West Bromwich Albion’s 7-1 win over Queens Park Rangers was cathartic for many of the supporters at The Hawthorns. It was the club’s biggest league win in over a decade and featured six second-half goals from a team that went nine hours without managing a single one in the spring of last year. It sounds obvious, but it was fun to watch.
Darren Moore’s switch to a 3-4-1-2 formation had the local newspaper purring about how the Baggies had ‘sparkled’ in the final third and while there has not been a bad 7-1 win on these shores since England stumbled past San Marino in 1993, the manner of the victory was significant. Style has been an emotive issue at West Brom for some time now.
The national view of the club’s relegation from the Premier League last season pins much of the blame on the shoulders of Alan Pardew – and for good reason given he delivered eight points in his 18 games in charge. But for many supporters, the seed were sown under Pardew’s predecessor Tony Pulis and his brand of football.
West Brom’s trip to Middlesbrough on Friday night will pit Pulis against his old club for the first time since they sacked him in November. “I would have been very disappointed if, given the 38 games, I’d not kept West Brom up,” he said in his press conference on the eve of the game. “But I am not saying that it was wrong to do what they did.”
Despite one top-10 finish, it was an awkward union for a club that prides itself on a reputation for entertainment. As early as the 1950s, Vic Buckingham eschewed the long ball in favour of football that flowed “like ice cream and chocolate”. The culturally significant team of the late 1970s was not quite the best in the land but it was the most exciting.
Speaking to Birmingham Mail blogger Andrew Benbow after a defeat to Bournemouth in 2016, one that saw fans describe Pulis’ style as faecal matter, he summed it up. “Some of my first memories of watching Albion were in the third division,” he said. “It was a mile away from the great teams that my dad and grandad had watched down The Hawthorns.
“But you were still very conscious of the fact that Albion had a tradition to uphold. We’ve not won a European Cup like Villa and we’ve rarely had the sort of money that they like to chuck around at Wolves, but we do have a tradition of trying to play the right way. It’s always been a source of pride for supporters. It might not seem a big thing, but it matters.”
Such ambitions were put on hold under Pulis with the club forced to embrace a new reality – defying the odds to stay in the top flight for eight seasons and keep the Premier League money coming. Towards the end of that run, it became football as an endurance contest, an exercise in points accumulation played out to a backdrop of ever-declining attendances.
When the points stopped coming there was little left to love. Pulis failed to win any of his last 11 games in charge and West Brom played another 10 without tasting victory. Only the appointment of Darren Moore changed the mood with a late rally. A popular figure at The Hawthorns given his long association with the club, now Moore must change the style too.
He has made pragmatic noises thus far, pointing out Wolves and Cardiff went up playing very different ways. He says his team will be willing to fight and scrap as well as play football. But after approaching a number of candidates to provide experienced support as his number two, the decision to turn to Graeme Jones could prove to be significant.
Jones was the long-time assistant to Roberto Martinez with Swansea, Wigan, Everton and the Belgium national team. The style of football that he favours could hardly be more divorced from that of Pulis. His body of work shows a commitment to a passing game and he has been outspoken on the subject in the build-up to the club’s reunion with their old boss.
There were the usual platitudes about having “total respect for his teams” and how they are “tough” opponents. The comment that “the defensive block is difficult to play against” might also have raised a few eyebrows on Teesside given that Pulis’ Middlesbrough will be the home team and the favourites to win on Friday. But then he came to the crux of it.
“What has had to change here is that we need 100 points,” Jones told the Express and Star. “We have to play more attacking football and score more goals. It is a different requirement staying in the Premier League and getting promoted from the Championship. It is a natural thing that has to change. In order to move forward we can’t play that way any more.
“We are West Bromwich Albion, one of the best, if not the biggest side in the Championship. We need a different style and different shape in order to win football matches, because you only get promoted winning football matches. Draws are sometimes good results in the Premier League, in the Championship they are not.”
It is bold talk, particularly given West Brom lost their first game of the season at home to Bolton. But 11 goals in the last two games mean the Baggies are the top scorers in the country going into the game at the Riverside Stadium – though the juxtaposition with their opponents is not quite what Pulis’ more vociferous critics would have people believe.
Boro are the third highest scorers in the Championship since he arrived. While some of the statistics do not necessarily bear his hallmark – they have completed the most dribbles in that period too, largely thanks to the performances of Adama Traore – others numbers are more typical of his teams. Only Millwall have created more chances from set plays.
Pulis himself says there will be no added spice to the meeting with his former club beyond the chance to catch up with familiar faces. Moore was even his captain during his time in charge of Portsmouth. But there is an edge here. West Brom are third favourites for the title. One of the only two teams fancied to finish above them is Middlesbrough.
With Mo Besic having completed a loan move to return to Boro and with other deals on the way, belief around the place is growing again. A home win on Friday would not only take them three points clear at the top of the table, it would underline the fact this is a manager who knows how to win promotion to the Premier League as well as stay in it.
But a win for the away team would take West Brom to the top of the Championship instead – albeit on goal difference. It would help to convince supporters the malaise that gripped the club last season has truly come to an end. And maybe even remind them that winning football and entertaining football need not be mutually exclusive.