An excellent victory at St Mary’s last weekend saw us move up into ninth place in the table, which if we maintained that place would equate to prize money of £24 million at the end of the season. According to reports in the media, Slaven Bilic will be offered a new contract if we finish eighth or above this season. The question I ask is – how does information such as this find its way into the media? Does somebody guess, and then the rumour spreads like a lot of fake news these days? Or does it get deliberately leaked by somebody? He may have some tactical shortcomings, but Bilic is adored by the majority of fans according to various polls, and I find it hard to believe that our board will dispense with his services provided that we don’t collapse between now and the end of the season. A top half finish is well within our grasp, and we can go some way towards pushing upwards for an eighth place finish if we can beat West Brom this weekend.
In many ways, the Baggies are the surprise team this season. The top six were very predictable, and it is no real shock to see Everton in seventh, but West Brom eighth was not one that many could see coming. But in eighth position they are, and five points clear of ninth (us) at that, so they will be working extra hard to ensure that we don’t beat them and close the gap to two. One of the best games of football I ever saw was on Good Friday in 1965. We beat West Brom 6-1 but I’ll save the details for another article in my series on favourite games. They were a top tier team throughout the 1960s like ourselves, and we often gave them a thrashing at Upton Park.
In the last 25 years the Baggies have not had a great deal of success. When the Premier League began in 1992, we missed out on being one of the teams taking part in the first season as we were in the second tier. Albion were in a worse position than ourselves as they were even lower; they were a third tier team (the equivalent of League One today). Throughout the twenty-first century they have been the archetypal yo-yo club. Promotion to the Premier League in 2001-2 was followed by relegation the following season (2002-3). They came back up as a result of a successful campaign in 2003-4, and famously avoided relegation the following season with their version of “The Great Escape” when they became the first club to be bottom of the Premier League at Christmas, but stay up, which they achieved on the final day. It didn’t last though as they went down again in 2005-6, came back up in 2007-8, were relegated in 2008-9, and then won promotion yet again in 2009-10. Now that is the definition of a yo-yo club if ever I’ve seen one.
They have retained their position in the top league since then, and this is now their seventh successive season in the Premier League. They will be delighted with how it has gone so far, and early murmurs about the Pulis style of play have evaporated as they have climbed the table with a reasonably attractive style of football (well attractive by Pulis standards, anyway). Their ten wins, six draws and just eight defeats leave them on 36 points, just short of the magical 40 that all clubs aim for, although in truth 36 is often enough (but not in 2002-3, I hear you say!). A bit like ourselves, they could be described as flat-track bullies, in that they haven’t beaten any of the seven sides above them in the table. Away from home they have won three games at Palace, Leicester and Southampton. Of course their seven home wins include beating us comfortably 4-2 in September, after being three up at half-time, and four ahead shortly afterwards as a result of some comedy defending. It certainly wasn’t Masuaku’s finest hour in a claret and blue shirt.
The weather forecast is for another cold day so I’ll be wearing my hat (yes my optimistic West Ham one) and hoping for another victory, perhaps by the odd goal in three? If we can beat them, then there is every chance that we can push them for their position in the table. If we don’t win, then with games beginning to run out this season (just 13 to go after this one), it will be harder, though not impossible, to bridge the gap.