Friday, 11 August 2017

A season of wondering what we're doing here and what it all means

The first three matches of Albion’s first season in the top flight, in 1979, provided a point-free welcome to life with the best. It was all over by half-time: two Alan Sunderland strikes adding to a long-range strike from Frank Stapleton.

Come May, Albion survived comfortably, even though the two away games which followed, echoing the fixture list pattern this season’s squad will begin with, also ended in defeats. In 2017, such comparisons are pointless in all but Albion’s likely opening experience: trepidatious, optimistic and probably well beaten.

We see Man City’s players purely on television, with the understanding that they are multimedia commodities, faraway stars rather than tangible entertainers. There is almost a technical impossibility to a club like the Albion appearing in the Premier League, so imperative is the need for clubs operating there to be abstract business entities rather than living, breathing organisations.

Clingers to City’s business – Swansea, Bournemouth, Burnley, West Brom – are temporary side-pieces to the bill most of the world actually wants to see, so our league position is always going to feel like a novelty from now on. The potential for confusion this season is considerable. It doesn’t, nor necessarily should it at the prices charged, come naturally to supporters to consider themselves insignificant. There’s a sense that life around the Albion has changed forever, like a till worker winning the lottery, thanks to the ineffable sums of money association with the Premier League brand confers.

Timing, as Bloom understood in his managerial decisions during the final season outside of a commercial stadium, is all-important: a few years ago, Bradford and Blackpool could join and then leave the Premier League without much lasting impact beyond a ruinous trajectory inflicted by ill-judged leadership.

The latest reality is that everything grows further apart as the club becomes a larger constellation in which the newest parts require the most immediate nurturing, the few thousand who contributed during days we’d all now rather forget considered less worthy of particular attention than they’d ever have wanted anyway. Even in a few years, with the market potentially becoming more combustible, this might not remain the financial case for newly-promoted clubs.

Sometimes it is nicer to feel a sense of control over the direction the club takes. Remembering the days when the club was dependent and often seemed figuratively powered by the fans, it’s strange to think of the space in which the Albion now finds itself. Any fan, no matter how much they care, becomes an indiscernible dot in the context of such enormous attention on the club. The chance to witness all this is odd, incredible, alluring and distancing all at the same time, and can only be healthily balanced, you suspect, with the occasional visit to games in more normal divisions at clubs which rely on a closer relationship with a smaller number of people.

Meanwhile, the hope at our end of the table is disarmingly similar to the other end of the scale: we want a genuine competition, without great points gaps leading to foregone conclusions before the fun has begun. City have a new keeper to integrate, and any moments in which they are made to look mortal at Falmer should be applauded. Whether or not they’re out of sight by half-time, it's unlikely to be the most intriguing game of an Albion season certain to be surreal.

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