Over the last few years, it’s fair to say that there have been few Premier League teams as unremarkable as Stoke, West Brom and Swansea. Is there any football fan who would have looked at an upcoming fixture against one of those three clubs and been remotely excited? As the weeks went by this season, and the defeats mounted, all three of these clubs sagged under the increasing strain of underachievement, cracking and crumbling like a warm Magnum on a sunny bank holiday. As the season drew to a close, odds for Premier League survival for Stoke, West Brom and Swansea were so long that it was hard to believe that these sides had been such mainstays over the last eight years.
There’s a sense of refreshment to the fact that all three promoted sides survived relegation this season, for only the third time in Premier League history. Huddersfield, Brighton and Newcastle have each brought their own unique gifts to the Premier League party, and through hard work and astute management deservedly maintained their position among the elite. It’s worth noting too that all three sides stood by their managers through thick and thin, perhaps proof that there is still something to be said for managerial stability and longevity in modern football.
For the three that did go down, it seemed that panic had set in once it became clear that Huddersfield and Brighton were not going to assume the role of relegation fodder. Suddenly, there was a very real chance that these three long time Premier League institutions could be cast back into the fires of the Football League. Managers were sacked left right and centre, unproven, ageing, or injury-prone players were hurried through the doors in the January transfer window in a desperate bid to avoid the potential pitfalls of relegation as evidenced by Sunderland.
While Swansea have flirted with relegation for a few years now, the panic was perhaps more tangible at Stoke and West Brom, two sides who have harboured in the plush comfort of mid-table finishes in recent seasons. The two clubs are perennial inbetweeners, content to mingle with the other also-rans and take their share of the ever increasing spoils of Premier League survival.
But stagnation can only take a club so far before the plug is pulled, and the swirling waters of relegation engulf those who have tarried while other clubs have grown stronger, or created identities for their own success and improvement. This is where Stoke and West Brom have been outstripped.
There was a time when the Potters were among the most feared sides in the league—a trip to the freezing, soulless Britannia Stadium the ultimate test of a top team’s fortitude. Their football was ugly, direct, but it was wholly effective. Recent seasons though have seen a complete departure from that kind of steely grit. The arrival of many failed youngsters from bigger clubs have seen Stoke become toothless in their Premier League old age, a side with no clear style or substance, a team merely existing in no-man’s land, failing to realise that the walls were slowly crumbling around them.
West Brom are guilty of a similar crime, but where Stoke had become a team with no clear footballing plan, the Baggies’ was so predictable that they became caricatures of themselves, each Chris Brunt corner whipped towards the head of McAuley, Evans or Dawson a further sign of West Brom’s outdated approach. Alan Pardew did nothing to change the way West Brom played, and did nothing to address their shortcomings. By the time Darren Moore sparked their outstanding mini-revival, the dross who sat in the hot seat before him had consigned West Brom to their fate.
Swansea are another side who simply abandoned the style and philosophy which had served them so well in their maiden years as a Premier League side. It seemed that after the sacking of Garry Monk, all logic flew out the window. Bizarre managerial appointments left the club seemingly stuck in the Premier League’s nether regions.
The notion of a ‘mid-table club’ seems to be becoming more and more obsolete in modern Premier League football. The windfall each club receives from television money is so great that there is less of a financial gap between teams outside of the top six. Each club can afford to pay the transfer fees and the wages to attract European talent. Premier League longevity is no longer much of a factor when it comes to attracting new players, and so the likes of Stoke and West Brom have lost something that in years gone by would have given them an edge over some of the ‘smaller’ clubs in the league.
It is perhaps a worrying sign for a lot of clubs who would consider themselves established in the Premier League. Indeed, Southampton, who have been consistent top-half finishers before this season, came so close to slipping down through the relegation trapdoor themselves. Everton too were forced to call on the fortifying figure of Sam Allardyce to stave off the threat of dropping into the Championship for the first time since the Premier League was created.
This is now a league where, outside of the top six, no one is safe. Perhaps the more intangible factors so often applied to football are slowly fading into irrelevance—those of experience, of Premier League knowhow, and the recognition, justified or otherwise, that some clubs are bigger than others, that some clubs are ‘too big to go down.’ This season has proved that through hard work and well-followed methods, those mental pitfalls can be washed away, and the likes of Huddersfield and Brighton can prove Premier League tips from Betfair wrong, that they can sit deservedly in the seats where West Brom, Stoke and Swansea have reclined in smugness for the last number of years.
For those three relegated clubs, the future is unpredictable. It’s difficult to see how at least one of them won’t bounce straight back up next season, but then again the Championship is an increasingly competitive marathon, full of stumbling blocks and ambushes, a league that provides no easy rides or free passes. Could it be that these clubs continue to stagnate at Championship level, such is the mentality instilled at these institutions that tenth place is the goal and that anything beyond that is an unattainable fantasy?
— West Bromwich Albion (@WBA) May 21, 2018
This is where the role of the manager comes in. Darren Moore has already proven that he has the potential to guide West Brom out of the obscurity. For Stoke and Swansea, who both parted with their managers at the end of the season, their next appointments will be the most important either club has made in year, more crucial than those panicked appointments to try and avoid the drop in the first place. While Stoke have signed Gary Rowett as their new manager, Swansea look set to sign Ostersund’s manager Graham Potter in a bid to steady the ship. Their new managers will need a cool head, a measured approach, an antidote to the sense that everyone else around them is losing their minds.