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Steve Madeley: West Brom must learn from their mistakes

Sport | Published:

Albion have got away with murder. Now the Baggies board know they cannot afford to waste their unlikely let-off.

Better late than never, the Hawthorns hierarchy are beginning to acknowledge the scale of their annus horribilis and draw up plans to avoid a repeat.

Yet they must also accept that the rebuilding job that lies ahead goes way beyond the dramatic surgery of the squad that will inevitably take place this summer.

They must also find ways of re-engaging with a fanbase more detatched and disaffected than at any stage since the grim days of the early 1990s.

Results, of course, remain the most significant driver of the mood of a club and many of the nagging annoyances that have chipped away at the bond between the club and their fans might have been forgiven or overlooked had the Baggies managed another season like the previous three, when 11th, 10th and eighth-place finishes created a sense of optimism.

But for chairman Jeremy Peace to write off the anger among supporters and their own employees as merely a reaction to one poor season would be to ignore the more fundamental problems that have been exposed by their uncomfortable flirtation with relegation.

In the context of the last 20 years, a 17th-place finish that secured a fifth successive Premier League season represents a solid if underwhelming effort for Albion.

This season, however, feels worse in a number of ways than the relegations in the early years of the club's Premier League era because of a catalogue of problems on the field and around the training ground.

Many can be traced back to one mistaken decision that, this week, Peace moved quickly to rectify.

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The loss of Dan Ashworth to the FA always was always likely to hit Albion hard but their attempt to replace him with Richard Garlick – a talented, hard-working able man but one with little hands-on football experience – compounded the problem.

It created a void of knowledge into which Dave McDonough, the Ashworth-appointed stats-based player analyst, attempted to manoeuvre himself, triggering a host of issues.

The tried and trusted scouting team that was built by Ashworth and which delivered the likes of Youssouf Mulumbu, Peter Odemwingie and Billy Jones in recent seasons, was marginalised in favour of a computer-based approach.

The result was a series of signings last summer and in January that fell spectacularly flat, from Diego Lugano to Matej Vydra to, most baffling of all, Goran Popov, whose shortcomings had already been exposed in a Baggies shirt.

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Consequently, the Baggies reverted to the players who had been at the core of their team for several years, leaving the squad painfully weak and the team so obviously stale.

The effects of Ashworth's departure did not stop there, however.

Players, coaches and scouts had been shielded from the intense politics in other areas of the club by Ashworth's willingness to draw the poison.

Once he departed, it poured into the 'football department' and created fall-outs, disagreements and cliques that undermined a squad already weakened by poor recruitment.

McDonough's presence was already causing ill-feeling and his championing of Pepe Mel led to an illogical, ill-fated appointment when Steve Clarke's reign ran out of steam and the Scot was sacked in December.

It also contributed to the conflict between Mel's tactical plans and his senior players' beliefs, and clashes between established squad members and the newer recruits.

And it led to a lack of clear leadership that resulted in an inevitable season of struggle. The departure of McDonough began a healing process that continued this week when the hugely popular Terry Burton returned to the club as technical director.

But the task Burton has inherited is a huge one, with as many as 10 new players needed to repair the damage of a demoralising season predicated on a flimsy base made of loanees and free transfers.

And in the background is the public relations disaster that has unfolded alongside the on-field turmoil.

It began with Nicolas Anelka's threat to retire and proceeded to his ugly 'quenelle' controversy and subsequent sacking.

It continued with Saido Berahino's dressing-room clash with James Morrison and the young striker's appearance in a national newspaper inhaling nitrous oxide.

And, more crucially, as the horrific season unfolded, the club's leaders retreated even further into the sidelines.

Peace retained his self-imposed media exile, chief executive Mark Jenkins remained anonymous and Garlick failed to fill the role of footballing spokesman that Ashworth handled so adeptly.

Meanwhile, the decision to ditch the traditional blue and white stripes for next season's home kit was another indication that the club had lost touch with the feelings of its fanbase.

There was no longer anyone at the top with their finger on the pulse of the Baggies public while the growing strains in relations with Albion's former players' association showed an utter lack of understanding of the reasons fans kept turning up.

The apparent lack of interest in the history and traditions of the appreciation of the root of supporters' loyalty remains a key issue for the club to address.

Too often it seems legends are little more than 'ex-employees' while fans are merely customers. That might work in other areas of business but football has always been different – a truth Peace and Co have often struggled to realise.

Having stepped back several years ago and trusted the structure he left behind to keep the club stable, Peace is apparently back to take a hands-on approach to righting the wrongs of the last year.

There is lots to get right to reinvigorate a team and woo back a fanbase that has fallen a little out of love with the object of its passion.

But he will start his task knowing he has had a major break.

Albion have been guilty of horrendous errors and yet, thanks to the failings of others, they avoided relegation.

They have dodged a bullet in a big way. Now they must make the most of their second chance.

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