On the surface, this season appears to have ended in exactly the same way as the last one 12 months ago – play-off semi-final heartache followed by a managerial departure. However, look beyond the bare facts, and this season’s demise couldn’t be more different to the previous version.
Firstly, finishing in the top six this time around was a big surprise, and, if we’re being honest, an over-achievement. If you had asked me about our play-off chances following the painful goalless draw at Barnsley in April , I’d have told you they were so slim the naked eye wouldn‘t be able to spot them. Even at half time of the final league game of the regular season at Nottingham Forest, a positive outcome looked unlikely.
We got there though, with our reward a somewhat daunting clash with Derby County. Last season – when we met arch rivals Crystal Palace – defeat was simply unthinkable. But the unthinkable happened, Palace went on to win the final, and then went on to have a brilliant season in the Premier League. This time however, defeat always seemed inevitable. Deep down, the vast majority of Albion fans knew it was going to be extremely tough to make it to Wembley, and so it proved.
A 6-2 aggregate victory in Derby’s favour was probably fair, despite Albion producing a spirited effort in the first leg. In the second leg, we were thoroughly outclassed – the end couldn’t come soon enough. Sadly, Oscar Garcia also thought the same about his tenure at the club.
If Gus Poyet’s spell in the Albion dugout came to a very sour and messy conclusion after the Palace defeat, Oscar’s severance couldn’t have been more different. With Oscar having made his intentions clear, the paperwork was concluded very swiftly – a good move by the club as it gives the board ample time to find their new man, and for him to then bring in his own players.
Very little reason for Oscar’s decision to leave has been made public, but the information that has been released points to disagreements with the amount of money available to spend on the playing squad, and the way the club goes about recruiting their targets. Albion have publicly stated on multiple occasions that they are working within the Financial Fair Play guidelines and that the club’s safe financial future won’t be sacrificed for the sake of short term gain. I agree with this stance – no-one can doubt that football’s finances are spiraling out of control – but I can also see how frustrating this would have been for Oscar, who watched his rivals splashing out of big names to boost their promotion pushes during January whilst he was selling Ashley Barnes and Liam Bridcutt.
Many names have been thrown around when it comes to Oscar’s successor – Tim Sherwood, Chris Hughton and Paul Clement appear to be the current front runners – and whoever takes over will be made fully aware of the club’s stance to prevent history repeating itself once again when next season concludes. But before a ball is even kicked, he will have a large job on his hands rebuilding a squad which has been rocked by a second successive play-off failure and the loss of several key personnel.
Goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak was the biggest surprise when the list of released players was announced – I can only assume this is related to money or Kuszczak’s desire to play in the Premier League rather than his playing ability as he has been one of our top performers throughout his time at the club. He was followed out of the door by player of the season Matthew Upson, who was offered a new contract but decided to give the Premier League another crack with Leicester City.
Stephen Ward, Keith Andrews and Jesse Lingard have all returned to their parent clubs following successful loan spells, and there is mounting speculation regarding the future of top scorer Leonardo Ulloa, with Leicester reportedly having three bids rejected already this summer.
If there is an area where we really cannot to lose top quality players, it is certainly in the striking department. Albion’s haul of 55 goals in 2013/14 was the lowest of the top 17 Championship clubs, with even fourth bottom Birmingham scoring more. Without a rock solid defence at the other end (only Burnley conceded fewer), we could have ended up with a dramatic end to the season at the opposite end of the table.
Therefore, the loss of Ulloa – comfortably Albion’s top scorer with 16 goals this time around despite missing part of the season through injury - could spell disaster for the new manager. Retaining his services is essential if we want to seriously challenge for promotion again, and make that difficult last step, in the coming season. If he is sold, and a quality replacement isn’t brought in, the board are likely to face some tough questions about how seriously they are attempting to mount a serious promotion push in 2014/15.
For now, we’ll all have to just sit and await the club’s next moves. There is certainly one similarity from the previous summer – it’s certainly not going to be dull!