Season review part 1 – Aston Villa, Wolves, West Brom, Birmingham and Coventry
23:17 GMT, 24 May 2012
Gone: Alex McLeish
It's that time of year folks…now that the season is over, it's time for yours truly to look back at the good, bad, indifferent and downright ugly during the past season of Midlands football.
It has not been a vintage year by any stretch of the imagination. Financial issues, managerial issues, player issues. Sadly for us all in this region, we haven't had a lot to cheer.
This week, I'll cover the west Midlands. The east is next week. Apologies in advance to Notts County, Walsall, Kidderminster etc. Sadly, I can't get around to you all.
I'm going to break down my ratings into three categories. The board, manager and players, giving marks for each. The other component of any club – its' support – is also mentioned, but not marked.
There is a reason for this. Every supporter, by default, gets a 'A+' rating, but I'd like to say a few words, particularly this season, as it's been a difficult one for our fans on a number of different levels.
Just to re-iterate the following as well. Stoke City are sited in north Staffordshire which is (as far as I'm concerned) part of the Midlands. But as the Potters are, historically speaking, covered from a national newspaper's Manchester offices, they are excluded. Sorry, not my fault.
So, we'll kick-off with the highest-placed Midlands team which is…
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
All that has been missing from the Baggies' season is a decent cup run.
How fantastic is it to be able to write that about a team which, before Roy Hodgson turned up, found it a struggle to remain the Premier League
Despite a few hiccups at home, particularly in the early part of the campaign, there was little doubt that West Brom would stay up by some distance.
It really is a remarkable achievement for the Baggies to finish above Villa and come within a whisker of completing league doubles over both of their rivals in the top-flight. And Hodgson did it by backing his own judgement in the transfer market too.
Gareth McAuley, a free transfer, has particularly impressed. Shane Long will come good again, once he re-discovers his fitness. And the signing of Liam Ridgewell has been, pound for pound, one of the best pieces of business carried out in the past 12 months.
Some statement, I know. But just look at how adept Ridgewell is – as a former centre-half – at defending his back post and covering Jonas Olsson.
James Morrison has come on leaps and bounds. Ben Foster took a while to settle but he grew in confidence and was performing as well as he ever did at Birmingham City by the end of his loan spell.
All this without Peter Odemwingie reaching the heights of his first full season.
There has been a distinct change in the pattern of play. I lost track of the number of times that West Brom lost goals on the counter-attack during Tony Mowbray's season in the Premier League. And it was a characteristic under Roberto di Matteo, too.
That does not happen any longer. And Roy Hodgson has to be credited with that, as so much else. Just look at the number of club records that fell. First win over Villa since 1985, first win at Villa Park since 1979, first win at Anfield in 45 years….
As long as Foster returns and West Brom recruit a safe pair of hands as 'head coach', even with the squad they have now, it should be enough for them to be a top-flight team in 12 months' time.
Board – 4 Manager – 5 Players – 4
Oh dear. Where do we start
With the ill-judged appointment of Alex McLeish With a group of under-performing players With a 54m loss
It has to be with the cause of a great deal of the angst at Villa Park this season. McLeish's arrival from Birmingham City.
Five hundred people protested at Villa Park last summer. That should have given the powers-that-be a hint as to the depth of feeling.
But it went unanswered. Ignored even as business returned to 'normal.'
There was tangible evidence from the first pre-season friendly of the season, against Walsall, that McLeish would be up against it.
The supporters sang for the team. Not once for the manager.
It was to be the default setting for a season in which there was little cheer.
The highlight was the win at Stamford Bridge. It was followed 48 hours later by chants of 'You don't know what you are doing' as Swansea City took the pass at Villa Park.
From pretty much there on in, it turned increasingly sour.
Much as there was to admire about Alex McLeish's blind determination to ignore the reality of the situation, his responses in public undermined his credibility – and therefore his position – still further.
Eventually, the players were ground down by the negativity. Of course, injuries didn't help.
Having attended the majority of matches at Villa Park, I will take issue with anyone who says Villa's supporters did not give the manager a chance.
But he failed to take it. His signings, for instance, were (with the exception of Shay Given) poor.
In the end, there was a vicious maelstrom sweeping around the club.
There had to be a sacrifice. And it was a public one at that. Bolton at Villa Park was merely the hors d'oeuvres.
Carrow Road was the venue as Villa's fans signalled McLeish's end.
Look down the squad list and ask yourselves whether Villa should have won more than 38 points.
Look down the balance sheet and ask yourselves whether Villa should be paying 90 per cent of the club's turnover in wages.
Look at the manager and think: 'Was this the best appointment we could have made' Aston Villa have fallen short on every front this season. It cannot happen again.
Because next time, if they win 38 points, they might not be as lucky.
Board: 2 Manager: 1 Players: 2
What a bizarre season that was at Molineux.
Ultimately, it has to be seen as a write-off. When you finish bottom of the pile, it can't be seen as anything but.
Having said that…
There was a short spell – which lasted approximately 15 minutes – when I actually thought Wolves were onto something.
At the interval during the home derby against Aston Villa, it had all been going swimmingly.
Emmanuel Frimpong was providing drive and power in midfield, Karl Henry was snapping away and Michael Kightly was rolling back the years.
Wolves were leading 2-1 and were full value. Only what happened thereafter set the club on the road back into the Championship.
Frimpong was accidentally booted in the face by Stiliyan Petrov. Henry was sent-off for senselessly kicking out at Marc Albrighton and Kightly tired.
It fell to Robbie Keane to thump home a quite magnificent winner. And the campaign pretty much fell to pieces.
