West Brom: Premier League relegation looms in troubled week for club

By Simon StoneBBC Sport

At the end of a week to forget, it says a lot for West Brom that they did not close the door on the BBC and its Football Focus programme on Saturday.

In the space of five days, there had been a heavy Premier League defeat at Chelsea, the sacking of two senior executives and an incident in Barcelona, the full details of which left manager Alan Pardew "furious" and remains the subject of a club investigation.

Faced with such a negative backdrop, it would have been easy to tell presenter Dan Walker and his crew "thanks, but no thanks".

But instead West Brom invited Walker, Arsenal Women defender Alex Scott, former Gunners captain Martin Keown and Leicester assistant manager Michael Appleton into The Hawthorns, even though they knew that events this week would be up for discussion.

With relegation from the Premier League looking increasingly likely, how have the West Midlands club got here and who is calling the shots?

Who is Lai Guochuan and what is he doing?

Through his investment company [Yunyi Guokai (Shanghai) Sports Development Ltd] Chinese businessman Lai Guochuan paid £200m for an 88% stake in West Brom in August 2016.

Lai is based in Shanghai and has attended a handful of West Brom matches, most of which have been against the most high-profile Premier League teams.

His business background revolves around former ownership of Chinese Eco-Town developer Palm, where he remains a director.

West Brom's training ground was renamed in October to include the Palm name and Lai has won a contract to build sports towns - large-scale eco-friendly landscapes with football academies at their heart - that will bear the club's name.

Lai has never given any interviews to explain his interest in the Baggies.

But Matt Wilson, the West Brom reporter at the Express & Star newspaper, told BBC Sport: "The Chinese government were encouraging expansion and wanted their businessmen to go and buy sports teams around the world.

"A lot of fans think he comes to watch the glittering teams because they are the clubs he would have liked to own but couldn't afford to.

"They feel he has got a penchant for the celebrity nature of the game rather than understanding what matters to people in this area and people who have supported the club for years."

West Brom owner Guochuan Lai
Lai Guochuan purchased the shares of Jeremy Peace, who had been chairman for 14 years

The forgotten issue that left Albion fuming

Amid the turmoil of the past two months, one aspect has been largely ignored. It remains important nonetheless.

West Brom were due to complete their Premier League Christmas programme at West Ham on 1 January. The game then got moved to 2 January as both clubs' previous fixtures had been shifted to 31 December to be shown on TV.

But West Ham's New Year's Eve game never took place as the Metropolitan Police refused to sanction a London derby with Spurs on a day when their resources were already stretched. It was moved to 4 January instead.

It meant second-bottom West Brom went to London Stadium just 52 hours after their previous game, to play the side immediately above them in the table, who had a week off.

West Brom complained and asked for the fixture to be postponed, with manager Alan Pardew saying at the time: "The league's got to be stronger and say two days is not right. We have had strong words with the league."

The Premier League refused and West Ham won 2-1, thanks to Andy Carroll's 94th-minute winner.

Had West Brom won that day, they would have gone above the Hammers in the table and been a point from safety. Instead, they were four points adrift and have never been out of the bottom two since.

Insiders at The Hawthorns remain furious at the decision to play the fixture.

West Ham striker Andy Carroll scores against West Brom
Andy Carroll's two goals condemned West Brom to their 10th defeat of the season

The Pulis dilemma

Tony Pulis became West Brom's fourth head coach in a year when he was appointed manager in January 2015.

After immediately guiding them away from the relegation zone, he went on to secure 13th, 14th and 10th-place finishes.

However, fans' patience with the Welshman's perceived 'long ball' style was wearing thin.

After a bright start to this season gave way to a dismal autumn and a run of 10 games without a win, Pulis was sacked on 20 November.

There is a virtually unanimous agreement from fans and employees alike that there was no way back after a 1-0 loss at Huddersfield in November, which sparked widespread fury from the away support aimed at Pulis.

Then followed the 4-0 home defeat by Chelsea two weeks later.

