The Super Nodge face a difficult first home tie to recently relegated West Bromwich Albion. Luckily they’re without a win in their first two matches so Along Come ….oh shit. Jon Punt spoke to Baggies fan Matt Evans ahead of the fixture…
Jon: Having recently caught Channel 4's excellent 'The Football Club: Artist in Residence' it appears a lot was wrong with WBA last season. However, the documentary didn't really get to the bottom of it fully, though you had a sense the players were uneasy in their surroundings. In your view, what caused your demise?
Matt: Well firstly, how good was that documentary? Obviously all Albion fans knew last season was a bit of a disaster but the documentary was an eye-opener, especially as it only seemed to brush the surface of what went on. There was also a nice bit of irony when the portrait of Tony Pulis was entitled "the fear of failure". Nothing sums that man up better.
I think the main reason for our demise was just a general malaise that had set in at the club from the top all the way through to the fans. The previous season we had finished 10th but only actually won 2 games after January. A lot of important people at the club, and a decent portion of fans too, bought into the "Pulis won't get you relegated" narrative but the truth is we were well on our way by the time he got the sack, which actually should have come at the end of the season where we finished 10th as it was blindingly obvious that what he was doing wasn't working.
A core of players had been at the club for some time and I think they too had perhaps got a bit too comfortable. They seemed to be set in their ways and happy to just keep plodding along. I suspect that was why Pulis was kept on for so long, as he was constantly talking about what great lads they were. A lot of those players were great servants to the club in one of their most successful periods, but there does come a time when you have to move on and it was left a little too late. New signings were forced to adapt to the style already in place, rather than adapt and improve around these additions.
To have someone as bombastic as Alan Pardew to walk through the door to replace Pulis, it was just a disaster waiting to happen and he was bound to put noses out of joint. What I liked most about the documentary was that the artist wasn't a football fan at the start and so wasn't afraid to ask the bluntest question. When he was talking to Chris Brunt and his pals and asked how was training, they all looked awkward, smirked and didn't really answer the question. That seemed to say it all for me. There was just no respect for Pardew, he seemed to rub the players up the wrong way and tactically, he was all over the shop. The players were clueless on the pitch at times and by the end, started running things themselves.
So based on your turnaround at the end of last season, how do you expect Darren Moore to fare in the Championship. This all seems very reminiscent of when we appointed Neil Adams at the end of Chris Hughton's reign. Adams didn't get the results Moore has, yet he certainly re-galvanised the players. The problem then was an inexperienced coach was left to get on with it in a league which is notoriously difficult to get out of. Do you fear the same might happen to WBA?
At the back of your mind, there is always that fear Darren won't be able to replicate the results he achieved at the back end of last season under no pressure, compared to a 46 game slog in the Championship. Like yourselves with Adams, it seems as if the board felt obliged to give them a job, particularly following on from an unpopular manager, be that a Pulis or a Hughton (I was there when your fans started throwing clappers at him). I think a big part of that fear is almost that you don't want someone so well regarded at the club to have to suffer the fans turning on them and potentially ruining their reputation.
It's a difficult league to get yourselves out of and I think as bigger issue as Moore will be some of the players. A lot haven't played at this level for a long time, if ever, and I think they'll be in for a bit of a culture shock. As much as Moore may struggle with the demands of a 46 game season, there's a few players currently at the club who definitely won't fancy a long-haul midweek trip followed by a 3pm kick off on the Saturday.
Having said all that, I'm quietly optimistic about what Moore has done so far since getting the job on a full time basis. He's got rid of some big names, he's brought in some talented, hungry players from the lower leagues and he seems to be trying to restore a bit of pride and identity to a club that seemed to lose that after nearly a decade in the Premier League, particularly in the joyless tenure of Pulis.
It's a risky appointment and to be honest, he wasn't my first choice for the job. But there's a lot of goodwill for Big Dave among the fans and that will help if there's any early teething problems. He'll be given far more patience than someone coming in from outside the club. Potentially that's a blessing, of course it could be a curse if we do struggle and the board feel as if they can't get rid of him. Hopefully that's not a bridge we'll have to cross.
Ah the clappers. That wasn't the wisest move on the club's part. Your situation sounds extremely similar to ours under Adams and to be honest, good old 'Neyul' got too much time because of the goodwill he'd gained.
Onto matters more recent, how's pre-season been for the Baggies?
Yeah clappers are definitely a controversial one, we had them a few times last season and with the way we played, I'm not really too sure what purpose they served.
There's definitely a fine line that is very difficult to tread with a club legend at the helm, particularly one in their first job who has been developed by the club. You want them to get every chance possible but of course there's a time when you have to say enough is enough, hopefully we won't see that.
Pre-season hasn't exactly been a straight forward one. We've had all sorts going on, players at the world cup, new signings coming in, players refusing to train and wanting to leave...and then a bit of football thrown into the mix as well! Darren seems to be taking things in his stride, I particularly enjoyed the way he dealt with Craig Dawson refusing to train. After welcoming Dawson back to the camp, we had a friendly against Aberdeen at Pittodrie. Moore took Dawson in the squad but left him on the bench the entire game, he was the only outfield player not to get on the pitch that game. A real bit of old-school management that I'm sure got his message across.
