Comment: Play-off experience makes Alex Neil sensible choice, but time running out for board to deliver
There is still time. Even though the slim hopes of automatic promotion have now slipped away, there is still time to end the season successfully.
Despite a fraught month of uncertainty clouding matters since Darren Moore’s sacking, the board can still rectify the situation before the play-offs.
Albion are fourth, not 14th, they still have a chance of bouncing back to the Premier League at the first opportunity and delivering the stated aim of the season.
The perfect time to appoint Moore’s successor was in the two-week international break after caretaker boss James Shan had stabilised the situation with back-to-back wins.
But the board were seduced by those victories and left him in charge in hope the positive atmosphere under Shan would snowball into an avalanche of victories.
The caretaker then ticked off another box against Birmingham City, when his team came from behind to win for the first time.
Once again, he had given technical director Luke Dowling and chief executive Mark Jenkins a platform to appoint someone, an eight-day period to act. Once again, they didn’t.
Then came an insipid performance at Millwall and a calamitous 20 minutes at Bristol City. The Baggies suffered back-to-back defeats for just the third time this season and cries of ‘sack the board’ came from an angry away end.
That forced their hand. Even though Shan will be in charge of today’s game at The Hawthorns, it is looking like it could be his last.
By a strange twist of fate it is the man in the other dugout, Alex Neil, who the Baggies will attempt to prise out of Preston North End next week.
Neil has been one of Albion’s preferred candidates for weeks, but North End were in the hunt for the play-offs until recently.
Three defeats in a row has left them with too much to do, while two defeats in a row for Albion has forced the Baggies to act.
The 37-year-old has publicly played down the interest, but is privately known to be keen.
Only time will tell whether it would be a successful appointment, but on the face of it, Neil is capable of stepping up to both the short-term and long-term aims of the club.
A manager who has won promotion via the play-offs with Hamilton Academical in 2014 and Norwich City in 2015, he galvanised the Canaries before taking them up via Wembley.
All season there have been concerns over the inexperience of first Moore and then Shan, but Neil has six years in the dugout and previous in the play-offs.
A strong character, the Scot could provide exactly the sort of confident authority Albion need for the remaining few games of the season.
If promotion isn’t achieved this season then Neil also has plenty of experience in the Championship, and took Preston into the play-off race despite operating with the fourth lowest budget in the division.
His second season in the second tier with Norwich is concerning, when he was fired for underperforming with a squad chasing promotion, but hopefully this young manager has learned from that experience.
The Baggies will still have a healthy budget next season thanks to their parachute payments but they will need to sell several players to balance the books in summer.
The squad may not be as strong, so a head coach who overperforms with his tools is naturally desirable.
Then there is the fact Neil is just 37 years old. Despite taking charge of nearly 300 games, he is still developing himself.
So, this raises the question. Did the board hold their nerve in order to get the right man? Or did they dither on the decision in the faint hope Shan might take them up?
The worry is that this last month of limbo has cut short the time Neil, or any new face, has with the squad before the play-offs.
After today’s surreal encounter, when Albion fans will be watching Preston as much as their own team, there are just four games of the regular season left.
That’s less than a month for a new man to get across his ideas before a two-legged semi-final.
It would take a disastrous finish for Albion to fall out of the top six now and Shan deserves plenty of credit for stabilising the situation.
Should he win today, he will have delivered 12 points from six games at a rate of two points per game. That’s top two form. Moore finished on 1.69 points-per-game this season.
The other impact of the past few weeks is the deteriorating relationship between the board and the supporters.
Over the course of the past month, fans have lost faith in the two big decision-makers at the club.
There is still time to rectify that, especially if the managerial appointment they choose is a success, but as we near the end of the season, that time is fast running out.