By Alex Netherton & Andi Thomas
We didn’t want to be the ones to break this to you, but since your parents and your teachers and your friends and families are just too damn cowardly to step up, we’re going to have to. This world, this messy one, this one right here that you’re reading this in, is not—despite the black propaganda you will have heard from any number of calculus-deriving German savants—the best of all possible worlds. Sorry. No, really…ah, no, don’t cry. Look, have a sit down, we’ll see if we can find you some tea or something.
There is, for example, a universe where the Premier League doesn’t just hew to the straightforward three points for a win, one for a draw, none for a loss. Results are still results, of course, but this Premier League—which is sponsored by the Cooperative Bank—filters all results though a series of subtle algorithms designed to compensate for the distorting effect of money. Things are little different over there, as you might imagine. Roberto Mancini’s not had work for a while. Liverpool are currently mid-table in the Championship. And, to finally get to the point of this contrived introduction, the top of the Premier League reads West Bromwich Albion, then daylight.
Back in the real world, after a third of the season, they’re fourth, below only the two halves of Manchester and the champions of Europe. More importantly, though, they’re fourth on merit, having played most of the teams around them and beaten a fair few. Why, then, has this quite remarkable achievement-in-progress not been more celebrated? Where are the in-depth articles picking apart Steve Clarke’s tactical approach? Where are the hymns of praise to Zoltan Gera’s set-piece delivery, and name?
Three reasons. The first is that their football, while effective, isn’t particularly arousing. Rather than build his team on a philosophy, or a heavily trailed and thunderously pumped-up statistical and stylistic revolution, or dirty, dirty money, Clarke has taken the almost-retro approach of organizing his reasonably talented players in a mutually beneficial formation, and trusting them to play up to their own abilities without dressing this up as anything other than good, solid football management. The sick bastard. So much of the dissection of football is, in fact, a dissection of the bullshit slathered onto the game by frauds and by salesmen; here, by contrast, is a team with a decent goalkeeper, a tight back four, a midfield that has some decent passing, some energy, and a bit of wit, and a cast of strikers that play in differing but complementary roles, and no obviously terrible human beings. Which is all you need.
This lack of arousal extends to their players. This season’s most entertaining off-field West Brom incident was the BBC’s Garth Crooks instructing Roy Hodgson to have a look at Scottish international James Morrison. This was laughed away as a mistake (it was clear that Crooks was in fact calling for the military and political subjugation of the rebellious Northlands), but nevertheless highlights the issue: for all the heroism of Jonas Olsson, the thunder of Youssouf Mulumbu, and the smouldering of Claudio Yacob, this ain’t a collection of bankable, back-page filling Premier League personalities.
The second is that their positive results have so far been subsumed into somebody else’s story. Beat Liverpool 3-0 on the opening day? Look at the size of the task awaiting Brendan Rodgers and his magic envelopes. Draw away at Tottenham? It’s quite clear that Andre Villas-Boas is a twitchy know-nothing fraud. Beat Chelsea 2-1? Tonight, Matthew, Roberto di Matteo will be On The Brink. It’s an unspoken fact that games between the “big teams” and the rest only actually exist to move the story of the big club along; the smaller teams are like banana skins, there to be slipped on or dodged, but never actually part of any race.
The third is that, well, they’re West Brom. They used to be nicknamed the Throstles, they have a squad player named after a lettuce, and they’re not yet free of that strange, muted patina that goes along with post-Anfield Roy Hodgson. It’s a tricky sell.
Look, they’re not going to win the league. They won’t because Leibniz was wrong and this world, while perhaps not the worst possible, is only one or two bad results away from a relegation scrap. But true footballing worth is measured partly in relative and contextual terms, and partly by the simple absence of despicable plantpottery, and on both counts West Brom have the rest of the country floundering in their wake. Even if Steve Clarke does need to straighten his tie sometimes. The sick bastard.
A note on Ryan Giggs. There was a time when, for a Manchester United fan, seeing Giggs’s name on the team sheet was a comfort and blessing, and for a fan of Manchester United’s opponents, it was a source of terror and depression. These two situations have now exactly reversed.