West Brom season preview
Simon Wilkes takes an in-depth look at the comings and goings at The Hawthorns this summer - and feels Roy Hodgson's Albion could be a surprise hit in the league, finally shedding their yo-yo tag.
By Simon Wilkes - Follow me on Twitter @SimonJWilkes. Last Updated: August 14, 2011 6:18pm
Roy Hodgson has been free to do what he wants at The Hawthorns to a certain extent this summer - and has done just that, dealing largely in free transfers much to the delight of frugal Albion chairman Jeremy Peace before persuading him to write a cheque for Reading striker Shane Long.
Peace likes to run a tight ship but got his fingers burned when he gave the green light for a club-record outlay of £4.7million for Borja Valero under Tony Mowbray, for whom the dimunitive midfielder was a big-money flop.
He has been much less inclined to open the Albion chequebook so freely since, especially after seeing sporting director Dan Ashworth recruit the likes of Somen Tchoyi and Peter Odemwingie for bargain-bucket fees last summer.
But Hodgson has worked wonders in the summer market, adding Northern Ireland captain Gareth McAuley, highly-rated Preston defender Billy Jones and goalkeeper Martin Fulop to his backline without touching his warchest.
Former Manchester United stopper Ben Foster has joined on a season-long loan from Birmingham to fill the number one void left by Scott Carson's surprise £2.1million move to Turkish outfit Bursaspor, with Boaz Myhill heading to Blues in two deals which could be made permanent next summer.
Hodgson, Peace and Ashworth are contemplating a gamble on another ex Red Devil in Owen Hargreaves, and are waiting on his answer to the offer of a pay-as-you-play deal.
The prospect of Hargreaves, a player of immense pedigree and talent if he can rid his injury demons, is a mouth-watering one for Baggies fans - but the deal that has really got their juices flowing is the the return of Zoltan Gera, another addition on a free after he left Fulham.
The Hungarian playmaker, once dubbed the 'Beckham of Budapest', scored 21 goals in 106 league games for Albion after joining for £1.5m from Ferencvaros back in 2004 - but his all-action style and penchant for banging in breathtaking goals made him a firm fans' favourite who was always welcomed with open arms when he returned to the Black Country.
It was Hodgson who lured Gera to Craven Cottage so the 32-year-old is likely to be handed a key role having signed a two-year contract, especially as he can play on either flank or in a more advanced role behind a striker.
Albion have left it late to splash their cash in recent seasons and struck a deal to sign Long just days before the start of the new campaign.
Long is believed to have arrived for a fee of £4.5million rising to £6.5million, a large outlay, but he has been hugely impressive in the Championship and it is quite a coup for the Baggies to beat off competition from a number of Premier League rivals.
There are likely to be more new faces and capture of Liam Ridgewell from Birmingham would also be welcomed by all if it goes through as he is young, hungry and can play at both centre-back and full-back.
It has been a relaxing summer for Baggies fans, though, as captain Chris Brunt and star man Youssouf Mulumbu have penned new deals, Odemwingie is poised to land a lucrative pay rise and Scotland midfielder Graham Dorrans is fully fit again, meaning there is harmony, happiness and fierce competition throughout a squad which has bags of experience courtesy of Paul Scharner, Paul Scharner, Steven Reid, Gera and Jonas Olsson.
And despite a torrid start to the season which sees a trip to Stamford Bridge - where they were hit for six last term - sandwiched by an opening home game with champions Manchester United and the visit of bogey team Stoke City, supporters are for once not worrying about relegation, instead hoping for a possible improvement on the 11th-placed finish in the 2010-11 table.
Star man - Peter Odemwingie
The Russian-born Nigerian is hanging fire on penning a bumper new contract, but has two years left on his current deal so Albion are simply looking to reward him for a dazzling first season which saw the 30-year-old net 15 priceless Premier League goals.
Reported interest, and a rejected £4million bid, from Arsenal do not appear to have turned Odemwingie's head, and although he is likely to be a marked man this season, his pace, trickery and eye for goal mean he is likely to register double figures on the goal charts once again, thriving on the added creativity of Gera in the attacking third.
If you want a cheap third striker for your Fantasy Football team, Odemwingie is your man as he'll play every game if fit and pick up plenty of star player plaudits along the way.
