'The Hard Work Starts Here': Promoted West Brom Focus on Premier League
For West Bromwich Albion it was not an entirely comfortable climax to a marathon season but, fittingly, it was entertaining, if nerve-shredding. One of the reasons they were ultimately immovable from the top two – the club spent the last 297 days of the season in the automatic promotion places, the final few with elbows out to fend off competition – was their product in the final third. Grady Diangana’s magical footwork in the buildup to Callum Robinson’s goal against QPR on Wednesday was a microcosm of the manner in which they have attacked with panache, incisively breaking to feast on opposition defences, be it wriggling out of holes or switching on the afterburners.
A couple of hours after the final whistle, Slaven Bilic was being serenaded in Sandwell and beyond. The charismatic Croat had an appetite to manage in the Championship, an inkling he would fall in love with everything from the clutch of clubs with rich traditions to the maddening fixture congestion, and he has conquered at the first time of asking. One of the most colourful managers in the game will be warmly welcomed back into the Premier League.
He has guided West Brom to the top flight after a two-year absence, with only a buccaneering Brentford outscoring them. Now it is about building on the transformation Bilic has presided over, notably having successfully found a way to replicate the firepower that departed when Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez left last summer.
Matheus Pereira has been a standout performer, arguably the Championship’s player of the season, with Diangana not far behind. Charlie Austin has often been utilised as a plan B but remains potent, hitting double figures. Bilic is to hold talks with the West Brom hierarchy to discuss the next steps but they arrive in the top flight with plenty of flair, even if they stumbled over the line, without a win in their last four. If anything, they are a little imbalanced, with more guile than grit. “We should have done better against Birmingham and Huddersfield, but that doesn’t matter now,” Bilic said.
Budgets and bargains will doubtless be high on the agenda but West Brom will compete financially, likely a happy medium between Norwich and Sheffield United, who attacked the Premier League with contrasting levels of investment, the latter by breaking their transfer record on five occasions, including £20m-plus deals for Oli McBurnie and Sander Berge. “Two different approaches,” said Bilic. “You have to change but you don’t have to change a lot. The majority of the guys we are going to count on in the Premier League are the guys here. Not because they deserve it but because I really believe some of them will be even more suited.”
If there is any cause for concern it is that on Wednesday West Brom’s best performers were the loanees, Diangana and Robinson. But the club’s recruitment, led by the technical director, Luke Dowling, has been sound and the permanent signing of Pereira from Sporting Lisbon for £8.25m, triggered after 30 league appearances, looks increasingly shrewd. His tally of 16 assists and eight goals is unrivalled, his contribution central to West Brom’s swagger, even when things got tetchy on the final straight.
In the victory over Hull this month it was Pereira’s exquisite through ball that put Kamil Grosicki through to finish, and the Brazilian winger was at the forefront of attacks again on Wednesday. So much so there was a tinge of surprise when Pereira was withdrawn with 10 minutes to play, while Brentford were still a goal from potentially sealing promotion at West Brom’s expense.
For some the Premier League represents another crack at the big time, with Jake Livermore among those relegated in 2018 despite an end-of-season revival under Darren Moore. Kyle Bartley made 21 appearances across six seasons with Swansea, Darnell Furlong has three after starting his career at Queens Park Rangers, but for others it will be their first time at the top table.
The former Manchester United goalkeeper Sam Johnstone will finally have a chance to impress in the Premier League, as will the former Rotherham defender Semi Ajayi and the homegrown midfielder Romaine Sawyers, who returned to West Brom last summer, six years after his release. Dara O’Shea is one of two academy graduates to make a meaningful first-team impact. The other, Nathan Ferguson, has joined Crystal Palace.
Bilic acknowledged the importance of promotion, having previously cited the inevitable financial strain of being stuck in the Championship, while Livermore recognises support staff jobs were on the line.
For Chris Brunt, who bids farewell to West Brom after 13 years and 380 appearances, it was almost the perfect send-off. “It’s rubbish without fans in the stadium, especially when you achieve something like this,” said the 35-year-old. “Hopefully the club will go from strength to strength, recruit well for next season and build to stay in the Premier League. The hard work starts here, if you want to be a Premier League club you have to build and build. We have had a transition in the last couple of years and hopefully now the club can do it for years to come.”
The Guardian Sport