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Mar 7, 2014

Anelka and Albion, an unhappy relationship

As the Nicolas Anelka "Quenelle" saga finally nears its conclusion , it's fair to say that it is yet another phase in what has proved to be an unhappy partnership between player and club.

It seems likely that Anelka will accept the five match ban he's been handed by the FA instead of appealing, which is definitely the right decision. Dragging the whole affair out any longer would have provided just another unwelcome distraction when all of the club need to be pulling in the same direction as they try to get away from the relegation zone.

There is no doubting that Anelka was downright stupid in performing the gesture. While he's been cleared of being an anti-Semite by the FA, there was simply no need to perform a gesture which he knew had very negative connotations. It was his first goal for the club, at a time when the fans were beginning to question whether he was really worth the hassle; surely he should have gone to celebrate with them or even celebrate at them if he really felt he had a point to prove.

It is even more of a shame that he performed that gesture because in the rest of the West Ham game and subsequent matches against Newcastle and Everton, Anelka was one of the best players on the pitch and it finally seemed he was beginning to find form just as West Brom needed him most. He seemed to be Albion's best option in linking up play between midfield and attack, but West Brom are now without him for five key games and I wouldn't be surprised if we never saw him in a West Brom shirt again.

When the Frenchman first signed for the club, it was a signing that was questioned by many. It was a signing very unlike the ones usually made by the club. Albion's mandate tended to be to sign less well known players, on a lot cheaper wages than Anelka. In hindsight, it was one of a number of very questionable summer signings that also included Diego Lugano, Scott Sinclair and Stephane Sessegnon. After the controversy of last year's transfer window with Peter Odemwingie, the last thing West Brom needed was another controversial striker, but that is exactly what they got in Anelka.

Initially, it seemed that Anelka might have proved to be an inspired signing. He couldn't stop scoring in pre-season, and these were games against decent opposition. It was clear that he had bundles of quality; you saw that with just how much time he had on the ball compared to West Brom's other players. I even wrote a blog about how I thought that the Anelka signing could prove to be a master-stroke both in terms of performances on the pitch and merchandise off the pitch.

However, when the season began for real, so did the controversy. After a fairly anonymous debut against Southampton in the opening game of the season, it was reported that Anelka was about to retire. Initially, there was no reason given for his retirement which led to suggestions he was retiring because he didn't want to play for West Brom, or that because there had been a training ground bust-up with the coaching staff. As it turned out, Anelka was contemplating retirement because his best friend and agent had died. In the end, Anelka was persuaded to carry on playing, but that was the beginning of the rocky road that has ended with the quenelle controversy.

The next issue came with Anelka's failure to find the net for West Brom until the 28th December. As West Brom had lost Romelu Lukaku and Odemwingie from last season, and with Shane Long also seemingly not wanted by the club, the burden to replace their goals was placed on Anelka. Perhaps it was a little unrealistic to expect an aging Anelka to replace all of those goals, but based on his profile and wages, West Brom would have been expecting a much better return than the two goals he has scored. Perhaps if his general contribution had been better, then the lack of goals would be forgiven. But while he did show signs of class, they didn't come nearly regularly enough.

As mentioned, Anelka was also expected to improve West Brom's fortunes off the pitch in terms of raising the profile of the club and increasing merchandise sales. As it was, Anelka did seem to sell a lot of shirts, but since the quenelle gesture controversy first began, West Brom's principal sponsor Zoopla announced they would not be renewing their deal at the end of the season as a result of West Brom's playing of Anelka after the gesture, while other sponsors are also said to be considering pulling out of their deals with the club.

With a small goal return, poor injury record and now the quenelle gesture, it's probably fair to say the signing of Anelka hasn't exactly gone to plan. If he does play for Albion again, then he's got a lot of making up to do in a short period of time.