Best signing - Zoltan Gera
Hargreaves could yet rival Gera for this tag if a) he actually signs and b) he stays fit. The chances of both those scenarios coming to pass are fairly slim, so the re-signing of classy playmaker Gera, who now has bags of Premier League and European experience in his locker, goes down as Hodgson's best bit of business so far this summer, as he adds flair, nous, skill and thrust to the first team.
One to watch - Simon Cox
Cox arrived at The Hawthorns after catching the eye in a prolific spell with Swindon, but never got a regular run in the side under Roberto Di Matteo.
Hodgson liked the look of him straightaway, though, and although he played in a midfield role under the wily tactician, he showed a glimpse of his potential with a stunning Goal of the Season contender at White Hart Lane - and looked at ease on the international stage with the Republic of Ireland, proving a fine foil for Robbie Keane in attack.
Young gun - Graham Dorrans
Dorrans was the driving force behind Albion's promotion campaign under Di Matteo, but suffered an injury-ravaged campaign in 2010-11 and is only now firing on all cylinders again.
The 24-year-old was snapped up for just £150,000 from Livingston and was the subject of three rejected bids from West Ham last summer.
The successful partnership of Mulumbu and Scharner in the engine room of the Albion midfield meant he found it hard to dislodge the pair - but he is strong in the tackle, has an eye for goal and is a set-piece specialist so could be a valuable asset for the Baggies this season.
Point to prove - Ben Foster
Had a stellar season with Birmingham, but ultimately couldn't stop them from avoiding the dreaded drop to the second tier.
Foster doesn't exactly have a hard act to follow as he takes over the number one jersey from Carson, who was stripped of the captain's armband and never commanded his area or backline - but he will want to ensure he is not involved in another dogfight and will be a solid last line of defence.
Manager - Roy Hodgson
Hodgson is working on a rolling contract at The Hawthorns, but has long-term plans for the club and is widely believed to be grooming number two Michael Appleton to be his eventual successor.
The ageing honcho is back in more comfortable surroundings following his horrendous spell at Anfield, and received the plaudits in a dignified manner after steering Albion from relegation trouble to mid-table safety with games to spare in a stunning revival.
He found Liverpool's great expectations and the constant media grillings on Merseyside too much to bear - and his preference for a counter-attacking style of play built on a solid defence is much better suited to the Baggies than the Reds, who are rightly expected to boss games and set the tempo.
Hodgson often employed the 4-2-3-1 formation Di Matteo found so successful last season, but has gone on record to say he is a big fan of playing two strikers in a 4-4-2 line-up, hence his hope that Long or a big-money hitman is recruited to ease the goalscoring burden on Odemwingie.
Tactically shrewd and held in high esteem by his players following his Manager of the Year heroics with the Cottagers, Hodgson's Albion could well be a surprise package this season, especially if they secure the signatures of Ridgwell, Hargreaves and Long or Sturridge in the coming weeks.
Roy Hodgson: "People need to be sufficiently aware to realise we are still fighting with lesser resources and we are still pulling rabbits out of the hat to some extent.
"If you spend £100million you are likely to get more or better players than the team that spends £2-3million.
"If you want a Savile Row suit, you pay Saville Row prices but you can still put a suit on your back from Tesco's.
"There are limits and it would be unfair to expect the Tesco man to look as good as the Savile Row man."
Simon Cox on Shane Long's arrival: "Competition is good and healthy, and it makes players be at the top of their game day in, day out, week in and week out.
"I'm quite happy to fight for my place, and some people might be fighting for places on the bench. If I'm one of those players, then great, it will bring the best out in me."
INS: Ben Foster, Marton Fulop, Gareth McAuley, Billy Jones, Zoltan Gera, Shane Long.
OUTS: Boaz Myhill & Chris Wood (loan), Abdoulaye Meite, Scott Carson, Gianni Zuiverloon, Giles Barnes.
Sky Bet Title Odds: 2000-1
Likely top scorer: Peter Odemwingie
Possible best XI: Foster; Reid, Vaughan, Olsson, Shorey; Tchoyi, Mulumbu, Scharner, Brunt (c); Odemwingie, Long.