Rarely has a manager leaving a club in fifth place been so unanimously welcomed by most fans and neutrals, but Valerien Ismael’s ultimately short West Bromwich Albion tenure rarely went by the book.
A team just relegated from the Premier League and among the favourites for promotion were joined by a head coach who had taken unfancied Barnsley just three games away from the top flight the season before. On that piece of paper, it was a recipe for success.
But you only need to dig a little deeper to realise this was a partnership never built to last, a realisation made all the more foolish considering the £2million compensation package handed to Barnsley and the four-year contract dished out to Ismael. Pound for pound, this has been one of the second tier’s most costly managerial appointments in more ways than one.
A permanent resident in the latter half of our Championship Winners and Losers column, Ismael was undefeated at the Hawthorns all the way to his final home game in charge of the club, his penultimate fixture at the helm a loss to mid-table Preston.
It wasn’t results that were the catalyst for West Brom supporters’ almost-universal displeasure, but a style at odds with the ideals with which they have been spoilt in the past. Their last Championship season had seen the Baggies promoted to the Premier League under Slaven Bilic playing football that was easy on the eye.
Ismael’s industrious style of play is one which is acceptable only as long as the results follow, and is always likely to be more palatable to a club punching above its weight, as the Tykes were in 2020/21.
That Ismael was not appointed until deep into pre-season indicated that the club’s hierarchy was unsure of what they wanted from their next manager, even more so when taking into account Chris Wilder was considered, interviewed and then refused the job. What appeared a strange decision at the time now looks stark raving bonkers with Wilder’s Boro level on points with the Baggies despite having occupied a place in mid-table for much of the season under Neil Warnock.
West Brom committed themselves to a manager who had worked wonders in not even a full season at Oakwell, but without the requisite backing to make that vision a success. Despite that, the campaign started favourably from a Baggies point of view, going unbeaten for the first 10 games and registering 4-0 wins over both Sheffield United and Cardiff City.
But fans were frustrated almost from the off at playing ‘lesser’ football than their more fanciful and easier-on-the-eye promotion rivals Fulham and Bournemouth. It was widely acknowledged that the style needed to change before the results did. While Ismael rarely veered from Plan A, one win in seven games and three defeats from four meant the end was inevitable.
It is just one of a flurry of changes at the club, who are making short-term decisions in the dugout while making long-term changes above with former Reading man Ron Gourlay appointed Chief Executive Officer and Guochuan Lai taking over as Chairman. Xu Ke, who was largely responsible for hiring Ismael after Wilder was turned down for the role, has all but been shuffled out of the club.
Reading fans rightly point to Gourlay playing a primary role in their current struggles long after he departed Berkshire, but he has talked the talk well on day zero, and his successful experience working with Chelsea and Manchester United should not be forgotten.
Steve Bruce is expected to take over on the touchline, months after leaving boyhood club Newcastle United. It would be a decision easily derided by those who prefer banter at all costs to logic of any kind, but the former Aston Villa and Hull City manager has tasted success at second-tier level on plenty of occasions.
That the Baggies sought to save their season, and Ismael’s reign, by bringing in Orlando striker Daryl Dike – who enjoyed a prolific spell under the Frenchman’s tutelage last season – summed up the club’s fortunes when he suffered a medium-term injury in his second appearance for the club.
In truth, it looked like the curtain was falling on this reign regardless, with a delaying of the inevitable having been obvious for at least the past couple of months. West Brom fans had never taken to Ismael the manager, despite the man being a popular figure with the local media and never putting a foot wrong outside of his primary duties to entertain and win West Brom promotion.
At September’s end, they were top of the table. By October, both their ceiling and their basement looked to be third place. Now, with Ismael out, they are hanging onto a play-off place by their fingertips and could freefall further yet.
West Brom fans have been asking for Ismael to be gone for all of the New Year and much of the couple of the months preceding that. The Baggies faithful have their wish, but the turbulence is likely to keep on coming. Ismael was a problem for the club, and one of their own making at that, but there are also problems no single manager can fix in the space of the next five months.