in assessing what has been the most successful season to date for the baggies since their initial return to the top-flight a decade ago, i find it's time to face up to the facts of life in the most popular football competition in the world. despite finishing 8th in the table - and laying claim to being the best of the second grade sides in the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE - it was actually a very uneven season for the baggies, at least in terms of overall results if not actual footballing performances.
west brom started the season as the one of the league's form teams and were on the verge of going top of the table when a poor performance away to swansea signalled the beginning of a slump from which they never quite recovered. however, similar scenarios were played out at norwich, fulham, west ham and swansea, so the baggies kept pace with their immediate competition and their run of excellent results during the first half of the season carried them through to find success as the "best of the rest".
in actual fact, for a club like west brom to have distinguished themselves as such, is a more significant achievement than it is for manchester united to have won the league, and there is one big difference between these two sides that can't be overlooked. as one of the world's most popular and richest clubs, united can go with whatever they did this year, take stock of their resources and look to improve on it for next season. the albion, however, are left with a much more challenging set of problems and whatever they were able to achieve this season may end up having very little bearing on what they'll be able to achieve next season.
only the top five or six clubs in the PREMIER LEAGUE can look forward to the coming season with some degree of expectation. the rest of the league is left having to deal with varying levels of reorganization and often have to scramble to put together a competitive side ahead of each and every campaign. with chairmen and boards that are made up of businessmen who do not come from a football background, this is often a recipe for disaster.
it is possible - as with QPR this last season - to spend a great deal of money on expensive players who have experienced winning trophies both domestically and in europe. but this is no guarantee of success - the whole set-up often being no more than a high-priced gamble. you need look only as far as wolves - who had been both league champions and several time domestic cup winners in the old FIRST DIVISION - to see what damage the PREMIER LEAGUE can do to a football club.
also, as we saw with newcastle united this year, a good season is no guarantee that you will be left with adequate resources to build on for the next. the toon went from last year's excellent 5th place finish - and qualification for the UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE - to a side that struggled to get results and only just managed to stay ahead of being involved in a scrap at the bottom of the table this year, finishing the season in 16th and only 5 points ahead of relegation.
the baggies had the good fortune of having had what has to have been the league's best loan signing, in the likes of romelu lukaku. with 17 goals in the league, the overall performance of the chelsea teenager was a major component in the baggies' success this year. when it comes time to replacing his attacking input west brom are left with no small challenge.
as a supporter who lives overseas and does not support manchester united, chelsea, arsenal, liverpool or manchester city, i am a member of a peculiarly esoteric fraternity. there is almost nothing in the way that the PREMIER LEAGUE is promoted here in north america that takes into account that someone like myself, who doesn't follow one of the top 4 or 5 sides, might even exist.
there are, of course, fringe elements that support big sides like aston villa, newcastle, everton and tottenham, but even these affiliations can be fleeting and there is nothing to encourage anyone to dedicate their support to a side that might fall out of the top-flight and disappear into the netherworld of the FOOTBALL LEAGUE. in fact, where SPORTSNET (and SETANTA SPORTS before them) used to carry at least one CHAMPIONSHIP game a week, this year, they wanted to save a little on the licencing budget (i would imagine) and opted for a weekly SPL game instead.
this was the first time in years - at least going back to the 2006-07 season - that the FOOTBALL LEAGUE (including the play-offs) was not seen at all on television in the particular broadcast region where i live. consequently, anyone following the english game on TV will not have seen any football that is competitive at the top end of the division.
i don't know what deals they're making for next year, but it is unlikely that the view of english football in toronto will become any more expansive very soon, and the average viewer who considers themselves a "fan" won't be looking for anything more than to follow a team that wins 85-90% of its matches. i know one guy - with claims of being a casual supporter - who says he used to support arsenal, but now they are "no good" (not having won anything recently in trophy competitions is what i think he meant), so he has switched allegiance and now follows chelsea. while this is hardly traditional behaviour, it is an attitude that is more and more prevalent with the supporter who follows the game through international TV broadcasts.
in this context, it is more and more the job of teams like west brom to drop enough points in the PREMIER LEAGUE to see to it that the status-quo is maintained, and that sides like manchester united, manchester city, arsenal, chelsea and liverpool perpetually compete as an elite mini-league who occupy the top places in the table, and thus hang on to their fan bases in the international TV market.
in fact, with the virtual monopoly that the two manchester sides - together with chelsea and arsenal - have established in occupying the CHAMPIONS LEAGUE spots for the last few years, together with similar situations in LA LIGA, the BUNDESLIGA and even now LIGUE UN, the FOOTBALL LEAGUE ONE was arguably the most exciting football competition in all europe last season.
besides my visits to the hawthorns and my primary football interest being invested in the baggies, i have also followed brentford's adventures in the FOOTBALL LEAGUE over the last few years. this year, where west brom began the season as one of the form teams in the top-flight and played some very exciting football in the process, it was the bee's that supplied the majority of my best and most exciting football moments over the second half of the season.
from the final and decisive day in the CHAMPIONSHIP, where hull city drew with division champions cardiff and won automatic promotion to the top-flight; or the final kick of the match at griffin park that propelled doncaster rovers up and out of LEAGUE ONE; through to the play-offs in LEAGUE TWO, league football provides a truly competitive environment that has long since disappeared from the top-flight.
it's really a shame that there was no TV coverage of the FOOTBALL LEAGUE this year. the drama off the final day and play-offs contrasted starkly with the narrow vision of english football as a competitive spectacle that the international supporter is afforded through following the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE on television, with its heavily biased focus on a handful of elite sides. the competition and excitement that still exists in league football serves to remind those of us who can remember what top-flight football used to be like before 1992.
i visit england twice a year for two weeks at a time and try to get out and watch as much football as i can. all i can say is that i would not be attending PREMIER LEAGUE matches at all if west bromwich albion, the team that i support, were not playing in the top-flight.