Football: Fan's Eye View: Early signs of promise forever fading into pell-mell falls from grace

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The Independent Online
A West Bromwich Albion supporter surveying the Football League tables on the morning of Sunday 7 September will have been struck by an unpleasant sense of impending doom. There, perched atop the Nationwide First Division were our team by virtue of a dogged 1-0 home victory over Reading the previous Saturday afternoon which had extended their unbeaten start to the season to seven games. We have been in this position before - rarely, granted - and rather than signalling a long-overdue revival in the club's fortunes, it has always been the prelude to a series of disappointments, culminating in either relegation or loss of manager, by mutual consent or otherwise.

West Brom last topped the old Second Division in January 1989, Brian Talbot's team earning plaudits for their fluid, attacking football. A year on, they had returned to the increasingly familiar relegation dogfight and capitulated to non-League Woking at home in the third round of the FA Cup. Exit Talbot.

Enter Bobby Gould, a pattern of play which relied solely on the long- distance kicking abilities of the centre-halves, and a boardroom policy of buying cheap and selling to the highest bidder. That resulted in relegation to the Third Division for the first time in the club's 100-plus year history.

A woefully misplaced sense of optimism greeted the start of the 1992- 93 campaign, buoyed by the firm belief that the club was far too grand to spend long in the company of such footballing minnows as Chester or Exeter. Gould had introduced a red away strip, a colour he sombrely announced would have a powerful psychological effect on opponents. He was not wrong: every team in the division seemed to raise their game whenever the Albion visited.

Come May, the side were anchored in mid-table and route maps to Preston and all points north were being recycled. During the final game of the season, at Shrewsbury's Gay Meadow, a group of fans paraded around the pitch carrying a coffin on which they had painted the words "Bobby Gould RIP - Rot In Pig-shit". Exit Gould.

Ossie Ardiles led Albion back to the newly christened Football League Division One the next season and promptly resigned, to take over at Spurs. The club's last flirtation with promotion was in the winter of '95, a brief residency terminated by a run of 14 successive defeats. The latest spell on the division's summit lasted a mere week. But it has since been followed by battling performances against Swindon and Reading, and the team has remained in the top three. Yet the faithful remain sceptical.

A pragmatic sort, the current manager, Ray Harford, has insisted that this side is not good enough to sustain a prolonged push for the Premiership. His reasoning may well be that his squad is acutely vulnerable, particularly as the only two members of it with genuine Premiership class, striker Paul Peschisolido and midfield playmaker Richard Sneekes, are still engaged in contractual disputes with the club.

He would, however, be justified in pointing to the fate of his predecessors, and firmly predicting that something, somewhere is bound to go horribly wrong very soon.

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