West Bromwich Albion are not the highest-profile English team in Spain, but one half of Seville will be watching tonight as the former Real Betis coach Pepe Mel takes charge of the Midlands club in his first game, home against Everton.
West Brom are three points off the relegation zone and Mel, 50, has been told there will not be any money in the transfer window, despite the £7 million (Dh42.1m) sale of Shane Long to Hull City. The immediate future of another striker, Nicolas Anelka, is shrouded in controversy.
September’s impressive victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford seems a long time ago.
Mel faces a tough task. The Madrileno arrived without his regular back-room team and his eight previous jobs have all been in Spain, though he has called a fellow Spaniard, Rafa Benitez, for advice since taking over at The Hawthorns.
Mel is a wonderful character who connected with Betis fans by having time for them and speaking their language.
When he said that he would rather his daughter came home pregnant than Betis be relegated, it caused headlines, but it showed what Betis meant to him. Rival Sevilla fans despised him, more so when he raised his middle finger to them during one derby match.
Mel took charge at Betis in 2010, leading them to promotion in 2011, a 13th-place finish in 2012 and then a seventh place finish last season.
His popularity rose off the back of the club’s improved league placings and a 3-1 Copa del Rey victory over Barcelona.
His team played with the attacking flair demanded by their supporters and his achievements were doubly worthy as Betis are in administration and have to sell their best players.
They sold his midfield from last season and Mel had to incorporate 14 new faces in the squad for this term. When his main striker, Ruben Castro, was injured and his side had the extra burden of competing in the Europa League it made a hard job almost an impossible one.
With Betis bottom of the table, Mel’s halo started to slip among directors, but he did not shy away from the problems. He called a November news conference and explained it would be cowardly to resign.
“It was necessary for me to speak today,” he said as he sat alone and faced the media. “I had to show my face. “We’re letting the fans down, who have never let us down. I’ve been here three years, we’ve had many obstacles, but we’ve always kept growing. I need not say where we’ve come from to get where we are.”
He asked for support but as the poor results continued hard-core supporters turned up at the training ground to confront him and his players. He spoke to them face to face and they got the answers they wanted. If there was a silver lining, it is that Mel – an accomplished and published crime novelist – might be able to use it as a plot line in a future book.
He had time to write after being dismissed by Betis in early December.
The dismissal did not go down well and fans turned up at the stadium, where some threw bricks at the press-room windows.
Those fans feel vindicated as Betis’s form has not improved under the new manager Juan Carlos Garrido. He was jeered throughout the match in Saturday’s 5-0 home defeat to Real Madrid.
Mel was linked with the West Brom job after Steve Clarke’s dismissal. He had always said that the English Premier League was the best in the world and signed an 18-month contract after much negotiation about his back-room staff. Spain wishes him well, but not everyone is convinced.
“He’s a good frontman, who is full of charisma, which the fans and media love,” said one agent who has worked with Betis and prefers to be unnamed. “I think he’ll struggle at West Brom without his team around him.”
Mel, who is the only Premier League manager with a Twitter account, said, “I hope my confidence is transmitted to the players”.
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