Passionate, loveable, flawed. That’s how Slaven Bilić will be remembered by many at West Bromwich Albion. Each of these characteristics underpinned everything that Bilićs 18 month spell at the Hawthorns was built upon. He kicked down the door to automatic promotion with palpable drive, propelling his team to comeback win after comeback win in a fabulous unbeaten run to begin the 2019/20 Championship season. He then achieved something every Albion manager since Roy Hodgson has failed to do – truly reconnect the club and the fans. Yes there were moments of hope under Darren Moore, but Bilić’s managerial experience and tactical nous trumped Big Dave’s fan-favourite status. It was so easy to take to the Croatian not only due to his character, but also his style of play which reinstated a tradition of attacking football at the Hawthorns, propelled by individual brilliance and team spirit. But there were flaws. No Albion fan would kid themselves to the point of denying this. Huge questions were asked of Bilić and his squad last season and as the season wore on the answers were not forthcoming. Albion limped over the line and a short summer break was not enough to rid the club of the negative clouds which had gathered.
In retrospect, this lacklustre ending to the season was when the sun started to set on Slaven’s reign. A defiant Bilić tried time and time again to instil the same level of defiance in a squad which clearly bore battle scars from the previous season. In the opening stanza of this Premier League season, the dusk continued to draw in and it dawned on the club that a new direction was calling.
Losses to Palace and Newcastle were rock bottom for the Baggies, and clearly this most dark moment determined a new dawn for the board. But he was not sacked on Saturday evening and therein lies the problem with this dismissal. They say it’s darkest just before the dawn, but Slaven Bilić’s final act as Albion manager was a defiant glimmer of hope, a moment of brightness which shone through the darkness.
Bilić clearly remained blissfully ignorant as he commanded his technical area at the Etihad with the usual vigour, almost dancing with an equally animated Pep Guardiola. As they tip-toed off the pitch, their teams went toe-to-toe on it, with Albion giving more than a good account of themselves. In a way, this resolute performance was the epitome of Slaven Bilić the man, if not Slaven Bilić the manager. It was combative, defiant, and against the grain, and may that be the lasting memory of his time at Albion.
I wanted to keep this brief as football moves fast – incredibly fast at times like this – but here we are, a few hundred words deep. There is a list of mitigating circumstances as long as my arm, but I do want to say that I totally understand why you would sack a manager when you are 19th with 7 points from 13 games; for this there is a rationale. There is no rationale, however, for all but appointing a replacement while you allow a man who has given so much to the club in 18 short months to walk into certain defeat like a lamb to slaughter. The draw at the Etihad is a departing gift to the fans who adored Bilić, and a departing ‘fuck you’ to the board who frankly do not deserve the point it yielded. Thank you for everything, Slaven Bilić.