There's only a few players who have any experience of the division really, and even then it's not recent experience for most of those, Chris Brunt and James Morrison haven't played championship football in 10 years now. I think the club has certainly looked to bring in some younger players to what is an ageing squad, be that through promoting some of the youth team lads or just signing younger players who have played at this level or football league before. This will definitely be a massive help across what is a long old season.
We've got players at the club who ability-wise are Premier League footballers. If they stay, they've got the ability to be massive players in this league, it's whether they'll have the character to compete over a 46 game season that remains a mystery really.
So clearly the aspirations are to bounce straight back, do you fear the strength of the league might make that a tough ask?
Definitely. To be honest, I don't see us getting into the top two, I'd be happy with being in and around the play offs come the business end of the season, and then it's anyone's for the taking.
That's for a combination of reasons really. As mentioned already, Moore is a totally unknown quantity as a manager so no-one knows how he's going to go and then there's the cloud of uncertainty that has surrounded the make-up of the squad through most of pre-season.
As a recently relegated team, there's always a lot of pressure on you to come straight back up as theoretically you should have a significant financial advantage over many of the teams in the league. As you know, it's not as easy as that. The league is only getting stronger, there is more and more money being piled into it as foreign owners are starting to perhaps realise that buying a Championship club for less than a Premier League club then trying to get promotion is potentially a very fruitful investment.
The main reason why I don't expect automatic promotion is what happened last season, which again goes back to the strength of the league. Look at the three teams who came up, they'd all spent time in this league and they all did it in a variety of ways. Our nearest and dearest Wolves spent and got in players clearly too good for the division, Cardiff did it with a squad of Championship veterans while Fulham had a mix of youth, experience and cast-offs.
That variety makes it very difficult to know what will happen this year, lots of team are coming in with new managers or new investment, it should be interesting to see what happens across the division. What are the hopes for Norwich? Because realistically for me, at least half of the teams in division would fancy themselves to at least trouble the top 6.
Interesting question around Norwich's expectations. After our summer business was done early, and seemed to address any issues the squad had, lots of people are full of hope that we can think about top 6. However, given the financial challenges we've faced and the fact we've lost our stand out performer from last season, anything resembling progress would be a success. So....top 10.
Your introduction to the Championship hasn’t gone too well, although as we know the opening games really mean nothing. Were there any weaknesses which have you worried already though?
And this is now Norwich's third season back in the Championship right? That shows how important it is to get it right in the first two seasons, otherwise financially you are very much hamstrung after that and it becomes far tougher. Obviously Maddison will be a big miss for you guys, he was very, very impressive in the games of yours I saw last season.
Yeah it certainly wasn't the start that we wanted. I think it was a bit of a culture shock for a lot of the players, and the fans, to see a team come and sit back against us, putting 10 men behind the ball and counter-attacking, as this is the style we're used to seeing from our managers. I think a few of the players struggled with that kind of responsibility, and I'd like to see James Morrison back in the starting XI as soon as possible in the number 10 role.
Obviously the first games, particularly coming this early, aren’t the be all and end all in terms of a barometer for your season but there are some serious worries about our defence. Kyle Bartley and Ahmed Hegazi are a brand new partnership, with a new goalkeeper in Sam Johnstone behind them. There wasn't much communication and a lot of poor marking and free headers given away. Hopefully it is just a case of teething problems and with more games a partnership will be formed, but the early signs weren't all that encouraging.
Yes, third season - in fairness to the club financially we had a good go at getting out during the first season, then realised we'd stretched ourselves a bit too much and have been cutting our cloth ever since.
I'm guessing the loss of Rondon is more than offset by Dwight Gayle coming the other way - are you happy with the exchange?
It doesn't seem as if we're pushing the boat out too much financially at the moment, as I think we're cutting costs from our last year in the top flight, so I'd expect more of a splurge in January if we're in trouble or next summer if we don't get out of the league.
I'm a bit ambivalent towards it to be honest. Rondon flattered to deceive here, he had all the tools to be a huge success and had some games where he looked unplayable but too often he was left isolated and chasing lost causes because of the style of play that Tony Pulis favoured. Despite being a big lad, he wasn't great in the air, at least not in terms of winning headers away from the box to hold the ball-up and link play. His finishing also left a bit to be desired on occasions.
As for Gayle, he's a proven goal-scorer at this level. But again, it's all about style of play and whether we can adapt around him. He's not going to compete for long balls, he needs to be played in behind or provided with good service from out wide. Also, I'm not too sure his all round game is all that great, even if his scoring record is.
Well for what it's worth, Norwich were linked with him previously, which means it's almost inevitable he'll score against us. With that in mind I'm going for a 1-1 draw, your lot taking the lead in the 47th minute, Kyle Bartley subsequently getting sent off in the dying stages then Jordan Rhodes bagging his first goal in the might yellow just seconds before the end. Let's have your very specific prediction....
I’m glad we’re not the only team that seems to happen to. I’m going to concur with you on score line, 1-1. I think you’ll score first in the 37th minute through Tim Klose at a corner, after a spell of set piece pressure.
We’ll equalise around 70 minutes through Gayle, with maybe his 2nd or 3rd touch, after coming on for the ineffective Robson-Kanu. They’ll be a lot of huff and puff late on from both teams but a lack of quality in the final third will see the draw secured.
Thanks to Matt for his time, he tweets @MattEvansWBA and regularly blogs about the Baggies.
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