Former West Brom manager Tony Pulis
Tony Pulis failed to win any of his final 10 Premier League matches as West Brom manager

Move on to 12 February, with Pardew in charge, and another defeat by Chelsea left Albion seven points from safety with 11 games left - and Lai was faced with the brutal truth that relegation was a probability rather than a possibility.

And in the aftermath of that result, it is understood Lai felt sacking Pulis had been a costly mistake, and not one of his making.

Chairman John Williams and chief executive Martin Goodman, who would have made the decision to part with Pulis, had engaged in positive dialogue with the club's supporters over recent months but Lai's relationship with the pair had never been entirely smooth.

Williams did not spend a lot of time at the club, doing much of his work remotely. There was often a difference of opinion about decisions, although the owner did not insist on always getting his own way.

However, with West Brom approaching the point of no return, Williams and Goodman have been sacked.

Mark Jenkins, right-hand man to former owner Jeremy Peace and chief executive for 10 years until he stood down in 2016, accepted Lai's request to step in.

Quietly efficient but hardline when it comes to finances, Jenkins is nicknamed 'Dr No' by one insider.

Jenkins' experience of life in the Championship at West Brom is seen as being crucial given the financial uncertainty now hanging over the club.

"I still maintain John Williams' decision to sack Pulis came at the right time. It couldn't have gone on much longer," said Wilson.

"But the owners saw Pulis as an almost cast-iron guarantee of survival. I suppose if you are raking in that money, that is what you want.

"And if you look at the stark reality, it has got catastrophically worse since he left."

What else could go wrong?

The day Lai sacked his two most senior executives, Pardew told his players they could go out for an evening in the middle of a three-day training camp in Barcelona. He gave them a midnight curfew.

Full details of what happened remain the subject of an internal West Brom investigation.

However, four senior players - Gareth Barry, Jonny Evans, Jake Livermore and Boaz Myhill - did not return to the team hotel until 5.30am on Thursday morning, something for which they have apologised.

All four players were accused of stealing a taxi in Barcelona, however none of them will face legal action because of a lack of evidence.

Pardew was "furious" at the conduct of the players and demoted Evans as captain for Saturday's FA Cup defeat by Southampton, although the centre-back and Barry both started the game, while Myhill was on the bench.

Add to that top scorer Jay Rodriguez's charge of racially abusing Brighton defender Gaetan Bong during a Premier League game on 13 January - the potential punishment would be a minimum five-match ban.

Rodriguez strenuously denies the charge and has until 9 March to respond.

On 29 January, West Brom pulled off a coup when Daniel Sturridge opted to join them on loan from Liverpool for the rest of the season rather than Newcastle.

At Chelsea, in his third game, Sturridge, who has completed a full 90 minutes once this season, went off with a hamstring injury after four minutes.

What happens now?

Bottom six places of the Premier League table
West Brom have not left the relegation zone since their 2-1 loss to Manchester United more than three months ago

Even though Pardew has managed one win in 13 league games since replacing Pulis, speculation that his position is under threat given the recent upheaval has been played down by West Brom.

Instead, the club point to their next six league games - against Huddersfield, Watford, Leicester, Bournemouth, Burnley and Swansea - as proof the present situation is not irretrievable.

"Two weeks ago they had just come off three wins and a draw from four games. They had kept Jonny Evans and they had got Daniel Sturridge. Now they are seven points away from safety," said Wilson.

"The first two months under Pardew went really well. He was honest and the fans really took to him.

"But now, he keeps apologising for mistakes. He has said in hindsight, they shouldn't have gone to Spain, he has admitted he should not have picked Daniel Sturridge ahead of Jay Rodriguez, who had scored five goals in seven games and was then dropped.

"Fans are starting to say it is OK being honest but you are making mistakes now, your decision making is not right. The mask is sort of starting to slip. That brief love affair they had is starting to fray at the edges."

The word to describe the circumstances? "Anarchy", says Wilson - which does not bode well.