Steven Reid: Stars in spotlight must think hard about next move
IT says a lot about how far we've come at West Brom that we could feel so disappointed about finishing a weekend out of the top four. The 1-0 defeat to Stoke City made for a miserable Saturday night, but a look at the league table yesterday morning cheered me up and put it all in perspective.
Sitting fifth in the table behind Chelsea and Spurs on goal difference and five points ahead of Arsenal doesn't look so bad for a club which is trying to shake off a yo-yo reputation. As I said to one of the boys after, I'd rather have 26 points after 15 games than 15 after 26.
I remember having just 13 points from 17 matches when Paul Ince was shown the door at Blackburn, and when you're on that kind of run, negativity seeps into the dressing-room. When it's a struggle to win a game, you really can't see where the next victory is coming from. By contrast, I'm convinced our losses to Swansea and Stoke are just a little blip. For some reason, Stoke always seem to get the better of us.
The manager said afterwards that the priority, first and foremost, is to reach the 40-point mark and that is the main aim, as much as the fans don't want to hear it. They think it's boring, and want us to talk about challenging for Europe. But for any team outside the established top six, the first hurdle is safety; we've seen good teams get sucked into a dogfight from a bad start.
But there is genuine belief in our dressing-room that we can push on and contend in the second half of the season. Challenging for a European place is a genuine target – Newcastle proved last season that it can be a realistic aspiration.
I finished in sixth spot with Blackburn in 2005-06, and we had a good side, with Craig Bellamy firing in the goals, Tugay pulling the strings, and myself and Robbie Savage in midfield, with Ryan Nelsen providing solidity at the back.
Overall, though, I feel the squad we have at West Brom is superior in terms of strength in depth. The gaffer, Steve Clarke, made six changes to the team on Saturday, and every player called in is a full international. Markus Rosenberg has over 33 caps for Sweden and that was the first time he managed to start!
I was delighted to be selected after failing to make the bench for the previous two games. Missing out on the match-day squad is hard to take and while it's a popular cliche, that competition does spur everyone on.
Picking up a hamstring injury after kicking off the season in the first XI was incredibly frustrating, and you end up feeling like a spare part around the dressing-room when you're not involved. So I don't want to go back to being a spectator again, although with a 25-man squad, I sense that the manager will rotate his options during the hectic Christmas period.
I was devastated when Roy Hodgson left during the summer, because I had learned so much from him. There's a natural nervousness when a new man comes in. You wonder if he's going to change things around and suddenly your face doesn't fit.
Luckily, we've hit the ground running with Steve. He didn't alter things too much, and our basic principles are still the same, with a strong and steady back four and two defensively minded midfielders. What we've added this season is another dimension to our attacking play. When we win the ball, we attack with pace, and commit numbers forward. And a massive bonus, of course, is the fact that Shane Long has managed to stay fit. He was flying last year until the Alan Hutton challenge at Aston Villa stopped him in his tracks.
Like Roy, Steve is a hands-on manager, similar to the majority of Premier League managers these days. In the past, the old-school bosses might have left that to the first-team coach, but he wants to be out there all the time. I think English football is moving onto more of a continental model, with the manager operating more like a head coach, with a technical director or sporting director sourcing the players.
Ultimately, Steve will make the big decisions on all fronts, but his training-ground work is arguably the most important. The only major adjustment to our working week is the fact that we're now in every Sunday – a warm-down for the lads that have played and a really tough session for those who missed out. It's a relentless schedule, but it's paying off.
Inevitably, when you're at a less fashionable club, success brings attention and interest from bigger outfits. And yet, quite a few lads in our dressing-room were bargain buys. Claudio Yacob, one of the stars of this campaign, came in on a free. Youssouf Mulumbu came in for £175,000. Gareth McAuley was another freebie. Longy came in for a big transfer fee, and it's hardly surprising that his name is being mentioned as a possible target.
From experience, however, I think that players need to think carefully about their next move. Faraway fields aren't always greener. My old Blackburn team-mates, David Bentley and Roque Santa Cruz left for Tottenham and Manchester City respectively and while they were better moves financially in the short term, it ended up not being of benefit to their career. Sometimes you need to appreciate that if you're in a decent team, it would be better to keep that squad together, kick on and have a really good go.
To be fair, West Brom made some really positive steps this summer by renewing the contracts of James Morrison and Jonas Olsson and then playing the right cards in terms of recruitment. If you are seen to be selling the best players, it can have an impact on attracting new ones.
So, despite Saturday's deflation, I still have a good feeling about where this season is going. Truth be told, I've felt that way since we knocked three past Liverpool on the opening day. There was a special feeling around the Hawthorns that afternoon and, as a group, we've retained that optimism. Who knows where it could take us?