On paper, tonight’s Bonney Field friendly between English Premier League West Bromwich Albion FC and American third-division Republic FC looks like a huge mismatch.
But Alan Irvine, the new manager of the historic but beleaguered British club, isn’t buying it.
West Brom is still putting together its team for this season, its players are not yet in game shape, and they’ve played only a couple of matches back home.
The former EPL winger also watched Saturday at Bonney Field as Republic FC’s largely reserve team almost held off Rangers FC of Scotland before falling 2-1 in a friendly. Rangers FC scored the winner in the 90th minute.
“I thought both teams played with a lot of energy, a lot of commitment,” Irvine said. “There was a high tempo to the game, and there was a lot of quality in the work.
“So we’re under no illusions. It will be a tough game for us, especially with the fact that we’re working on fitness.”
New defender Chris Baird, a Northern Ireland Men’s National Team member and an EPL veteran, seconded his coach.
“Any team we come up against is going to be a hard game,” said Baird, who is making his first trip to the United States. “We’ve only had a couple of games and played only 45 minutes in each. So again, it’s a fitness game for us.”
West Brom barely avoided relegation to the second-tier English Championship League in finishing 17th last season. Coach Steve Clarke was fired in December and his replacement, Pepe Mel, was sacked at the end of the season in May. Several players have left the team.
Despite a limited budget, the Baggies are trying to compete in a league where powerhouses Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal dominate the spending and the results. The EPL television contract alone is worth a reported $3.5 billion.
Friday, the Baggies signed Nigerian striker Brown Ideye from Dynamo Kiev for a club-record transfer fee of $17 million. He is one of seven new players added to the team in recent weeks.
Irvine said Ideye won’t play tonight or in Friday’s rematch at Bonney Field, but defender Andre Wisdom may, if he passes his physical. It was announced Saturday that Liverpool was loaning the England U-21 player to West Brom for the season.
Irvine wants West Brom to follow the blueprint of EPL’s Everton FC, a club that has developed talent and used its money wisely in becoming competitive at the upper levels of the division.
“There are six big clubs in the Premier League who blow everyone out (financially),” said Irvine, who headed Everton’s academy program the past three years. “Then there is Everton, who didn’t have the money for a number of years but through extremely good management and great decisions over a number of years now find themselves in that bracket.”
For Republic FC players, the chance to compete against a high-level team nullifies its punishing schedule of recent days. Tonight’s match will be the fifth in 10 days for the first-year team.
Striker Thomas Stewart is from Northern Ireland and played against several of the Baggies’ players growing up.
“It’s exciting and good to play that caliber of a team and have them here, to be able to host them,” Stewart said. “Hopefully it will be a good experience for everyone. It’s a chance to compete against some very good players.”
Stewart, who played most of his career with Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers, said it’s a soccer player’s dream to play in the EPL.
“In that league, they have the financial rewards and good salaries, but that’s a different part of the world from us,” he said. “That’s where everyone wants to play at some point, but only a few are fortunate enough to do so.”