For Sam Allardyce, a return to the Premier League after a two-and-a-half-year absence ought to have been a moment to savour.
When his appointment as West Bromwich Albion manager was confirmed on Wednesday, there was certainly personal euphoria for a man who must surely have wondered whether the call would come again.
But five minutes into his first game back, as Aston Villa opened the scoring in a match that went from bad to worse for the Baggies, he might have been wondering whether he had been better off out of it.
Obviously Sunday’s 3-0 defeat was itself cause for concern, but then there was also the fact his new team registered only one shot at goal. And there was captain Jake Livermore getting sent off for recklessly chopping down Jack Grealish.
And then, when the game ended, a reminder that next up is a trip to face a Liverpool team unbeaten at home in the league since April 2017 – although the last team to beat the Reds at Anfield was a Crystal Palace side managed by Allardyce.
It was an altogether downbeat evening for a manager entering uncharted territory. Of course Allardyce knows his way around a relegation fight, but he is the first new Premier League appointment this season and therefore the first to try to galvanise a side with no fans to assist the new-manager bounce.
When Allardyce, wearing the obligatory face mask, strode off the second of the two coaches that pulled up outside The Hawthorns 90 minutes before kick-off, there was no reaction. The only people to witness his arrival at his new club were half a dozen stewards. The only support from the Smethwick End came from orange-jacketed stewards in the lower tier and a handful of club staff in the upper.
If this really was the start of one of those famed Allardyce against-the-odds survival scraps, it was a pretty miserable way to begin.
What can West Brom expect from Allardyce?
There is no magic formula here. West Brom have collected a single point from their past four games. They are second-bottom of the table. Their position is dire.
Allardyce is not the tactical Neanderthal his critics like to portray. The team he built at Bolton did not draw with Bayern Munich and beat Atletico Madrid on their way to the last 16 of the Uefa Cup by continually punting the ball upfield. Jay-Jay Okocha was one of the most creative Premier League players of his era.
But the 66-year-old likes structure. His short-term plan was outlined prior to kick-off in notes contained in the programme that presumably many Baggies fans have mailed to them as a way of being invested in their club’s games at a time when they cannot actually go to watch them play.
“I want to find out why the players think they haven’t got the results they feel they have deserved,” he said.
“Small moments can define your season. If you concentrate when these small moments come along and you stop mistakes, then you stop conceding goals. That is the ultimate aim for me in the beginning.”
Evidently, conceding in the fifth minute to a routine far-post cross does not meet Allardyce’s criteria. “It was a simple cross, we let their man into our six-yard box.”
He was not impressed.
The problem is obvious. Prior to Leeds imploding at Old Trafford earlier on Sunday, West Brom had by far the top flight’s worst defence. So far this season, two sides have conceded seven in a game and now two have conceded six. None of these teams are West Brom.
But they give away too many goals, too often.
However, while the comparison may be unfair, to many supporters Allardyce’s blueprint sounds too much like the Tony Pulis era for their liking – a period when they felt the enjoyment was sucked out of their team and, ultimately, did not even have the compensation of safety, even if the Welshman was sacked before that became the reality in the spring of 2018.
How big a job is it to keep them up?
The size of this task cannot be understated.
In the Premier League era, no club with fewer than eight points after 14 games have stayed up. This was West Brom’s 14th game. They have seven points, three from safety but with a worse goal difference.
The Baggies concede too many goals and do not score enough, which tends to be fatal.
This was the seventh time they have failed to score – and they have kept only two clean sheets. They have not scored more than once in a game since they threw away a three-goal lead against Chelsea on 26 September.
On-loan midfielder Conor Gallagher and Callum Robinson are their top goalscorers, with two. Karlan Grant, who former boss Slaven Bilic persuaded West Brom to pay Huddersfield £15m for on deadline day, found the net for the only time against Brighton, in his second game, on 26 October.
Allardyce has his work cut out.
Will Allardyce be welcomed by Baggies fans?
With no fans in the stadium, it is difficult to gauge. But reliable barometers of the Baggies’ fortunes are suspicious of Allardyce’s arrival.
This is not because they have anything against the former England boss – or that they wish Bilic had not been sacked. While the Croat was well liked, there is an acceptance that for almost a year results had been on a downward spiral.
What concerns them is that Allardyce’s arrival is not seen as being part of a wider plan by owner Guochuan Lai, rather it is about staying in the Premier League in order to maximise the chances of a potential sale.
There has been no financial input from the owner since he bought the club in August 2016 and there is no indication that will change. He does not attend matches and while he does have regular contact with his board, there is no sense he understands what the club’s supporters are looking for from an owner, still less being willing to deliver it.
And that is a problem.
Sunday’s defeat was only the second time Allardyce has lost his first Premier League game as a manager. The first came at Crystal Palace – who were in a situation similar to West Brom’s now – and where it took him six matches to earn a first league win.
Palace’s response was to give Allardyce £30m to spend on Luka Milivojevic, Patrick van Aanholt and Jeffrey Schlupp. This triggered the improvement that kept Palace up.
He is unlikely to receive similar funds this January.
Are they now more likely to stay up?
Allardyce said after his appointment he did not want to end his record of never being relegated from the Premier League.
Whether it was moaning at the fourth official after Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez escaped without as much as a yellow card for an early handball outside the area, putting his head in his hands at another mistake or the fierce way he dealt with the aftermath of Livermore’s red card, he showed he is up for the fight.
“I am upset with the red card,” he said. “It was reckless and he will be fined.
“He has apologised but I won’t accept another sending-off no matter what. Someone else has to be captain now because Jake is suspended for three games. It depends who can handle the armband but they can keep it for me.”
Allardyce is a pragmatist. He said he could understand fans who watched his opening night and saw nothing to give them hope that relegation will be avoided.
But he thinks otherwise, and he praised the 10 players Livermore left to fight on for more than half the game.
But, for now, finesse will have to give way to fight if West Brom are to stand any chance of extending Allardyce’s cherished survival record.
“It’s one win in 14,” he said. “My first battle is to make sure they don’t lose confidence in their own ability. Then I need to guide them to battle their way out of this position, because they can’t play their way out.”