Once more unto the breach...
So here we are again. A fourth promotion for West Bromwich Albion in nine seasons, though most people quote that stat as if it’s a bad thing; obviously they were not following Albion during the 1990s.
But will it be a matching fourth relegation, or is there reason to expect survival? And if so, how, and with who, will it be achieved?
Firstly, hats off to the gaffer. Despite arriving at the Hawthorns last summer with only a year’s experience in management behind him, Robert Di Matteo has more than matched the expectations.
It is easy to get carried away with success – and with failure – but already the Swiss-Italian looks a far more plausible Premier League boss than his recent predecessors: the stubborn Megson, the talentless Robson, and the naïve Mowbray.
The question now is whether he, and director of football Dan Ashcroft, can bring in the right players for the job ahead next season.
As usual, they will have to work under the prudent eye of chairman Jeremy Peace. Experience has been identified as one vital missing ingredient in the squad, and Peace is reportedly prepared to sanction a higher wage for the right player who can bring that quality to the Hawthorns. But that may mean sacrifices elsewhere in the squad.
Di Matteo is likely to start at the back. The defence is broadly similar to the shambles Tony Mowbray walked out on 11 months ago.
Another keeper will have to be signed, regardless of whether Scott Carson ever finds any form; his deputy Dean Kiely, who will be 40 next season, cannot really be expected to continue for much longer. In any case, he may be more interested in concentrating on his new role as goalkeeping coach.
At centre half, Tamas has proved an impressive loanee, and a fee of £800,000 is rumoured to have been agreed with Auxerre. That would be shrewd business.
But at least one more central defender needs to be brought in, and preferably an experienced organiser; dreamers among the Albion support have looked three miles east to the Villa Park subs bench, currently being warmed by ex-Baggie Curtis Davies.
Surgery will also be required at full-back, particularly on the left, where £1.2m summer signing Joe Mattock has been a huge disappointment, while World Cup-bound Slovakian Marek Cech is rumoured to be looking for another club. (Or, at least, his agent is.)
On the right, another of Albion’s five World Cup ‘stars’, the Chilean Gonzalo Jara, should be capable of making the step up. A centre back with Colo Colo in Chile, Jara looks more likely to have a future at right back due to his (lack of) height. But he is quite comfortable covering in the centre, or indeed in midfield.
However, a right-back is also likely to be on the shopping list, if only to provide more cover than the calamity-prone Dutchman Gianni Zuiverloon.
Midfield is less of a problem. There is a surfeit of attacking options, with Jerome Thomas, Chris Brunt, James Morrison, and Robert Koren all having form at Premier League level. The latter, however, may still be restless despite resolving his winter spat with the boss.
The mercurial talents of Graham Dorrans will also feature, of course, though a few less conspicuous performances in the last month have led some pundits to ask how he will get on against tighter marking in the top flight.
If there is to be a midfield addition, it may be an improved version of Congolese enforcer Youssuf Mulumbu, with Jamie O’Hara one name linked.
Signing strikers is likely to be Di Matteo’s trickiest task this summer. Or rather, signing the right kind of striker. Many fans grumble about the need for a Kevin Doyle, who has proved good value up the road at Molineux for £6m (probably the transfer fee ceiling for both WBA and Wolves). But unfortunately, there aren’t many Kevin Doyles around.
More likely is that Albion will plump for a player who is not so much a goal poacher, but can play the lone striker: quick enough to force defenders to lie deep; strong enough to hold the ball up; skilful enough to feed attacking midfielders. Both Roman Bednar and Ishmael Miller can do this on their day – but that day is rarely in the top flight.
Names mooted have included another Baggies old boy in Jason Roberts and, more suprisingly, another Villa subs-bench warmer, Emile Heskey.
Such signings are unlikely to set pulses racing among supporters. But they would be pragmatic, given the team’s 4-5-1 formation, and probably less of a gamble than a lower division hot-shot like Simon Cox.
Those are likely to be Di Matteo’s prime targets in the summer – but don’t discount a surprise bargain bin raid if Albion’s much improved scouting team have identified any targets. Hamilton’s James McArthur is understood to be on the radar.
And, of course, a few more names may come into the frame in South Africa.