“I cause friction! If I disagree with something, I won’t pull any punches. I’ve been in football for 30 years and I can’t change how I am. Things must stay private at certain times, but people in this football club know my view.”
Ron Gourlay is here to talk. At West Bromwich Albion’s training ground, the club’s chief executive goes through his vision for the club.
From recruitment to discussing on and off-the-field improvements with Carlos Corberan, communication is the heart of Gourlay’s job. On his first day at the club, he promised to ensure he stayed in constant contact with the fans, and this is his third in-depth interview with The Athletic.
Gourlay discusses everything from his relationship with Guochuan Lai to the Action for Albion protests and the head coach recruitment.
Here, The Athletic’s Elias Burke explains what was discussed and what it tells us about West Bromwich Albion’s future.
What is the picture at the club right now?
“People are used to the club being in the Premier League, or at least not in the Championship for more than two years,” says Gourlay. “You’ve got to cut your cloth accordingly. I have rebalanced the squad, cut the costs, and reduced the wages across the board. That has to continue. This is where the academy becomes more important.
“When I joined, we kept developing these young guys and losing them. We’ve had to stop that, it’s not 100 per cent, but we’ve stopped it. Then we had the academy audit; it needed investment, so we moved what monies we had into the academy to protect the players coming through and our EPPP1 (Elite Player Performance Plan) status, which is very important. A lot has gone on that I had to deal with, which I inherited.
“Part of that comes with a rebuild of the squad as well — that’s just transition. But we need investment; nothing stops us from having minority investors who can take less than 10 per cent and put money in. I never like to sell players, but if we do have to sell players to keep the club running sustainably, then that’ll be a decision I’ll have to take.
“We’ve got assets in the football club; we’ve been very smart over the past 12 months. You’ll start to see the valuations of (Daryl) Dike, (Brandon) Thomas-Asante, (Jed) Wallace, and (Grady) Diangana go up. We have assets that hopefully will take us to the Premier League. It’s when you don’t have assets that problems arise but we addressed that in the summer. Going forward, we can deal with what we need to deal with. We’re not far away, but unfortunately, we’re being held back.
Burke’s view: It is true: Albion fans are used to the club being in the Championship for up to two seasons. Since the first promotion to the Premier League under Gary Megson in 2002-03, the club have consistently received top-flight money, whether from being in the Premier League or from parachute payments. The concept of budgeting with a long-term vision of promotion is alien to a generation of supporters, but that will be necessary if promotion is not won this season.
The summer business signing Thomas-Asante for around £350,000 ($434,000) and Wallace, John Swift and Okay Yokuslu as free agents demonstrate the sustainable direction the club is heading under Gourlay. So is the decision to allocate funds to the academy, ensuring it remains in Category One (EPPP1) status. Continuing to hold their young talent, having lost England age-group internationals Tim Iroegbunam, Louie Barry and Morgan Rogers in recent years is an essential part of the club’s long-term strategy.
His view on Carlos Corberan
“We took some time with Carlos coming in; we needed to get it right. We were the right club for Carlos for where he was in his career.
“We met a number of times. It was about demonstrating how he could get more out of players, rather than telling me, and he blew me away with his demonstrations. It all comes down to how he works; he’ll do it until he gets it right. We got it down to three, and they were exceptional, but Carlos was just out of this world.
“People ask, ‘why Steve (Bruce)?’. Well, one, Carlos wasn’t available, and the second thing was the timing. In February, the best chance of promotion was getting someone that had done it four times. If I had started a proper process, we wouldn’t have gotten anyone in until April, and God knows what would’ve happened by then.
“With Carlos, we’re talking October, so he had a lot more time with the team. We spent much more time. I still believe in the reasons we brought in Bruce at the time we did, but if I am critical of myself, we might have left it two or three weeks too long, but we put so much work in the summer and you want to give a manager time.
“The meetings Carlos does in the week, the one-to-ones, with every player, I’ve never seen anything like it. He is a bit like a young (Jose) Mourinho when he first came into Chelsea. The thing I see here is the thing I see here with Jose when he first came; it’s: ‘If you believe in me and do what I ask, you will come to the club and win’. It’s that belief and trust.”
Burke’s view: Gourlay has worked with some of the best in football, with Mourinho and Alex Ferguson the standouts.
