x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

West Brom’s magic touch fading fast

Hull City’s visit will help reveal if West Bromwich Albion, the model for mid-table overachievement in recent years, are slipping into the Championship.

Morgan Amalfitano, left, has not sparkled of late for West Bromwich Albion, who are battling to stay up in the Premier League. Rex Features via AP Images
Morgan Amalfitano, left, has not sparkled of late for West Bromwich Albion, who are battling to stay up in the Premier League. Rex Features via AP Images

Every weekend, only 20 men take charge of a team in the most glamorous league in the world.

Today, one of them is a former punk rocker who is nicknamed “Psycho” and whose only managerial spell ended when he was sacked by Cheltenham Town five years ago.

Keith Downing may be the least likely candidate to lead a top-flight team in the Premier League this season, and only partly because West Bromwich Albion’s acting coach is a former Wolverhampton Wanderers player.

Yet, rich as his backstory is, he is only part of the subplot at The Hawthorns.

Hull City’s visit Saturday will help reveal if West Brom, the model for mid-table overachievement in recent years, are slipping into the Championship.

The next few weeks should show if a club with a near-impeccable record for appointing managers can pluck the right successor to Steve Clarke, dismissed a week ago.

“There are a load of people out there who want this job,” Downing said.

He is not among them and will not apply for it. While he holds the fort, a diverse cast of characters have been linked with the vacancy in the Midlands.

Mauricio Pellegrino, Malky Mackay, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Martin Jol, Ralf Rangnick, Andre Villas-Boas, Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo, Mike Phelan, Paul Clement and Sean Dyche have little in common.

Some are Brits, most are foreigners. Some are up-and-coming coaches, others experienced managers, some purists and some pragmatists. The common denominator is their supposed interest to West Brom.

The chosen man will have a tough task emulating recent appointments.

“Last season, we massively overachieved,” Downing said. Clarke took West Brom to eighth place, their highest finish in more than three decades.

Roy Hodgson, his predecessor, was lured away to manage England. Di Matteo, who came before him, went on to win the Champions League at Chelsea.

Whether recruiting players or managers, West Brom have forged a reputation as talent spotters.

“In the past they have got it right,” Downing said. “The track record is pretty good.”

That Clarke, with his coaching pedigree, appeared the latest fine fit rendered his dismissal more of a shock.West Brom cited the fact they have won only seven of 34 league games in 2013.

Yet those victories included landmark triumphs at Anfield and Old Trafford. It is only six weeks since a dreadful refereeing decision denied them all three points at Chelsea.

And the lowly league position of 16th is the consequence of a run of four defeats.

“We’re aware we’re in a relegation fight,” Downing said. “No one has visions of grandeur.”

Hull City are the side who have quietly surpassed expectations.

West Brom, astute buyers for so long, face questions about their own arrivals.

Stephane Sessegnon and the on-loan Morgan Amalfitano sparkled in September’s 2-1 win over Manchester United but have flattered to deceive since then.

The club-record buy Victor Anichebe has a solitary goal. Nicolas Anelka and the borrowed duo of Scott Sinclair and Matej Vydra have none between them.

West Brom fans tire of hearing they miss Romelu Lukaku, who scored 17 goals during his loan spell in the Midlands last year.

The greater problem has been the struggle of the strikers they do possess.

Anelka, in particular, has been a grave disappointment.

The newcomers’ collective struggles raise questions if the fault lies as much with Clarke as Richard Garlick, the sporting director who took over when the influential Dan Ashworth, like Hodgson before him, was hired by the Football Association.

Garlick is tasked with finding Clarke’s successor.

While future planning was a strength of Ashworth’s, his successor is yet to show the same skill. And so the unheralded Downing is at the helm for what he calls “a defining period”.

Hull City, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham and Newcastle represent the sort of games that are all winnable for a team with West Brom’s talent and all losable for a side on the slide.

It is up to “Psycho” to make sense of a strange situation.

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