PALMA, Spain (AP) – Doubts always encircle a promoted club's survival hopes, skepticism that has come to fruition more often than not for West Bromwich Albion. Last year, however, Brom avoided the down side of the yo-yo, and in that way it was a season of redemption for both the club and the man they brought in to guide them home.
Here's FOX Soccer's preseason look at WBA:
Last season's signature result would prove to be WBA's big 2-1 over Liverpool on the second of April. It was vindication for both the club and its manager, Roy Hodgson the man who had been sent packing from Anfield. It was also a game that showcased how effective Hodgson's teams can be. That said, that game was more of a moral victory; WBA's season truly turned in February, when the Baggies took a big gamble on a manager who at that point was thought to be permanently damaged goods.
Remember that Hodgson was run out of Liverpool on tines, blamed for everything about the club up to and including the price of pies around the stadium. He was thought to be un-employable, so when WBA picked him up, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Now, whether it was the new boss or the return of some of the (many) injured players doesn't matter. In the final three months of Brom's campaign Hodgson not only eased the relegation worries, he guided West Bromwich Albion to an 11th place finish, completing what can only be called the roller-coaster performance of the BPL season. If there was not quite the panache of a side that had blitzed Arsenal in the fall, there was plenty of grit and enough skill for Albion supporters to head into the summer believing that Hodgson had the team on the right course.
Yet some credit has to be given to ex-manager Roberto DiMatteo. He had fashioned an attacking side that moved the ball well, finished with aplomb, and looked anything but a side headed for a relegation fight. Injuries, however, began to take DiMatteo's side apart, and when WBA limped into the new year, the club had to pull the trigger.
The mid-table finish was probably exactly what you should have expected from a team that has been consistently good without ever truly being great in the modern era. Limited ambitions? Perhaps. The truth is that West Bromwich Albion doesn't have the cachet of the bigger English clubs despite a long history of achievement. Instead of the star names, WBA has had to pick up the guys who fly just under the radar, which makes for good business if not championship pretensions.
What Hodgson must do is bring the same level of confidence and commitment that characterized his stay at Fulham, where he helped transform a London also-ran into a competitive EPL side. The failure at Liverpool cast doubts over Hodgson's ability to handle the spotlight at a "big" club, but there is no question that he has proved himself a master tactician when working with teams composed of average talent. It doesn't matter whether you look at his work with Switzerland (1994 World Cup qualification) or in Finland, where he gave that national team a chance, or Fulham. The man knows how to get the most of the parts available.
And those parts have change plenty since last year, and it's not necessarily all good. They've lost a quality `keeper, with Scott Carson moving to Turkey's Bursaspor, though a loan for Ben Foster has stopped that gap. There also were questions over important midfielder Youssuf Mulumbu, who had not signed a contract extension and could be on the way out. Hodgson has added one of his former Fulham men, Zoltan Gera, although the veteran Hungarian needs to prove his fitness after injury problems in recent seasons.
Also signed as Bosman free agents were defenders Gareth McAuley (Ipswich Town) and Billy Jones (Preston North End), neither of whom are head-turners. Hodgson says he has money to spend and is known to like Reading striker Shane Long, but WBA supporters may not know the actual composition of the squad until close to opening day.
Regardless of who dresses on August 14th against Manchester United, there is no reason to believe that Hodgson will abandon a playing style that has served him well. That means a strong defense, headed by veterans Jonas Olsson and Nicky Shorey, will work in front of whoever finally winds up in goal.
Albion's real strength is in midfield where Steven Reid, Mulumbu, Somen Tchoyi and James Morrison all proved themselves capable of matching the requirements of the BPL. Hodgson likes his midfielders to defend first, but also relishes a game where the outside men can get quickly forward to support the attack.
Up front, Albion needs much more consistency from Peter Odemwingie, a will-o-the-wisp type who can leave you breathless with one move, completely frustrated with a miss in the next attack. Marc-Antoine Fortune showed some good things, too, but like Odemwingie, must become more consistently reliable. Hodgson's interest in prying Long away from Reading suggests that he believes the team lacks the type of target player he likes to head an attack.
There is enough quality on the roster to believe that Foster's acquisition may have stabilized their season. With an experienced number one, the Albion defense is better than average, and Hodgson will make certain that the side plays to his direction in shape and commitment. No, the Baggies probably won't show us some of the expansive football that characterized their best under DiMatteo, but the supporters will no doubt be willing to exchange that for a season that doesn't have as many bumps in the road. They're not a title challenger, but there is no reason to think the Baggies should flirt with relegation again, either.
And, as their Carling Cup run showed a year ago, they could be a handful in either the League or FA Cup.