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Comment: Next three weeks could define the coming years for West Brom

By Matt Wilson | West Bromwich Albion | Published: | Last Updated:

It’s not an exaggeration to say the next three weeks could define the future of Albion for years to come.

Slaven Bilic and technical director Luke Dowling. (AMA)

The Baggies are currently at the bottom of their rebuild, and following a summer of cultural changes behind the scenes and some pointed comments from Slaven Bilic, the pressure is on those in charge to deliver.

Albion have more money now than they are likely to ever have again in the Championship while absent owner Guochuan Lai, who is both unable and unwilling to invest, remains in charge.

On top of the £34.8million received for their second year of parachute payments, the club has sold Craig Dawson for around £6m, (although Rochdale have received some of that), Jay Rodriguez for £10m, and Salomon Rondon for an undisclosed but significant fee.

Teenage sensation Morgan Rogers has also been snapped up by Manchester City for a compensation package believed to be in the region of £4m.

Next year, the final instalment of parachute payments falls to £15.5m, so it would require some bumper sales to give them a similar kitty.

Barring a bid that makes them sit up and take notice, Rondon’s move to China is likely to be the end of Albion’s outgoings.

There is hope the likes of Ahmed Hegazi, Matt Phillips, Kieran Gibbs and Jake Livermore will all stay.

But those players desperately need team-mates. Now Albion know their budget, they must spring into action and rebuild the squad. With just over three weeks left, there’s work to do.

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Bilic himself said as much after the 3-0 defeat to Villarreal telling the Express & Star it was 'crucial' to make signings this week. How much we read into his statement is up for debate.

Having only brought in Filip Krovinovic on a season-long loan from Benfica, Bilic is obviously frustrated at the lack of additions so far, a feeling shared by the board, but no doubt inflated by a limp performance in the Spanish sun.

Albion’s new boss was animated on the Benidorm touchline, and appeared unhappy with the first impressions his team had given more than 1,000 travelling Baggies.

Shooting from the hip is exactly what fans hoped Bilic would do, and having lost a dozen players and signed just one, he wasn’t saying anything supporters didn’t already know.

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But two weeks in is rather early on in a manager’s tenure to be putting pressure on those above. Signings are needed before the weekend or that frustration may grow into tension.

However, following Rondon’s exit to China, offers have now started to go out for players.

The incomings should now be forthcoming and Bilic was believed to be in a better mood at the training ground today.

The reason behind the wait is the board wanted to know their budget before going to market – knowing what combination of players would leave allows them to enact Plan A, Plan B, or Plan C.

This is a potentially risky strategy, because clubs now know Albion are cash rich, and may not be willing to sell once the deadline draws near if they themselves can’t get replacements in.

But the middle of the window is no time to judge business; in fact history tells us even the end of the window is too soon.

Albion were criticised after their summer business in 2016 and spent most of the season in eighth. In 2017, they were heralded as having the shrewdest summer in the Premier League and were subsequently relegated.

We can't truly judge this window until six or twelve months down the line.

The Baggies were always due to rebuild their squad this summer, but what many didn’t envisage was the facelift the academy would need.

Academy manager Mark Harrison is leaving after 14 years to join rivals Aston Villa, while coaches Jimmy Shan and Mike Scott are also on their way out after more than a decade.

These exits are taking place against a backdrop of cultural changes behind the scenes.

Technical director Luke Dowling has told academy players and staff to enter the training ground through a different door around the side of the building, and set up a second canteen in the press room for them to use.

He's planning to publicly explain the reason behind his changes once the window shuts, but it's believed he doesn’t want teenagers thinking they’ve made it prematurely and separating the first team gives the youngsters something to work towards.

Other clubs operate similarly, and the close proximity between academy players and the first team has surprised players, including former skipper Darren Fletcher.

Thanks to the money now given to players on their first professional contracts, there were concerns last season that some of Albion’s most promising youngsters were getting ahead of themselves.

There are pros and cons to separating the two, but while it may be a sensible approach to the players, staff are also required to use the back entrance and the new canteen.

Some senior members of academy staff are known to be unhappy with the changes, and it is risky to alienate those who have helped scout and produce a celebrated conveyor belt of talent.

Albion had more England youth internationals than Liverpool or Manchester United last season, after all.

Harrison and Scott may have left for better jobs, but it is crucial the academy continues to receive support.

It is starting to bear fruit, with Rekeem Harper breaking into the first team last season, others on the fringes, and a strong batch of youngsters behind them.

It can also be a safety net for a club under an owner who won’t invest if promotion isn’t achieved.

For many romantics, there was excitement brewing at the potential of several home-grown locals in the first team in the next few years. That chance is not lost yet, but it needs to be preserved.

This week, it was also revealed award-winning programme editor Dave Bowler is leaving the club after 19 years.

It was not his decision, and even though Albion will still produce a programme next season and Bowler will be a contributor, his extensive writing on the Baggies will be a loss.

Although the programme was still making a profit, the decline of print media is an issue many are struggling with.

But Bowler's unrivalled historical knowledge of the club also helped spark a series of archive projects.

Hopefully they remain because Albion is a club steeped in a history that deserves to be remembered.

Supporters were prepared to lose the likes of Dawson, Rodriguez, and Rondon this summer, because players and managers come and go. It’s part of the deal.

But Albion’s financial downsizing is also affecting other areas of the club, areas that have been celebrated over the years.

There was always going to be pressure on this summer’s business, because it is the club's last great chance to set themselves up for the next few years.

But these changes have added to the pressure of making the first team a success. The next three weeks could define both Albion’s immediate and long-term future.

Matt Wilson

By Matt Wilson
Football MMPJ - @mattwilson_star

Sports reporter at the Express & Star, who primarily covers West Bromwich Albion.

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