On being told that most season previews – including the one put together using the accumulated brain power of the Guardian’s football journalists – have pegged West Brom as certainties to finish bottom of the Premier League this season, Slaven Bilic said: “You can’t get a bigger positive than that, that’s great! I don’t mean it’s an excuse or an alibi and things can only get better. Not in that sense. I mean: ‘let’s show them that they are all wrong’. We have an even bigger motivation now.”
The West Brom manager also invoked examples that give his promoted team heart. “We want to compete as a very confident team that is going to stay in the league for a long time. I bet that when you talked to Sheffield United before the start of last season, they said their first objective was to stay up. But when they got momentum, they didn’t say ‘no, no, we’re happy now’.
“You have to be humble, positive and well balanced. We only think positive things. We don’t think about Norwich, we think about Sheffield United and also Aston Villa, who were fighting until the last day of the season.
“There are many positive examples in every league every year. We want to be like them. For that you have to have the right quality, the right mentality and, most of all, you have to believe. Because if you don’t believe, then what is the point? We believe.”
Maybe they are kidding themselves out of necessity but at least they are not saying the season is going to be easy and they know there is a key part of Bilic’s formula – the bit about “the right quality” – that must be addressed.
After finishing second in the Championship despite a jittery run-in, West Brom had to do two things to prepare for their return to the top-flight: make permanent signings of the loanees who did well last season, and recruit enough higher-grade players to thrive in the Premier League.
They have managed to do the first part – securing the continued services of Callum Robinson, Matheus Pereira and, most preciously of all, Grady Diangama, and they are working to bring Filip Krovinovic back from Benfica.
The second part is proving more difficult, though as Bilic spoke on Friday, the former Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic was undergoing a medical at the club with a view to joining from Zenit St Petersburg, where he has been captain for the last three seasons. He will not be available in time for Sunday’s season opener at home to Leicester, but Bilic is convinced the player will prove a valuable addition to his lineup and, at 36, can still be a force in the Premier League.
“His career has been magnificent so everyone is delighted,” Bilic said. “I know how he plays. We’re not talking about someone who we’ve had to do homework on from his time at Chelsea – that was ages ago. Ivanovic played really, really good at Zenit. We’re getting him for his experience, for his quality and the influence he’ll have on the pitch and in the dressing room. Not only centre backs, not only defenders, will have the opportunity to learn from him. He ticked all the boxes for us.”
West Brom continue to try to strengthen their attacking options, and success could depend on their ability to strike gold with modest resources. Chelsea’s 20-year-old forward Conor Gallagher and the Huddersfield striker Karlan Grant are among the targets being pursued.
“We are doing everything to be creative but it’s not easy to be creative without the proper funds for the players we are talking about and that we want to get. We want players who will improve us straight away and those players cost money. But we are trying, we are close to doing a couple more deals and we are doing everything to be in a better position.”