Corberan has yet to turn 40 but has worked in Spain, England, Cyprus, Greece and Saudi Arabia with Al Nassr and Al-Ittihad club, on the recommendation of Pep Guardiola. His work with Huddersfield Town, propelling them from a 20th-placed finish in 2020-21 to third last season, was a monumental achievement, and he is having a similar impact with West Brom, taking them from bottom of the league to the play-offs in 11 matches.
His intensity is infectious and players are responding to the new methods he has implemented. Long may it continue.
Frustrations over club loans
“I speak a lot to the fans and I understand their frustrations, but this is a football club you’ve got to plan ahead for, and there’s been very little investment into the club since the owner took over.
“You get by in these circumstances when you’re in the Premier League, but once you drop out, that lack of investment does start to hurt. I’m an employee, it’s my job to do the best I can with the tools at my disposal, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.
”When you invest in a club, you buy and sell players. That’s what West Bromwich Albion have done well over the years. But that stopped. Paying over the odds for players has hurt us. We’re still paying for players who came in a few years ago. I didn’t create that and I have to deal with it.
“In the job, I’ve spent £350,000 on players, rebuilt an unbalanced squad, and we’re now getting the best out of the team. I’m asking for investment and Lai’s way of investment was to take a loan.
”That’s his (choice), he is the major shareholder, it’s his money, he’s the guy who spent £200million ($248m) on the club. I’ve got to run the day-to-day as chief executive of the football club, and I can only work with the toolbag I have.“
Burke: Gourlay reinforced later in the discussion that a loan is not ideal, and he would much prefer an owner who was willing to invest their own money to support the club. The final decision to take the £20million ($24.8m) loan over four years from MSD Holdings UK Ltd, the UK arm of tech tycoon Michael Dell’s investment company, fell to Xu Ke.
Ke, otherwise known as ‘Ken’, is the sole director of WBA Group — the company that lies between the holding company and the football club itself — and was the club’s chief executive before Gourlay was appointed in February 2022.
What is the MSD loan for?
“The day-to-day running of the club. We have just over 200 staff. The academy is very important, the first-team building, it’s not just about investment in the team.
“It puts us in a position to finance the club if we don’t get promoted. I can advise on the best route forward, but ultimately he (Lai) will have to make that decision. In the meantime, I will do what we believe is best for the club, and we’re doing OK at present.
”The MSD money, even if it sits in the bank the whole time, that’s OK, but it’s there as that protection because we don’t get the parachute payment next season.
“What we tried to be very strong on is that money is for the use of the club, nothing else. I have control of that as the CEO.”
Burke: Gourlay referenced Bristol City owner Steve Lansdown, who wrote off £15.3million ($19m) of debt in 2022, a yearly practice to ensure the club can continue operating. With West Brom likely leaving it too late to compete for an automatic promotion place, the prospect of the club remaining in the Championship is plausible. Under Lai, who has taken money out of the club, there appears to be no forthcoming investment to cover the loss of parachute payments.
Whether it proves to be a sensible decision long-term remains to be seen, but it appears a sensible precautionary move to protect the club’s future.
Lai defaulting on the Wisdom Smart Corporation loan
“I made no secret on the point; my board has, too. This money has to come back. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.
”There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t ask him for the money to come in. Every day, that question comes up by email or requests by Ken.
“I firmly believe the money will come back one way or the other. Will it be tomorrow, next week, or next month? I don’t know.”
Burke: Again, strong words from Gourlay, who enforces that the £5million ($6.2m) owed to the club from Lai must, and will, be returned. However, the uncertainty regarding the timeline of its repayment is discouraging.
Action for Albion
“I’ve no issues with the protests. The only concern I have is for the safety of my staff and security team. They’re fans as well and they’re doing their job and I worry about them getting into a situation because protests can get out of hand.
”Up to now, the protests have been fair. I wouldn’t stand in their way. I’ve worked in football long enough to understand the frustrations. They want answers and I try to give them the best and most honest answers I can, but there are some questions I cannot answer. I can’t force my owner to do anything. He chose to buy the club. Until I’m told otherwise, I have to get my head down and get on with the job.
