer market activity was also ringing alarm bells. Despite being overstocked with attacking midfielders, Mowbray spent a club record £4.8m on Malaga’s diminutive Spaniard Borja Valero.
The squad’s soft defensive underbelly wasn’t reinforced until the eve of the 2008/09 season’s first game at the Emirates, when Bolton outcast Abdou Meite was brought in for £2.5m to partner the calamity-prone Leon Barnett — a £3.5m Mowbray buy from Luton the previous summer — in central defence.
So Albion began the season looking weaker — on paper — than they had ended the last.
And while performances would often be decent enough to command respect – tactics, and ultimately results, were not.
Mowbray’s patient passing game ensured Albion’s possession stats were better than most teams they played. But it also gave the opposition time to organise their defence, sit back, and wait for the moment to counter-attack.
The flaws in his approach were all too clearly demonstrated when Villa completed a painful derby double.
The team’s defending was another point of frustration. Jonas Olsson had added more height and strength to the central defence, but Albion fans couldn’t understand why so many goals were conceded from crosses — when Mowbray and his assistant Mark Venus had both been grizzled centre halves as players.
Stubbornly though, Mowbray stuck to his guns. The disappointing Valero remained a first choice in midfield. After the team sank to the bottom of the table following a defeat against Stoke, he hit out against long-ball tactics, saying he would “rather lose playing the way he believes in, than go against his principles”.
Mogga grudgingly changed things round in January. A defensive midfielder came in — Youssuf Mulumbu — and a new striker in Marc Antoine Fortune, who would follow Mowbray to Celtic in the summer for £3.6m.
Albion stayed bottom of the table, but rallied sufficiently to be only three points off safety by the end of the season.
In a move not welcomed by all fans, many Baggies marked the last game by wearing Mowbray replica masks, in support of his footballing beliefs.
But any remaining affection for the manager ended abruptly when he accepted Celtic’s offer to fill the Parkhead hot seat.
Fans felt that Mowbray knew he’d screwed up at The Hawthorns — but rather than hang around and put things to right, he’d jumped ship at the first opportunity.
A mealy-mouthed parting shot at chairman Jeremy Peace — who had backed him in the transfer market to the tune of £30m — added to the slightly sour taste in the mouth.
And when familiar Mowbray failings — high scoring defeats, shambolic defending at corners — began to characterise Celtic’s 2009/10 season, culminating in his sacking, there was a strong sense of schadenfreude around B71.
Eighteen months on, what then, of the Mowbray legacy at Albion?
Certainly, he created a better footballing culture at the club, after the negative eras of Robson and Megson. The Hawthorns is now regarded as an academy for attractive football, in stark contrast to the nearby Molineux and Britannia, and Mowbray can take some credit for that — though not the steelier edge characterising this season’s campaign.
His poor signings outnumbered the good, as has already been documented.
But he did bring in Chris Brunt, now maturing into a classy midfield lynchpin, with a touch of the Chris Waddles about him. The tigerish holding midfielder Mulumbu also came in on Mowbray’s watch, as did James Morrison, and the bargain basement buy from Livingston, Graham Dorrans, player of the year last season. Though credit for some of these signings, it should be said, must go to Albion’s much improved scouting structure.
Most Baggies will have fond memories of Mowbray’s first two seasons. But with £3m in compensation received from Celtic, a(nother) bright young manager in Roberto di Matteo now in charge, and PL survival looking much, much more realistic this time round — you’ll do well to find an Albion fan who would take him back.