Two of his managerial colleagues, Tony Adams and Luiz Felipe Scolari, have been sacked since his West Bromwich Albion side last kicked a ball in anger, but despite occupying bottom place in the Premier League, Tony Mowbray resembles a man without a care as he munches through a small pile of chocolate while assessing the prospects of an overdue away win against Fulham today.
“Have a break” runs the first half of the advertising slogan for the bar he is eagerly dunking in his post-training cuppa, and Mowbray took the injunction literally after Albion’s 3-2 home defeat by Newcastle in their last game. Four days spent on the practice pitch in Andalucia, as well as go-karting and playing golf when they were not working at the goalface, will, he hopes, have recharged the batteries for what many see as a must-win match for Albion.
Many, but not Mowbray. Behind the relaxed air, the Teessider is evidently plotting a late, great escape on a par with the one Bryan Robson achieved with Albion four years ago, which could serve as a dictionary definition of brinkmanship. However, the route to safety he has mapped out does not necessarily mean they must dent Fulham’s impressive record at Craven Cottage and secure only a second win on their travels.
Explaining that he dislikes the concept of the “must-win” match, Mowbray throws a rhetorical question of his own back at the media. “Fulham have won eight home games, so why would the bottom club expect to go there and win? As a coach, I’ll be telling the world to look at their record there, which includes beating Arsenal. We’d hope to win, but it’s a tough match against a good team. I haven’t marked it down on my list as a three-points-for-us game, and if we don’t win there will be no huge despondency. But if you look at our games, I’d like to think we can win five of the last eight easily.”
Admitting that “easily” might not have been the most judicious word, Mowbray nevertheless identifies a string of six-pointers at The Hawthorns against Stoke City, Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic and Sunderland. “They’re all teams we’ve got to look to beat,” he says before imposing his own caveat. “Lose one of them, and it makes it very dark for you.”
Albion did, of course, place the visit of Newcastle in a similar category. The expectation that flowed from a run of home successes made their capitulation all the harder to stomach as they headed for the hills of southern Spain. “If you lose to Arsenal or Manchester United, you take it on the chin,” says Mowbray. “But we had got ourselves in a position where, if we’d won, we’d have climbed out of the bottom three. The way we handed them the goals on a plate was hard to take.”
Not so difficult that he has spent the interim period agonising, or indeed preparing to ditch a style based on possession for a more direct approach. “A defeat hurts like hell, but you have to get on with it. If the manager is walking around sulkily, it gives everyone else a licence to do the same. I don’t dwell on losses for long.
“I went home that night and made a snowman with the kids. They’re aged one and four so they’re pretty funny and friendly when you get in. They’re not interested in whether you won or lost. I didn’t watch Match of the Day – I haven’t seen it this year – because I like to stay single-minded about my team. If you start listening to people sitting on a sofa you can lose track of what you believe in.”
Which, in Mowbray’s case, is what he describes as “open, attacking football”, however much harder it is to play in the Premier League than when Albion won the Championship last May. “If it’s just about winning, we may as well all go home,” the self-styled entertainer reflects between licking chocolate off a finger, although the time when it is about precisely that is fast approaching.
Fulham v West Bromwich Albion (1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Respective supporters may like to compare sympathetic notes about away form this season: Fulham have three goals from 13 games, Albion six from 12. The difference is the Cottagers’ excellent home form, which they must maintain here to prevent any downfall spiral.
Liverpool v Manchester City (3pm)
Like any team returning from a Thursday night match in Europe, City will feel a little underprepared for this one, which is hardly the ideal fixture to come back to. Mark Hughes can only hope his great unpredictables show some of their Copenhagen spirit, which has been badly lacking in their domestic away games.
Newcastle United v Everton (4pm, Sky Sports 1)
Will Newcastle pull together for Joe Kinnear? They are one of a dozen teams still looking over their shoulder, envious of an Everton side that David Moyes has established among the top six, where they deserve to remain.