Just like at Villa Park, it was almost too painful to watch.
Mick McCarthy felt the full force of the South Bank's anger. Owner Steve Morgan then felt it necessary to speak to the fans after he copped an earful after he had caved in and sacked his manager – despite not having been present at the Black Country derby mauling.
Then it was Jez Moxey's turn. Quite what the chief executive had done wrong, I'm still trying to figure out…
The perfect storm was created after McCarthy's exit. Which wasn't helped by Roger Johnson's decision to stay out late after the five-goal thumping at Fulham.
Terry Connor did his best. Both to gather together a group of players and send Johnson to Coventry. (There's a thought)
It was never going to be enough. Wolves missed their big opportunity. Which was to strengthen last summer when, in all fairness, they stayed up by the skin of their teeth.
It's easy to say that now, of course. No-one was pointing that out to McCarthy. No-one questioned whether Johnson was a good signing at the time, for instance.
Yes, we are all professors in 20-20 vision.
But the board has to be applauded for running the club along strict financial lines.
If Wolves had stayed up, Morgan would be heralded as a visionary for trying to increase revenue streams by re-building the North Bank.
As it is, he's been accused of not spending enough cash on the team. It is a charge he denies.
Personally, I'd have kept McCarthy in charge. If only for the fact that with no possibility of bringing in playing reinforcements that no other boss could have got any more out of that group.
It matters not now. What happened was that a bitter fan-base struck out in pretty much every direction, hurt and upset at what was unfolding. It's never pretty but this was unedifying.
But things can change quickly in football. Stale Solbakken's arrival was left-field.
I just sense a tingle of excitement returning to the club. I think it's possibly fear of the unknown. I don't think there will be any half-measures next season. Morgan's first appointment could be very interesting.
Board 3 Manager 2 Players 2
Shorn of its' manager, with its' owner on a charge of money-laundering and players leaving by the week to pay off debts, there was no doubt that this was a difficult situation to manage.
But, buoyed by a calm hand on the tiller, a few sensible purchases and – it has to be said – the makings of a competitive, if threadbare, squad that had been left behind, the good ship Birmingham City managed to sail to waters that few thought possible last August.
Chris Hughton was Capt. Sensible. He has maintained his composure and never once looked to forces outside his control for an excuse.
If any Birmingham City supporter had been canvassed as to their likely position come the end of the season, most would have shrugged their shoulders and said that staying in business and in the Championship would have been a result.
However, there was Europe to look forward to. And what a boon that turned out to be. For everyone. Players, supporters, the manager.
It provided a welcome distraction. And one of the best goal celebrations seen for many-a-year when Chris Wood poked home in the last few seconds against Club Brugge.
Sadly, it did not continue after the group stages. But it had drawn together a group of players who were languishing in 14th spot around Christmas.
With Steve Caldwell taking over as Mr Dependable at the back alongside a revitalised Curtis Davies and improved David Murphy, there were the makings of a back-four that wasn't going to give too much away.
Up front, Chris Burke – free from injury – and Marlon King – provided impetus when it was needed. It shouldn't be forgotten either that both of those signings were Alex McLeish's. Then, there is the likes of Nathan Redmond and Jack Butland in particular.
It wasn't to be in the play-offs. That may be a blessing.
The absence of any interference from above was an undoubted help to Hughton who has manfully stepped into the breach.
But the financial issues remain. And Hughton has now re-established credentials that were damaged – however unjustly – by his experience at Newcastle.
If a takeover is in the offing, as predicted by Peter Pannu before the Blackpool game, it needs to be swift and bloodless, to give the manager time to re-group before the players reconvene in July.
But this is Birmingham City. Nothing is ever simple. The Carling Cup final victory wasn't. Relegation wasn't.
The complicated make-up of the shareholding of parent company Birmingham International Holdings Limited may dictate that the coming weeks are difficult.
For Blues' fans, it's time to hold onto your nerve and trust in Pannu to get it sorted. Or else, with cash sure to be in an issue, it could all get very messy later this summer.
Board: 2 Manager: 4.5 Players: 5
IF Birmingham City supporters think they have it tough, they should just take a look down the A45.
Coventry City have been spinning around in ever-decreasing circles since they slipped out of the Premier League 11 years ago.
And now they will be repeating the feat – and let's not beat about the bush here – in Division Three.
As I wrote in a blog last week, it is difficult to see any other solution to the problem than someone with a nine-figure sum of cash to come in and wipe the slate clean.
However, such fairytales only happen in Manchester, or west London, it seems. (And, what a surprise, one won the Premier League, the other the Champions League, but I digress.)
Against that backdrop, it's difficult to judge just how good a job Andy Thorn did.
The fact that the Sky Blues were relegated with one game left to go is something. The club looked dead and buried at Christmas and the sale of Lukas Jutkiewicz seemed to be the final nail in the coffin.
But no. Coventry also have a habit of raising expectations before dashing them in spectacular fashion. And so it was here.
To Thorn's credit, the Sky Blues were competitive in most games. They did not suffer an out-and-out thumping.
If there is one criticism of his players, it's that they didn't learn from their mistakes.
It was almost painful to witness and read about on Sunday morning. It was like Groundhog Day.
In the end, even Thorn couldn't disguise his anger, sniping at a board that seems incapable of stemming a flow of cash away from the club.
Strategic problems remain at the Ricoh. Unless it is sorted, the club will continue on its' spiral downwards.
Several 'big' clubs have found it difficult to escape from League One, even if they present a united front.
It looks like being another hard season at the Ricoh. That division is no place for a financially-fractured club to plot its' return.
Board: 2 Manager: 3 Players: 3 Supporters: 5