West Bromwich Albion finally seemed to be getting comfortable in the Premier League, with three seasons of mid-table, top-flight football following a stretch during which the club was promoted or relegated seven times in nine years.
Then the wheels fell off. West Brom went through three head coaches last season, won a league-low seven games (tied with Cardiff), endured the Nicolas Anelka anti-Semitism controversy and escaped relegation by three points. The manager who presided over the season-ending three-game losing streak, Spaniard Pepe Mel, was dismissed and replaced by Alan Irvine. His last high-profile gig included relegation to League One and a February 2011 sacking by Sheffield Wednesday.
The inevitable summer overhaul was anchored by the club-record $16.7 million acquisition of Nigerian forward Brown Ideye, who failed to make the Super Eagles’ World Cup squad after a rough season at Dynamo Kyiv. He’ll have to get comfortable quickly. The Baggies also added a bit of championship pedigree in ex Manchester City defender Joleon Lescott, who arrived on a free transfer last month. A bit of show-and-tell with Lescott’s medal collection will be as close to glory as WBA gets this season, which will be smashing success if they stay up.
KEY ARRIVALS: D Chris Baird (from Burnley), D Jason Davidson (from Heracles Almelo), D Cristian Gamboa (from Rosenborg), MF Craig Gardner (from Sunderland), F Brown Ideye (from Dynamo Kyiv), D Joleon Lescott (from Manchester City), Sébastien Pocognoli (from Hannover 96).
KEY DEPARTURES: MF Morgan Amalfitano (to Olympique Marseille), F Nicolas Anelka (free agent), D Billy Jones (to Sunderland), D Diego Lugano (free agent), D Steven Reid (to Burnley), D Liam Ridgewell (to Portland Timbers)
PLAYER TO WATCH: It has to be Brown Ideye. West Brom is gambling an awful lot on a player whose hold-up play and finishing will be critical to the club’s survival. He’s hardly on a roll. A 2012-13 season that featured 17 league goals and two starts at the Confederations Cup gave way to a 13-14 campaign that saw Ideye confined frequently to the Dynamo bench. It will help if he can build chemistry with Stéphane Sessègnon, who hails from Nigeria’s next-door neighbor, Benin. Sessègnon will add some creativity and can attack from multiple positions.
KEY STAT: Only one West Brom player scored more than five goals last season – 20-year-old English forward Saldo Berahino. Now 21, he tallied five in league play and nine overall.
STADIUM: The Hawthorns (Built in 1900; Capacity 26,445)
The first soccer stadium built in England in the 20th Century—and done so in just four months—was later the country’s first to feature an electric turnstile (1949). The name comes from the fact that the stadium was built on an old estate where hawthorn bushes once grew.