Michael Appleton — a West Brom perspective
Not many saw it coming.
Portsmouth’s appointment of West Bromwich Albion assistant head coach Michael Appleton as new manager left fans from both clubs scratching their heads.
His lack of experience in a field rumoured to include seasoned campaigners like Steve Coppell and Sean O’Driscoll is striking.
So what exactly have Pompey seen in the 35-year-old — who becomes the 21st player managed by Alex Ferguson at Manchester United to move into management?
Appleton will leave The Hawthorns with thanks and best wishes from every Albion fan — but few will consider him irreplaceable.
Likeable and hard working — check. A strong character — check. A fine Academy coach — check. Savviness in the transfer market — unproven. Tactical nous — questionable.
That’s partly down to his one game as manager — albeit caretaker — in February 2011. Albion had just sacked Roberto Di Matteo and his assistant Eddie Newton, but kept Appleton on the staff. At the time, he publicly declared his interest in the Hawthorns hot seat.
In the event, Roy Hodgson was appointed as new manager, but Appleton still had the chance to prove his credentials by taking charge of the crucial relegation match against West Ham United, while Hodgson watched from the stands.
Albion coasted into a 3-0 lead before Appleton tinkered with the team at half time. Perhaps his most unusual decision was to pick portly attacker Giles Barnes as a holding midfielder. A shapeless Albion surrendered and ended up hanging on for a 3-3 draw.
One game may be a bit harsh on which to judge Appleton, of course.
Since Hodgson’s arrival, he has stayed on at The Hawthorns, and been part of the coaching team through Albion’s surprisingly comfortable survival last term, and their more patchy form in the current season.
This would suggest a thumbs-up from both Hodgson, and the club’s workaholic technical director Dan Ashworth, who is largely credited for Albion’s impressive football infrastructure.
The latter would say, on news of Appleton’s departure: “I would personally like to thank Michael for all of his hard work since I joined the club eight years ago.
“I have seen him progress from Under-14s coach up to a very respected assistant head coach and I sincerely wish him all the best at Fratton Park. Portsmouth have made an excellent appointment.”
Battling back from injury
Appleton has, of course, demonstrated tremendous character in battling back from the injury that ended his playing career at 27.
He had joined Albion from Preston North End’s second division champions for £750,000 in January 2001, and was regarded by manager Gary Megson as a player in his own mould; combative, competitive, a leader. The training ground injury that November would deprive him of a part in the club’s promotion season, and ultimately lead not only to his retirement, but a protracted legal battle with the surgeon who operated on him. He was eventually paid £1.5m in an out-of-court settlement.
Appleton returned to The Hawthorns as part of the Academy coaching set-up. “Having had my playing career taken away from me prematurely, I am all the more determined now to make a success of my coaching career,” he said at the time.
While there, the West Bromwich Albion Academy was overhauled and transformed into one of the finest in the country. Appleton can take some credit for that, including the development of Albion’s impressive current crop of England youth internationals: George Thorne, Sam Mantom, Saido Berahino.
Portsmouth clearly fancy tapping into Appleton’s Academy experience. They have said the appointment is part of their long-term planning for the club. But at Albion, the Academy was part of a structure that was headed by a technical director, and the manager — or head coach as he is officially called — is largely concerned with first team duties.
For a man who finished playing so young, Appleton cuts an impressive figure these days. With the physique and tattoos of a cage-fighter, and a similar aura, it is not hard to imagine him commanding respect on the training paddock.
He has served a solid apprenticeship at Academy level, and as assistant to Hodgson.
But whether he has the tactical know-how, not to mention transfer market canniness, to succeed as a manager remains to be seen.