As appointments go, few people in the football fraternity would have predicted West Bromwich Albion naming Alan Irvine as their new head coach.
But the Premier League club confirmed Irvine’s arrival on Saturday night, handing the likeable Glaswegian an opportunity to ressurect his managerial career following an unhappy 13-month spell at Sheffield Wednesday.
Things started promisingly for Irvine after he became the Owls manager in January 2010 as they recorded a 2-1 victory at Barnsley thanks to goals by Tommy Spurr and Jermaine Johnson. Players enjoyed working with Irvine, whose playing career included stints at Queen’s Park, Everton, Crystal Palace, Dundee United and Blackburn Rovers, and appreciated his training ground methods. He led an upturn in results, leading the club to five wins from his opening seven league fixtures, a run which culminated in him scooping the Championship Manager of the Month award in January.
Ultimately, though, Wednesday were condemned to relegation after failing to claim maximum points in any of their last seven outings.
The Owls’ fate was still in their hands going into the final day of the season. Victory over 21st-placed Crystal Palace on ‘Survival Sunday’ would have meant Irvine’s side stayed up at the Eagles expense.
Palace, who received a 10-point deduction from the Football League for entering administration earlier that campaign, went ahead through a thunderous Alan Lee header. Leon Clarke cancelled out Lee’s strike but was stretchered off with a dislocated toe after kicking an advertising hoarding while celebrating his equaliser.
Darren Ambrose, the star performer in front of 37,121 spectators, grabbed Palace’s second and despite Wednesday captain Darren Purse’s late leveller, Irvine’s troops were sentenced to the drop.
Irvine, a dignified and well-respected man, restructured his squad in the summer, bringing in experienced players such as Nicky Weaver, Clinton Morrison and Neil Mellor.
Wednesday picked up 10 points from their opening four League One fixtures and appeared capable of competing in upper reaches of the division.
However, September, Irvine’s charges lost four on the bounce and only secured one point that month, a goalless home draw with Oldham Athletic.
When Milan Mandaric completed his takeover of the club in mid-December, it was hoped that would lead to a big improvement in their performances and results. Consistency issues, though, continued to blight their season.
Mandaric backed Irvine heavily in the January transfer window, sanctioning the signings of Gary Madine, Michael Morrison, Reda Johnson, Mark Reynolds and Isaiah Osbourne.
But Irvine failed to turnaround their fortunes and was axed following a six-match winless run, culminating in a 5-3 loss at Peterborough United. Defeat at London Road left Wednesday in 12th position, eight points adrift of the play-off zone and five above the relegation zone. Irvine’s managerial record at Hillsborough reads 24 victories, 13 draws and 22 losses from his 59 games at the helm.
Mandaric said: “It is unfortunate, but this had to take place. The decision has been made on what is in the best interests of the club.”
Following his Wednesday departure, Irvine returned to Everton, becoming their academy manager in May 2011.
Once he “signs off” from his current role on Merseyside, the 55-year-old will succeed Pepe Mel at West Brom, having agreed a 12-month rolling contract
Former Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood had been the favourite for the job in the wake of Mel’s exit last month but The Hawthorns hierarchy decided to turn to Irvine.
Rob Kelly, who worked under Irvine at Preston North End and Wednesday, has also been appointed joint assistant head coach, alongside Keith Downing while Dean Kiely will remain as goalkeeping coach. WBA finished 17th in the top flight last season, just three points above the drop zone.
Albion technical director Terry Burton said: “I’m delighted we have been able to secure the services of Alan and Rob. With the support of Keith and Dean, we firmly believe we have put in place the right coaching team to move the club forward.
“From the outset, we decided to pursue candidates who are renowned for their coaching ability and Alan was very much at the forefront of our thoughts because of his achievements in the Premier League and the high regard he is held within the game.
“In the end it came down to two outstanding candidates for the role.
“But, following a detailed recruitment process, we decided Alan and the team around him are best suited to tackle the challenges we face in the Barclays Premier League.
“He has a vast knowledge from grassroots up thanks to the roles he has performed during his decades in the game and knows what it takes through good and testing times.”
One of the criticism’s often levelled at Irvine, who was heavily involved in the emergence of ex-Owls loan star Ross Barkley and Jack Rodwell at Everton, during his Wednesday tenure was that he focused too much on the opposition rather than concentrating on the strengths of his own team. Indeed, in his final months in charge at Preston and Wednesday, he was accused of adopting an increasingly negative and attritional approach.
There will be some West Brom fans who will be distinctly underwhelmed and concerned by Irvine’s appointment, given his lack of managerial experience in the top flight and the way results transpired at Hillsborough.
Irvine is a driven, dedicated, hard-working professional, meticulous in his planning and thorough in his research. It will have hurt him greatly what happened at Wednesday and I’m sure he has learned from the mistakes he made in South Yorkshire and will now be desperate to prove a point on the biggest stage of them all.
If things don’t work out at West Brom, Irvine may find it tough to get another number one job so he will be keen to make the most of this chance.