After waiting 26 days to learn the identity of their new manager, West Bromwich Albion fans could be forgiven for feeling a little underwhelmed by the appointment of Pepe Mel as Steve Clarke’s successor.
This is a man, after all, recently sacked by La Liga’s bottom club Real Betis and whose negotiations with West Bromwich had initially broken down over the Spaniard’s thwarted wish to bring his own staff with him, before this week’s unexpected U-turn.
Yet Albion supporters may be placated to hear that Mel, who will be on a watching brief at Southampton today as Keith Downing takes the reins one last time, is a man of surprises. Not only is the 50-year-old a history buff and published author, but at Betis he lifted a club with virtually no money out of the second division and into the Europa League.
Adrian, the West Ham goalkeeper, played under Mel at Betis and recalls how he confounded expectations with the club’s first European qualification since 2005. “Nobody thought last year with the squad we had that we could get a European place but we had a great season,” he told The Independent.
Adrian remembers Mel as “a coach who is quite close to his players” and plays an attractive, possession-based game, with a focus on attack. “We played from the back, with lots of touches, short passes. He likes to keep the ball but always looking for the goal, not backwards passes that take you nowhere.”
This love of attacking football reflects his own past as a centre-forward – Mel, whose father was a footballer too, was an unfussy No 9 schooled in Real Madrid’s academy who hit 22 goals as Betis won promotion to the top flight in 1990. When he returned to the Seville club as coach in 2010, the club were in administration and almost €90m (£74.7m) in debt, yet history repeated itself, his first campaign bringing promotion to La Liga as champions – his second trophy as a coach after Rayo Vallecano’s 2008 third-tier title win. Betis consolidated in 13th place the next year, before, on a €2.5m transfer budget, he lifted them to seventh last May.
It made him an icon at Betis, who must raise some €9m annually to pay off their debts. “In every match there was a moment when the fans would start chanting ‘Pepe Mel, Pepe Mel’,” Adrian added. Even at his valedictory press conference last month, fans gathered outside to sing his name and call for the dismissal of Vlada Stosic, the director of football whose poor transfer dealings last summer hit Betis hard.
Mel describes himself as a “viajero”, a traveller, in the blurb for his second novel, El Camino al Mas Alla (The Road to the Other Side). His journey now takes him to the Black Country and a club, like Betis, for whom many neutrals have a soft spot. He must slot into the club’s existing coaching structure but Adrian believes he can adjust. “He’s an open-minded person, who likes to broaden his perspective. He will adapt quickly.”