Comment: Experience and enthusiasm could make Slaven Bilic the perfect fit for West Brom
After a busy opening day in his new job, it took Slaven Bilic a while to warm up at his Hawthorns unveiling.
In the main press conference his words were carefully considered, and delivered with an unexpected velvet touch. Those on the back row had to strain to hear.
Where was the livewire who jumped around on the sidelines at West Ham, or the unique pundit who delivered passionate monologues on the television?
But it had been a long day, with plenty of new faces, and now he was staring out into a room of even more, perhaps distracted by the constant click of photographers.
He still said all the right things with the TV cameras pointed at him, issuing precisely the words Albion fans want to hear in a softly-spoken tone.
“What makes this club massive?” he asked rhetorically. “History and the fans. They are very demanding but also very loyal.
“It’s not a trendy club, it’s not a five-year-old club, it’s not an investment club, it’s a very traditional club, a family club.”
However, it wasn’t until a more informal sit down with the Midlands press that the enthusiasm that had earned him the job started to flood out of him.
Fixing his eyes on you to make his point, the table would occasionally get a whack during the important part.
In this more relaxed setting, it was easy to see why technical director Luke Dowling had been convinced by his first meeting with Bilic that he was the man for the Baggies.
Because Slaven Bilic isn’t just prepared for the relentless slog of the Championship, he’s practically relishing it.
He was salivating at the prospect of ‘pure football’ in England’s second tier, and while cynics may argue that’s just a nice PR line for a man who can’t get a Premier League job, it was entirely believable when he delivered it.
Because Bilic is a man you believe in, and that’s not a bad trait for a manager. As Dowling said, he has an ‘aura’.
For the best part of an hour and a half, he managed to walk the all-important tightrope between ambition and realism perfectly.
“I’m going to try to get back to the Premier League because to be fair, short term or long term, that is where this club belongs,” he said, before assessing the summer transfer business.
“We’re going to try and keep the players, if somebody goes we’re not going to cry, we’re going to get somebody to replace him, and maybe even better than him.”
He didn’t sugar-coat the facts, he was confident, without straying into arrogance.
“I’m going to make the team better,” he said. “I can’t make the team 100 times better, but I’ll make it better.”
And perhaps there is a positive message from that cautious opening.
Do Albion really want a caricature? A court jester and little else? Such a facade wouldn’t last long in the Championship, where there’s nowhere to hide in 46 games.
No, Albion want a manager. Someone capable of inspiring, but with the brains to back up the message.
As Bilic acknowledged himself, he is 50 not 30. He is not the same rebel he once was – he’s older and wiser now, but there is still passion burning deep within.
Most importantly though, he seems to understand the project ahead.
He’s aware Albion will lose players, he’s aware there are ‘10 or more’ other teams in the Championship of similar size with similar ambitions. He’s aware it will not be easy.
But he’s still confident he is the right fit for the club, and just as crucially, so are the board.
Dowling and chief executive Mark Jenkins were at the unveiling to give Bilic their backing. He’s their man for the next two seasons.
“We’ve said to him we want progress,” revealed Dowling. “Does that mean we finish third or above?
"Not necessarily, we want a certain style of football, organisation, and if we can blood one or two of the younger ones, we feel that would be progress.
“We also know that realistically a promotion chance is there. If it doesn’t happen this year, it will happen next year.”
There is confidence that Bilic’s experience, coupled with a healthy dose of enthusiasm, could be the perfect blend for the Baggies.
His unveiling suggests it could be an exciting appointment, but more importantly, a shrewd one too.