West Bromwich Albion supporters are arguing among themselves over whether it was a good idea to sack Tony Pulis, two wins in 12 games from the start of the season, and replace him with Alan Pardew, one win in 13 games since.
Putting aside for a moment the image that springs to mind of bald men fighting over a comb, this is a genuinely unsolvable dilemma, and one that has just led to the dismissal of John Williams and Martin Goodman, respectively the Albion chairman and chief executive. Operating from the other side of the world, the owner Guachuan Lai has just pulled the plug on the pair, not because Albion are seven points from safety at the bottom of the Premier League and looking nailed-on for relegation, as you might expect, but apparently because Williams and Goodman were responsible for the change of manager.
This is where it gets complicated, in the West Midlands, never mind in China. West Brom was not a happy ship when Pulis was in charge this season; the manager was unpopular with supporters and perhaps even with players, and after an initially bright start results were disappointing.
AS IT HAPPENED: Chelsea v West Brom
The club slipped down the table towards the relegation positions, the pressure on the board to act became unbearable, and Pulis paid the price on 20 November. It did not take long until he was snapped up by Middlesbrough of the Championship, where results have been encouraging, if not spectacular.
Boro are in the top half of the table, at any rate. West Brom were not quite in the bottom three when he left, and as everyone knows, Pulis has never been relegated in a 25-year career at nine different clubs. There is always a first time, of course, and Williams and Goodman could be excused for assessing the pre-Christmas situation and assuming this might be it, though on the other hand the manager they brought in has not exactly brought about an improvement.
Pardew is generally seen as experienced and capable, and perhaps more importantly a more emollient presence than a manager who was beginning to annoy some of his players with the rigorousness of his demands in training, though if Albion were supposed to breathe a sigh of relief on Pulis’s departure and earn a few points by playing more relaxed football it failed to happen.
There was no bounce with the managerial changeover, not even a short one. Albion, like Manchester City, are thought to need six more wins from their remaining 11 games. While that is the sort of percentage the leaders seem capable of taking in their stride, the task is considerably more daunting for a side with only three wins all season.
It is tempting to wonder what difference a rearrangement of suits in the boardroom – the former chief executive Mark Jenkins has been brought back to take over the running of the club – can possibly make to this apparently hopeless situation. When you have just got rid of one of the best firefighters in the business – Pulis probably deserves that billing for his work at Crystal Palace alone – it must be hard to know where to look for another saviour but at this late stage a push for survival can surely only come from pitch level.
Williams has seen this scenario play out before – he was a highly respected chairman and chief executive for more than a decade at Blackburn before the takeover by the Venky’s group – and though there are not necessarily any similarities between the two clubs other than the fact of foreign ownership, the turmoil at Ewood since shows how quickly things can fall apart once Premier League status is lost.
Williams and Goodman seem to have been blamed for a bad decision in firing Pulis, or at least for firing Pulis and failing to bring in a high-powered replacement. That is the club owner’s prerogative, though if true it is interesting, for the feeling among many supporters is that Pulis should have been removed earlier. What fans are saying now is that all the signs of Albion’s subsequent struggles could be seen in the dismal run at the end of last season, when the club lost nine of its final 12 games and won only once. Yet that single victory was a thumping 3-1 defeat of Arsenal, exactly the sort of performance that made Pulis’s managerial reputation. And one of the two draws brought a hard-earned point in a scoreless encounter at Old Trafford. Most impressively, Albion finished 10th in the Premier League, pretty much what one expects of a Pulis team.
Would it really have been sensible for a club of Albion’s stature to remove an experienced manager in such circumstances, or are people simply looking back with hindsight? Opinion remains divided. Some fans feel dull football was a price worth paying for continued membership of the Premier League elite and the occasional ambush of a top-six side. Others argue that while motivation often drops off once one of Pulis’s teams have reached the 40-point survival mark, there was a joylessness in the performances towards the end of last season that hinted at the problems that would surface after the summer break.
Either way, the bottom line is that Pulis was not winning enough games, so he had to go. Pardew is not winning enough games either, and the next league fixture at home to Huddersfield this month is beginning to look ominous. How many games Mark Jenkins is going to win remains to be seen, though already there appears to be an acceptance that some of them will be in the Championship.