How soon is now?

Posted by on Jan 20, 2010 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

“How soon is now?”, asked The Smiths. As the dust settles on West Brom’s consecutive clashes with their two closest rivals at the top of the Championship, Nottingham Forest and Newcastle, we can ask much the same question with regard to promotion to the Premier League.

Let’s start with the division’s form side, Forest. Not only are they winning consistently, but they’re doing so with a remarkable panache and flair. The debagging of the Baggies on their own turf was exquisite but in truth not much superior to the sort of performances they’ve been turning in routinely against lower quality opposition.

Billy Davies, though, is an astute character and isn’t allowing himself to get carried away to the same extent as some of his club’s fans. His public declarations that he’s delighted with the side’s progress but that promotion would be too soon for them aren’t merely a case of expectation management. Davies knows from bitter experience the gulf between the top two tiers, having masterminded Derby’s promotion to the Premier League in 2007 at the first time of asking, only to leave by mutual consent barely three months into the following season – the irony being, of course, that if his team had lost the play-off final and remained in the Championship he would probably still have been in a job as manager of a side on the up.

The Tricky Trees are compact and undeniably attractive, but the real test will come if any of this season’s key performers – Wes Morgan, Paul Anderson, Paul McKenna, Chris Cohen – get injured, as the squad doesn’t look strong enough to cope in the upper reaches of the Championship, let alone the top flight. And if Forest do make it back to where they feel they belong, there’ll be no room for naivety and they’d also do well to remember that main marksman Robbie Earnshaw has never excelled against Premier League defences.

So, what of Earnie’s former club, the side that Davies’ Derby beat in that 2007 play-off final? The Baggies have recent Premier League experience, sure, but that experience didn’t stand them in good stead – it was naivety which cost them dearly time and again last season, Tony Mowbray left rueing a points total which bore no reflection to the quality of their football. Indeed, the fact that they were the first side to plunge through the trapdoor despite playing the beautiful game should serve as a warning to Forest fans thinking they could take the next league up by storm. In recent years those clubs that could I think be characterised as Championship-level sides punching above their weight – Bolton, Blackburn, Stoke, Wigan, Hull – have all survived through brawn and then tried to build from there.

In Jerome Thomas, Chris Brunt, James Morrison and the emerging talent of Graham Dorrans, West Brom have the most fluent, dynamic and potent midfield in the league – but against Premier League midfields and defences they won’t be afforded the sort of space and time generously gifted to them by Newcastle on Monday night. And while their array of strikers – Roman Bednar, Ishmael Miller, Luke Moore, Simon Cox – is formidable by Championship standards, not one of them could realistically promise you more than a handful of Premier League goals.

This isn’t to say that of the three promotion contenders my Newcastle are the ones likeliest to be able to survive, should they make it back at the first attempt. There’s plenty of top-flight experience in the squad, but there was even more last season and look where that landed us. While the likes of Jonas Gutierrez, Kevin Nolan, Alan Smith and Jose Enrique might well return to the Premier League with renewed confidence and self-belief, the fact remains that others – Shola Ameobi in particular – appear to be excelling because they’ve found their natural level.

Having suggested that Forest and the Baggies would find their attacks blunted, their passing game disrupted and their expansiveness exploited, I very much doubt we could cling onto our Premier League status were we to continue to employ our own current style. A prosaic and pragmatic approach to the game, winning efficiently without overexerting ourselves – that wouldn’t wash. You need to be organised and disciplined, of course, but you also need some flair and trickery to unlock defences which will guarantee you fewer than half the opportunities of their Championship counterparts.

So, to sum up this gloomy outlook (well, what did you expect from a post that begins by quoting The Smiths?), all three sides would struggle badly were they to go up now – and I think, in their heart of hearts, fans of all three know it. I’d suggest even an investment of £20m plus to bring in five or six quality players wouldn’t necessarily be enough to keep any of them up.

But does that mean that us supporters will be secretly hoping that the automatic places prove elusive for another year? Of course not. After all, there’s no guarantee that the opportunity will present itself next season…

Ben
Ben is a long-suffering Newcastle Utd supporter (is there any other kind?) who co-founded and co-wrote Black & White & Read All Over, a blog that, over the course of a decade, chronicled the ups, downs, chaos and calamity of the club he has the misfortune to follow. Since the blog hung up its boots in May 2014 (note: not as a mark of respect for Shola Ameobi leaving St James’ Park), he has contented himself with sporadic, splenetic Twitter outbursts and shamefully rare contributions to The Two Unfortunates. He is currently haunted by visions of Joe Kinnear returning to the club for a third spell and pondering whether he’ll live to see another victory over the Mackems, but at least has a cardboard coathanger with Robert Lee’s head on it for consolation.

4 Comments

  1. Frank Heaven
    January 22, 2010

    I thought Monday's game was possibly the best I've ever seen, certainly in attacking quality, at this level.

    Sure, there was a lot of space afforded by both teams – but bad defending exists in the top flight too, as Wednesday's comedy at Villa Park demonstrated.

    The table never lies, but Newcastle's relegation last term was surely in part due to the chaos off the pitch, while Albion might have survived had Tony Mowbray's tactics not been so naive and pig-headed.

    So I think there is a lot of quality in both squads, certainly enough to get them up – and probably to stay up, with one or two additions. But I wonder if there's the hunger – I think that's more in evidence at the City Ground.

    Reply
  2. Lloyd
    January 23, 2010

    Can't see any but two of these three going up automatically, although the Blades are on the up.

    Intrigued by Billy's comments. If it's not just about expectation management, then what is it? Surely he isn't saying that he'd prefer to stay down? The sides coming up from League One are likely to be much better than those going in the other direction, so next year's division may be a tad stronger. Would Forest be throwing money at big earners like Nicky Shorey if they weren't dead set on the top two?

    Reply
  3. Lanterne Rouge
    January 24, 2010

    More evidence that this league is, contrary to the hackneyed opinions of the uninformed, very strong indeed this year. The top three have every right to believe in their ability to stay up next season and maybe do even better than that. Birmingham looked like a very average promotee, but look at them now.

    Reply
  4. Ben
    January 24, 2010

    Frank: There were lots of poor teams in the Premier League last season – Hull and Bolton for a start – but the fact remains that we were worse and deserved our relegation. Of course the off-field turmoil didn't help, but it was very much on the pitch that we chucked away our top-flight status. I wish I could be as optimistic as you about our potential prospects (as for the Baggies and Forest), and as Lanterne Rouge says Birmingham are giving some cause for hope – but of late I've been increasingly feeling that the gulf between the top two divisions is worringly large.

    Lloyd: Good point about the Championship being even stronger next year – none of the sides in trouble in the Premier League are too far adrift (though Pompey continue to teeter on the brink of self-impoding), and there's a chance that Leeds, Norwich and Charlton (or possibly even Southampton) could all come up from League 1. As I said at the end of the post, I might be pessimistic about our chances of staying up, but I don't think any club should be complacent enough to think that promotion could be postponed for a season or two, until a more convenient time when the team might be better equipped for survival. There are no guarantees, after all. Don't get me wrong – if we do go up, we'll be very glad of it. At the present moment, though, I just can't see the reward being anything other than a season of struggle.

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