Every season one of the promoted clubs takes on their mantle; they will be the promoted side that will play “The Football.” Their manager will announce that they will be “sticking to their footballing philosophy” before popping across the Atlantic to sign a South American playmaker and using his African layover on the way home to pick up a couple of substandard five-cap freddies from somewhere like the Congo.
This approach will not pay off. It never has. It’s stupid, naive, and fantasist. It’s a defeatist approach to the Premiership and it’s a cowardly cop out. The teams who come up and take this approach are tourists who belong in the second division.
What did Mowbray honestly think would happen? That he could instill the spirit of Cruyff and Neeskens into his random exotic journeymen, charge gung-ho towards the snarling bulls of Chelsea or razor-sharp counter-punches of Manchester United, and come out smelling of roses? It’s utter lunacy and invites only one outcome. Comprehensive relegation.
But here’s the clever bit. Because they make nice shapes with the football in midfield, nobody will mind one bit. They’ll put together some nice moves, score a few goals while they’re at it and everyone will wish them well when they’re eventually relegated with a brutal goal difference. They might even get to sell some of their better players to a good team with ambition at the end of the season.
Never mind the fact that the most important parts of football happen in either penalty area. It’s what you do in the massive green bit in between that makes or loses friends. And WBA have made many. When the world is watching, put your best foot forward.
But, as we all know from experience, friendships fed by blazing sunlight do not survive the death of summer. In a years time we’ll have forgotten about how WBA tried to make nice shapes and play proper football, because other teams will be doing it in their place, and doing it better. So no more culture from Borja Valero or Felipe Teixeira on Match of the Day, but that’s okay, because Burnley will be doing it instead, throwing passes about like confetti, finding solace in a one touch move that doesn’t quite find the striker and collapsing like a house of cards as soon as Fernando Torres gets the ball to his feet.
What a contrast Stoke make. Simple, uncomplicated football. It’s what they’re good at, and they aren’t going to change for anyone. At least, thats what Tony Pulis would have you believe. Of course, they have changed from the team that won promotion by adding genuine, proven Premiership class, in Beattie and Etherington. Their combination of experience and hunger could only get them so far – their smart buys have taken them the rest of the way. But because they did no posturing or fancy-danning, were they relegated they would certainly have been forgotten. Credit to Pulis for having such faith, and not being vain enough to care what the pubic at large thought.
And because they’re such a tough team to beat and have such a strong identity, don’t be surprised to see their affair with the Premiership stretch for years. Nobody gave Bolton a hope when they first came up, but by staying unpretentious, they’ve carved out their niche in the elite. WBA, by contrast, were only ever going to be a fling, simply fun whilst it lasted, and forgotten when the next plucky outsider pops up.
And that is their ultimate failing. By playing pretentious, almost arrogant football, they’ve traded off any hope of survival before a ball has been kicked in exchange for the passing goodwill of the masses as they sink back to where they belong.
And this, really, is the crux of the matter. The Premiership has places for only 20 teams. Is there really space for one that isn’t there to win?
The author of this article, Ben Johnston, can also be read over at www.inbehind.com