In an effort to get fans on his side following his takeover of West Bromwich Albion, Chinese businessman Lai Guochuan issued a personal message promising stability and continuity at the established Premier League club.
“My immediate priorities,” he wrote to supporters in May 2016, “will be to maintain the club’s stable structure, respecting its well-run nature and its heritage.”
Nearly two years later, West Brom is a mess, a club in disarray on and off the field, and seemingly sliding out of the most lucrative league in world soccer.
Lai might just be wondering what he got himself into.
The Premier League is witnessing one of the tightest relegation scraps in its 26-year history this season, with eight points separating ninth-place Everton and 19th-place Stoke. Below them all, though, is West Brom, which has been cut adrift in last place, seven points from safety with 10 games left and with only three wins to its name.
Meanwhile, four of its players have just been disciplined for stealing a taxi during a warm-weather training break in Barcelona, another player (Jay Rodriguez) has been charged with racially abusing an opponent during a game, and the club’s chief executive and chairman were both recently fired — apparently held accountable for West Brom’s slump.
Manager Alan Pardew might be next out of the door, reportedly set to be fired if West Brom loses to Watford on Saturday. Then, Lai would be looking to appoint West Brom’s third manager of the season after firing Tony Pulis in November.
Pulis, it must be emphasized, was widely regarded as a guarantee against relegation, having never been demoted from the top flight in 25 years as a manager. West Brom was badly underperforming under Pulis and was one place above the relegation zone when he departed, yet it was still a bold call from Lai.
In fact, Lai doesn’t appear to have done that much wrong. He backed Pulis with $40 million in the offseason to bring in players like Poland midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak from Paris Saint-Germain, left back Kieran Gibbs from Arsenal, and winger Oliver Burke from Leipzig. It was widely thought that West Brom had its best and deepest squad in years.
West Brom even had a decent January in the transfer market, pulling off a coup in bringing England striker Daniel Sturridge on loan from Liverpool and retaining the services of star center back Jonny Evans despite interest from Manchester City and Arsenal. The injury-prone Sturridge was hurt in his third game for West Brom and faces a spell out, another cruel blow for Pardew.
The appointment of the 56-year-old Pardew wasn’t too contentious. He has his critics but there weren’t too many complaints when he was hired after mixed spells in charge of Newcastle and Crystal Palace since 2010.
Pardew appears to have slightly improved the quality of West Brom’s play, but not the results: Heading into the match at Watford, the team has won only one of 14 league games under Pardew.
Tellingly, after the morale-sapping 2-1 home loss to Huddersfield last weekend, Pardew used the statistic of “three wins in 37 games” for West Brom in his post-match interviews, purposely adding Pulis’ results in an attempt to slightly mask the poor run under him.
With matches against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham in its last four, West Brom is facing a critical next five games in the league when its survival will likely be decided. On current form, the team is heading out of the Premier League for the first time since 2010.
That would deprive the Midlands of yet another Premier League team, following the relegations in the last decade of Aston Villa, Birmingham, Derby and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wolves are likely to return for next season, joining Leicester as the only representatives from central England.
It’s the firing of Pulis that West Brom may live to regret, even if it seemed logical at the time. Lai certainly seems to have belated misgivings about that decision, hence the departures of chairman John Williams and chief executive Martin Goodman.
How galling it would be if, come the end of the season, West Brom is replaced in the Premier League by Middlesbrough, currently eighth in the second-tier League Championship and fighting for a playoff spot.
Middlesbrough’s manager? A certain Tony Pulis.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80