Thursday 24 July 2014
West Bromwich Albion appointed Alan Irvine as their new head coach in June, following the Baggies' 17th-place finish in the 2013/14 Barclays Premier League campaign, and the former Preston North End manager expressed his excitement at the challenge ahead.
"My passion is for coaching and my strength is on the training ground, which is where we need to get the work done," he said. "I'm extremely excited about the challenge and I'll certainly give it everything I possibly can. I'll work however many hours it takes to make things work."
As well as leading Preston North End to the Championship play-offs in 2009, Irvine enjoyed a successful spell as David Moyes' assistant at Everton, in which the club secured three top-seven finishes. He returned to Goodison Park as Academy Manager, with the Toffees winning the Barclays Under-18 Premier League title last term.
Last season, the Baggies secured their top-flight status for a fourth successive campaign, but Pepe Mel was the third head coach utilised during a trying season as they left it until the penultimate Matchweek to fend off the threat of relegation. Steve Clarke, who had led them to a club-record eighth place finish in 2012/13, and Keith Downing also had stints in charge.
After a fairly bright start last term, including a win against 2012/13 champions Manchester United at Old Trafford in September, West Brom only picked up five victories in the remainder of the campaign. They were also the League's draw specialists, with 15 of their 38 matches finishing on level terms.
Irvine has enjoyed a productive summer in the transfer market, with Liverpool defender Andre Wisdom joining on loan, Nigeria striker Brown Ideye moving for a club-record fee and Chris Baird, Sebastien Pocognoli, Joleon Lescott and Craig Gardner signing. The Midlands club have also been boosted by England international goalkeeper Ben Foster and long-serving midfielder Graham Dorrans penning new contracts.
Despite their struggles last season, Albion continued their longest stint in the Barclays Premier League. After making their debut in the competition in 2002/03, West Brom failed to stay in the league for longer than two seasons until they secured their fourth promotion to the Barclays Premier League in eight years when they returned in May 2010.
Irvine's charges begin their fifth consecutive top-flight campaign with a trip to Sunderland, and the Scot will not have to wait long to meet his old employers, as West Brom welcome Everton in their second home match on 13 September.
|Best BPL finish
|Last five BPL finshes||17th||8th||10th||11th||N/A|
|Seasons in the BPL
||8 (2002/03; 2004-06; 2008/09; 2010-14)
|Most BPL appearances||James Morrison (158)|
|Top BPL goalscorer||Peter Odemwingie (30)|
Hopes for the new season
The big hope is to avoid a repeat of last season. It was a difficult season on the pitch and off it and having finished 11th, 10th and 8th in the previous three seasons to have a season in which they came so close to relegation was a major shock to the system. They just want a much more enjoyable campaign but there have been some very encouraging signs over the summer that the club is looking to learn from the lessons of last season.
What would you say are the encouraging signs?
They have signed players and reshaped the squad. We'll have to see how well a lot of the players do. They've broken the club transfer record for Brown Ideye from Dynamo Kiev. I don't think many people know a great deal about him so to suddenly find your club spending big is both exciting and nerve-racking because you don’t really know what you're going to get for your money.
Joleon Lescott's early arrival was also very encouraging as he has vast Premier League and international experience. As well as those headline-grabbing signings they also bought Chris Baird and Craig Gardner who are also very experienced, the Belgian left-back Sebastien Pocognoli, who is an interesting signing because we don't quite know how he is going to do in England.
But after last season, the fact that the club have almost been forced into clearing the decks, player-wise has led to quite a bit of excitement where two or three months ago there was complete apathy.
What are West Brom's strengths and weaknesses?
In terms of just squad numbers you would have to say that the defence is the strongest area purely because they have made more signings in that department. They are still probably a striker and maybe a couple of wide players short, but when Alan Irvine was appointed they didn't have a single recognised full-back, yet they have now got Baird, Pocognoli and Andre Wisdom, which is heartening. Lescott is a great addition at centre-back so, against the odds given where they were last season, it looks like the defence is taking shape whereas the forward area is still a work in progress.
What is the special quality of Alan Irvine?
So far he has come across as a good communicator. Everything you hear suggests he is a very good coach, which Albion's players were crying out for last season. They had been used to working with Roy Hodgson and Steve Clarke who are well-respected coaches so Irvine should fill that void. Everyone I speak to who has worked with him says he is meticulous, well-organised and hard-working. No stone will be left unturned.
Which are the matches the fans always look forward to?
The two against Aston Villa. They look forward to going to places like Old Trafford and The Emirates but the Aston Villa matches are the ones they really relish, particularly in recent seasons when, in terms of the league position, West Brom have held the upper hand, with the exception of last season when Villa finally managed to finish above them.
Villa Park is the ground that geographically is the closest to The Hawthorns and the two clubs are as closely matched as they have been in a generation. So all of a sudden a fixture that had faded into the background for a while because Villa were so far ahead of West Brom, and which historically is a huge derby, has suddenly come back into focus. Back in the 1970s and 1980s West Brom v Villa was always the big one in these parts and that has slowly become the case again.
Which are the matches they most dread?
Stoke City, because their record against them over many years has been very poor. When Tony Pulis was at Stoke in particular West Brom just couldn't find a way to deal with the way they played. But even pre-dating Pulis the record against Stoke wasn't good. They did find a way to win at the Britannia a couple of seasons ago but that was a rare success in what has been a long history of disappointing head-to-heads.
Who is the best young talent that BPL fans might see this season?
Saido Berahino was the one we saw emerge briefly last season. If he can knuckle down and get back to the form he showed when he first broke into the first team, he's a really exciting talent with a real knack for getting chances and scoring goals. He lost his way a little in the second half of last season after making a real splash in the first half so it’ll be interesting to see how he develops.
The other one they have high hopes for is Liam O'Neil. I don't think he'll play too many first-team games this season, he may even go out on loan at some point to gain some experience, but he came off the bench a couple of times lasts season and they hold him in high regard. He's a holding midfielder who can also play at full-back, but has every chance of becoming a good player.
The club in three words
Rebuilding from turmoil.
Steve Madeley is on Twitter: @smadeley_star