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Aug 8, 2008

Mowbray will stick to principles

The gap between the Premier League and the Championship is often cited when a team is promoted to English football's top echelon. And that pressure is heightened when a team arrives with the label as the 'best footballing side in the Football League'.

That label almost reached the status of cliche during 2007/8 when many a lazy pundit chose to describe Tony Mowbray's side in that way. The manager's belief in playing passing and attacking football took a while to bed in at The Hawthorns, with the Baggies falling short at the play-off hurdle in 2006/7 yet it bore fruit in 2007/8 in an exceptionally exciting race to make the Premier League.

In contrast to the runaway promotion successes of Reading and Sunderland in the two previous seasons, it took Albion until the second-last game of the campaign to confirm promotion. Four teams in Albion, Hull, Stoke and Bristol had a realistic chance of going up with a month of the season to go. West Brom held their nerve to win the Championship, going unbeaten in their last ten matches.

By qualifying outright for the Premier League, Albion escaped their hoodoo at the new Wembley, where as well that play-off defeat to Derby they also lost in the FA Cup semi-final to Portsmouth. Mowbray's team didn't face a Premier League club in their run to the last four yet could be considered unlucky in their semi-final loss to a single Kanu goal that came much against the run of play.

This is a markedly different team to that relegated under Bryan Robson, who failed to repeat the miracle of 2004/5 when Baggies slipped out of the division in 2005/6. In truth, promotion at the first time of asking would have come too soon for Mowbray's side, as his arrival from Hibs gave him little time to get used to the rigours of managing in the English leagues.

Painful as defeat was to Derby, the Rams' catastrophic 2007/8 may have served to point to that Wembley woe as a blessing in disguise. And though every fan dreams of watching their team run out in the FA Cup Final, that loss to Portsmouth may well have focused Albion on the real job in hand, namely promotion.

The aim this season, as ever for a promoted team, is to finish no lower than 18th. Yet the ambitious Mowbray has to believe that his team can do a little better than that. And he can use the blueprint of the aforementioned Sunderland and Reading to achieve it. Both came up as footballing sides and both escaped relegation with plenty to spare. Though 'second seasonitis' struck Steve Coppell's team and may yet hang in the balance for Roy Keane's charges.

The more prosaic approach of clubs like Watford, Sheffield United and Derby have perished on reaching the big league. Their brand of football failed to survive the test of a higher standard of player and tactics.

It is unlikely that Mowbray will alter his approach, and fans certainly hope so. He has been hailed by Baggies fans as a messiah for playing a brand of the attacking game that has not been seen at the Hawthorns since Ron Atkinson was boss in the late 70's and early 80's.

One difference from last season will be the absence of Kevin Phillips, who moved across town to Birmingham City, citing the lure of first-team football. The loss of the veteran does not mean Mowbray is lacking in options, with Ishmael Miller, Roman Bednar, Luke Moore and Craig Beattie all able to play as forwards.

Permanent deals for former loanees Miller, Bednar and Moore were completed during the summer and at least one more is supposed to follow by the time the transfer window closes.

Not for Mowbray the Roy Keane route of splashing tens of millions. So far his transfer business has been to bolster the defence with left-back Marek Cech signed from Porto and goalkeeper Scott Carson signed at what looks like a cut-price £4m. Some reports had the England keeper valued at £10m so to get him for under half that can be considered a coup.

The departure of the much-coveted Zoltan Gera on a free transfer to Fulham is a significant loss to the creativity of Mowbray's midfield. Yet the manager doesn't seem inclined to splash the cash and go like for like for a replacement. He has spoken of the chance that Gera's move has given the likes of James Morrison, Kim Do-Heon and Filipe Texeira to fill the gap left by the loss of the right midfielder.

Mowbray has cited the versatility of many of his midfield group as being a useful tool in the Premier League, where more energetic and competitive performers may be needed to stop opposition attack-minded players.

So far during his time at the Hawthorns, Mowbray is yet to persevere with the anchorman midfielder regarded as so necessary in the modern-day top division. Popular club captain Jonathan Greening is more a creative player and has played much of his career as a winger. Yet he partners Robert Koren, himself a playmaker at the heart of the midfield.

Though Cech has been added, the one area for reinforcement seems to be central defence where Martin Albrechtsen has followed Gera out on a free transfer. Mowbray will surely look to add an experienced performer to what looks a rather green defensive group.

Yet, as ever, the former Middlesbrough defender refuses to be rushed, choosing to stick to his guns and make use of what he has along the lines of his own philosophy; a trait that has been successful for him throughout his managerial career.

West Brom's board are not known for their trigger-happy nature, with both Gary Megson and Bryan Robson given grace after relegation. Mowbray was granted a new deal during 2007/8 at a time when only the play-offs seemed likely. And his popularity among fans is another factor to keep his position secure.

Having played a brand of Premier League football for the last two seasons, Mowbray now gets to truly test his mettle at the level he feels his team deserve to be at.


  • Any thoughts on this article? Feel free to email John Brewin

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