Are West Brom on the beach? Should Norwich be aspiring to follow their mid-table lead? Is Tony Pulis really so bad? Dan Brigham finds out from Norwich fan Nick Mashiter, who also covers West Brom for the Press Association
Dan: Hi Nick. Let me get this out of the way first. Now, this isn't a particularly controversial opinion, but it irks/irrationally angers me that Tony Pulis is going to remain as a Premier League manager for another season. How is he viewed among West Brom fans? Do they like him? Or do they do what West Ham did with Sam Allardyce and pretend he doesn't even exist, with no songs about him?
Like Big Sam he's done a good job with limited resources, so I guess some Baggies might be rather conflicted...
Nick: I don't always understand the stick Tony receives. He’s got a niche and he does it very well. Without him West Brom could well be in the Championship and not about to benefit from the new top-flight TV deal.
Albion are in a tough spot where they've been in the Premier League for six straight seasons and fans want to see real progress (coupled with more attractive football). But, realistically, while they are spending more – having broken their transfer record in the last two summers – unless Jeremy Peace sells, mid-table and a dart at the cups is about their lot.
Tony has built a good spine of the team but there's real lack of depth. Salomón Rondoón will be a serious threat next season, and the squad is in a better shape than it was when he took over in January last year.
That said, fans were turning after the 3-1 FA Cup defeat at Reading on February 20 – where Chris Brunt was shamefully hit by a coin allegedly thrown by a Baggies supporter. Recent wins have helped but it's more of an uneasy truce. It's hard for them to accept Pulis. From the Albion fans' point of view, they have previously seen upper mid-table finishes with more attractive football under Roy Hodgson and Steve Clarke.
You'd be hard pressed to hear a Tony Pulis song at The Hawthorns that isn’t the away fans singing about his penchant for club shop attire.
Dan: I have to admit, other than the baseball cap – which is horrendous for a man of, well, any age really – I quite like Pulis’ choice of pitch-side fashion. I’ve never understood managers wearing suits, or indeed even TV presenters and pundits wearing suits. It’s football, not a bank meeting in a dreadful London wine bar.
You mentioned the nasty coin-throwing incident, which hinted at discontent among the supporters. What’s the atmosphere been like at the Hawthorns this season? Will Norwich be outsinging the Baggies on Saturday?
Nick: They back the team. I’ve been at Villa regularly so you know when there are problems, and while there’s been a few boos and mumbling over softer performances it’s not the open revolt of a few miles away.
It’ll be a relaxed atmosphere on Saturday; they're not going down and the team have been playing better – coincidentally after Saido Berahino has started again having got his head right.
Dan: Ah yes. Berahino. What went on there? Was it simply a case of Pulis teaching him a lesson, or was there more going on behind the scenes? Seems there might be a few grey areas to the story, and I'm not sure it reflects too well on manager, player or chairman...
Nick: Saido didn't cover himself in glory and has since admitted he regrets his deadline-day strike threat on Twitter after Tottenham's late bids were rejected in the summer.
There are a lot of issues and it doesn't just come down to Albion rejecting offers. Saido’s behaviour – eg timekeeping – hasn't been great and Pulis hasn't felt he deserved his place in the side. His form dipped after his head was turned.
Nobody has met Jeremy Peace’s asking price for Saido – Tottenham's bids were heavily clause- and installment-based – and while Newcastle’s interest was real he was never going anywhere in January.
West Brom wouldn't have been able to replace him with the money Tottenham were offering up front and it made more sense to keep him in January than sell. I don't blame the club for hanging on to him this season but he will go in the summer.
Dan: Just Norwich's luck that everyone involved seem to be friends now, then.
As a Norwich fan, and someone who covers West Brom, you may be in a unique position to answer one of the great 21st-century questions: is being a mid-table Premier League team something to aspire to?
As you mentioned, this is West Brom's sixth successive season in the Premier League – the yo-yo strings appear to have been severed – and they’ve finished 11th, 10th, 8th, 17th and 13th, with more mid-tabling likely to come this season. A few minor scrapes with relegation, nowhere near Europe. Not much to play for. Should this be what Norwich are aiming for, or is life more fun when constantly battling relegation and striving for promotion?
Nick: It's the next step of what Norwich should be aiming for. Albion have consolidated in the Premier League, have Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans as key men (how Manchester United could do with them now), and are looking to kick on.
Look at Stoke and how long it’s taken them to make then next step, and, if you look at their wage bill at least, they have. Albion are a little behind them but Jeremy Peace is still looking to sell and new owners could push them closer.
But the bottom line in the Premier League is that clubs like West Brom and Norwich are unlikely to crack the top six in the current climate.
Dan: Plus, being in the Premier League means you can get to beat Man United. And there's very little better than beating Man United. Apart from beating Chelsea, but that doesn't seem to happen to Norwich.
How do you expect West Brom to set up on Saturday? Their home form has been decent recent, but is it likely to be sit back, watch Norwich struggle to break them down and then score a scrappy winner from a set-piece? Or are they going to be more adventurous than that?
Nick: As I mentioned, Albion haven't got the biggest squad so the team picks itself mostly anyway. Anyone at home against Norwich shouldn't sit back. Why would they? Norwich are in desperate form – despite performances improving – and you do feel if Albion score the first goal it’ll be a long way back for the visitors.
Team-wise, Rondon will be supported by Berahino while Fletcher and Claudio Yacob provide the steel in midfield with Gareth McAuley at the back – and we all know what a good scoring record he has for Norwich.
Chris Brunt and James Morrison are out while Jonny Evans and Craig Dawson are doubtful.
Dan: With West Brom playing with the freedom of a team who know they are safe from relegation (the beach is calling), will that help or hinder Norwich's chances? Is there a pattern to how teams have had success against the Baggies this season?
And let's wrap this up with a score prediction... Are you going with your head or your heart?
Nick: Albion have had a soft centre at times, losing to Reading and struggling against Bristol City and Peterborough at home but they've also won at Everton, beaten Manchester United and taken a point at Leicester (something Norwich should have done) recently.
They have been inconsistent but, as per a good Tony Pulis team, they can grind results out when they need them.
Norwich's run has got to end sometime but you struggle to see when it could come. I've always said their poor summer business would send them down. As an aside I would stick with Alex Neil if they are relegated – the finger pointing should be at the board and especially David McNally should that happen.
It would be nice if the run ends at The Hawthorns but I can't see much better than a draw – which wouldn't really be good enough for the Canaries.
Dan: I think this game will be season-defining. After a really good point against Manchester City – and once again showing we can play well when the pressure is off against the big teams – we simply have to finally show that we have the bottle to cope when the pressure is on to get a result. Another no-show like we had against Bournemouth, Villa and Swansea and we’re doomed.
I can see a nasty, scrappy, horrorshow of a game. But the memory of that 4-0 win over a beaching West Brom in 2012-13, which secured our Premier League safety, gives me a sense of positivity that I probably shouldn’t have. I’m going 1-0 Norwich, with our most prolific goalscorer, Gareth McAuley, scoring the winner.
Nick Mashiter is Midlands Football Writer for the Press Association. You can follow him on twitter at @nickmashiter