The saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ is usually used to strike a cautionary note for those who are perhaps considered to be getting ahead of themselves in life, and for whom it could all so easily end in embarrassment, disaster or both. Very often there are parallels to be drawn with this and the rather more manic world of football, particularly in the Premier League.
Now, I must declare a vested interest here. I am a West Brom season ticket holder, with Tony Pulis currently our manager. Having been an Albion fan all my life, being pragmatic, being careful what I wish for, has always been important for both me and the club (Pulis has a line, one of his favourites, about reaching the fabled 40-point mark, almost above the importance of anything else).
And yet now they appear to find themselves at a crossroads. Under former owner Jeremy Peace, the club were virtually debt-free – an extraordinary feat in the inflated financial world of the Premier League. Peace left the club last summer, selling up to Chinese billionaire Lai Guochuan. On the face of it, for many fans, this could only be a good thing.
As a by-product of Peace’s strict regime, Albion have been starved of any real excitement for a while now, particularly in the transfer market. Before this summer, loyal supporters had been treated to the delights of Marc Wilson or Georgios Samaras (past their prime when they arrived at the club to say the least), or the likes of Jason Davidson or Sebastian Blanco (me neither).
The signs, however, were good at the end of this summer. Albion were widely regarded as having made a success of a tricky period, keeping their best players, like Jonny Evans, while appearing to add genuine quality in Kieran Gibbs, Jay Rodriguez and the up and coming Oliver Burke.
And yet the club is, once again, ensconced in mid-table and there doesn’t appear to have been any significant improvements made, certainly not in the style of play. For many fans, the blame for this lies solely at the door of Mr Pulis. Now that he appears to have some genuine quality at his disposal, the worry is whether he possesses the managerial qualities to take the club any higher than he has done. He stabilised them – but can he push them on?
Here is where the crossroads lie.
Premier League history is littered with teams who took a gamble that then backfired spectacularly, Crystal Palace being one example. A Total Football revolution was killed off in its infancy and yet they remain rooted to the bottom of the league. Were Albion to trade in Pulis for a fancier continental model, would they live to regret it, as Palace are so clearly doing?
The Premier League, which so often prides itself on being the most exciting league in the world to watch, could well end up shooting itself in the foot with the amount of money it generates. Bar perhaps six or seven teams, everyone else appears to be so terrified of losing their place around the money pit that pragmatism – be that in the form of Pulis or Roy Hodgson – is far more likely to end up being the order of the day, rather than Frank de Boer’s arguably more admirable footballing principles.
The truth is, however, that for most fans, their hopes and expectations remain, just about, in line with those of the pragmatists, rather than the idealists – losing a seat at the top table could be far worse than having to sit through a few dull 0-0 draws – for now…