How soon is now?
“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…