Daunting survival test awaits West Brom and manager Alan Pardew
Fifth successive defeat might mean Albion end weekend nine points from safety with 10 games to go
There are still two-and-a-half years remaining on the eight-year contract Alan Pardew signed at Newcastle United. They may be only two games left in his time at West Bromwich Albion.
A manager who was once propelled into the position of being a byword for continuity now looks the face of instability. Pardew’s reign reaches 86 days on Friday, with the manager looking increasingly isolated.
He faces Huddersfield Town on Saturday. A fifth successive defeat might mean West Brom end the weekend nine points from safety with 10 games to go. This has the potential to be the closest relegation battle ever, with one exception: Albion could be cut adrift.
It is not just Pardew that was once an image of continuity. Rewind a year and West Brom were presenting themselves as voices of quiet steadiness. With Sunderland imploding, they and Stoke City were the mid-table clubs who represented constancy in an ever-changing division.
A Chinese takeover had changed little, with Tony Pulis remaining manager and an ethos of pragmatic survival seeming entrenched. Albion’s horizons had broadened, but only slightly: owner Lai Guochuan would have advanced them funds from the summer transfer budget to sign Morgan Schneiderlin last January, though he preferred to go to Everton.
That notion of steadiness has been destroyed. A bastion of reliability has been transformed into a basket case. West Brom exist now as a warning, an example of the precariousness of existence outside the top six, a proof clubs can get tired and bored in mid-table.
They seemed rewarded for a risk-averse approach, justified in looking for proven Premier League players and managers. They appeared to have a series of insurance policies against the drop. A manager who has never been relegated and a core of players who have not gone down either.
But Pulis, that great guarantee of survival, lost his habit of grinding out results and his job. So, last week, did chairman John Williams and chief executive Martin Goodman which, as it could scarcely have any immediate effect on the pitch, amounted to a public admission Albion were panicking.
They have gone from equilibrium to freefall. They gained between 43 and 49 points in six of the seven seasons between 2010 and 2017. Now they have three wins in their last 36 league games.
Pardew, who has overseen just one of those victories, has seven in his last 50. He famously deals in boom and bust but for manager and club alike, recent fortunes have been almost entirely negative.
If there was a cruel predictability to seeing Daniel Sturridge injured 78 minutes into his Albion career, flagship signing transformed into spectator, the unlikely element was supplied by the antics of the ‘Cab Four’, the quartet of senior players responsible for allegedly stealing a Spanish taxi during a training camp in Barcelona.
It compounded the image that everything that can go wrong is doing. Pardew has looked left without both boardroom allies and on-field lieutenants. He stripped Jonny Evans of the captaincy for the FA Cup loss to Southampton, promoting 38-year-old Gareth McAuley. The younger man is reportedly set to be reinstated, a decision that looks a sign of weakness.
Evans highlights the sense of underachievement. He has been coveted by Manchester City, Arsenal and Leicester City. He has won one league game in 11 months. So has the double Europa League champion Grzegorz Krychowiak.
Gareth Barry has only helped secure three points twice. Yet they underline Albion’s pedigree: 10 full internationals started their last league game.
Arguably Albion have been illogically bad. Or, to put it another way, illogically bad at winning. They have drawn with Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. Indeed, they have beaten Liverpool in the FA Cup, but won a solitary league match since August.
Now for Huddersfield, who have the feelgood factor Albion lack. The reverse fixture featured West Brom fans telling Pulis his football was terrible, or words to that effect. Huddersfield was the beginning of the end for him.
If reports are to be believed, it could also be for Pardew.
Yet before April, Albion also face Watford, Leicester, Bournemouth, Burnley and Swansea City. It offers the potential of a spurt towards safety.
Or, given the way their season has gone, of death by their peers, the fatal blows struck by the kind of mid-table teams they long seemed a role model for.
Updated: February 22, 2018 03:11 PM