Burke: Since its formation in October 2022, Action for Albion has been a resounding success. The protests, typically on the 12th or 57th minute of league matches at The Hawthorns, are peaceful and popular, with large swathes of the home support participating. With Gourlay fighting to arrive at a similar destination to the fan-made organisation, it is natural that he sympathises with many of the points made regarding West Brom’s ownership model.
Relationship with Ken
“People in this football club know my view. That’s important to me. When I joined the football club, I was an adviser. I had one day a week at the training ground and then a second day going to the games. I didn’t join any meetings; it was just seeing what was and wasn’t going on. When I took the job, the challenge increased.
”Challenges were emerging that I didn’t know about. That isn’t anybody’s fault, I didn’t need to know about it, people didn’t tell me. In some cases, it would’ve been nicer if they did, but it doesn’t always work that way. I have to get on and deal with them.
“I’m dealing with things going back to 2014. I can’t talk about the (Peace) investigation (due to ongoing proceedings), but why am I, in 2023, dealing with 2014? It has to be dealt with because otherwise, it’ll be here in 2028.
”When Ken was chief executive, he was around a bit more. I’m based at the training ground and Ken is at the stadium. Currently, we’re talking quite a lot because he’s passing daily messages on to me. I have access to every monthly meeting with Lai, allowing me to communicate directly.”
Burke: When Ken was the club’s chief executive, he acted as Lai’s ‘eyes and ears’, reporting news directly to the controlling shareholder. Now he has a reduced role in the club’s daily operations but acts as a conduit between Gourlay and Lai.
Gourlay did not understand the size of the task inside the club when he was appointed chief executive, but club sources, who do not want to be named to protect their employment, are encouraged by the work he is doing behind the scenes. His monthly audience with Lai offers him the opportunity to raise his concerns directly.
”The valuation of football clubs at that time, when there was a large influx from China, all four clubs in the West Midlands were taken over. They were going to build all these academies, they wanted to host the World Cup. To pay around £200million was probably a fair bit over the market price even then.
“The market sets the price now, so that figure is not on the table, not even close. He understands that. He’s a businessman. I have yet to have any group or person come to me in the year I’ve been here asking me to buy the club. If I did, under my directorship, I’d have to pass that to the owner.
”He’s certainly totally aware of the fans’ views. He’s aware of my view. I can’t share that with you, I trust you’ll understand that. Every club out there is looking for investment, that’s what we have to look at.“
Burke: While there has been no official approach since Gourlay took over in February, these messages confirm that outside investment is being considered at boardroom level. Lai will not receive a handsome return on his £200million investment but Gourlay’s assertion that he understands the club’s current worth is much lower is encouraging.
The point about Chinese investment is accurate and their view on football and its potential growth has changed in recent years. Ramires and Oscar, two players signed under Gourlay as Chelsea chief executive, left for the Chinese Super League for over £90million ($111m) combined, where they also received a significant salary increase.
Since then, the Chinese state has pulled back on foreign investment into football and business, leaving clubs owned by Chinese business people, including nearby rivals Wolves and Birmingham City, in an awkward financial situation.
Does Lai feel the anger in the protests?
“We report that back. He sees the games. There’s a difference between sitting there and feeling it and him sitting in China and feeling it. The light protests showed me that it’s not just certain areas of fans, this is everybody.
“At our last game, outside the Directors’ entrance, there was a big protest but very well managed. I had no grumbles about that. I can’t disagree with some of what’s going on. The frustration for me is that I can only answer so many things. I can’t tell him, ‘go do A, B, or C,’ and he’ll do it. I can give him my advice.
“This money will come back. What I can say for the future: I can’t answer that until he comes to me.”
Burke: There have been private discussions about Lai returning to The Hawthorns around Easter, though that is unconfirmed. As Gourlay suggests, it would be an opportunity for the controlling shareholder to feel the supporters’ frustration first-hand, having only heard about it from Ken, Gourlay, or from watching matches.
Will the Wisdom Smart Corporation loan be repaid via dividend?
“It won’t be dividend, it will be cash. It will be in the accounts that nothing has come out and I’m pushing for the next set of accounts to come out very quickly. There are no other loans going out in these accounts.
“It’s been frustrating because I’ve tried to be open and transparent since I came in. It’s still hanging over me that supporters don’t believe me. If more money went out of this club, you’d know because I won’t be here.”
Burke: Another assertion from Gourlay that the £5million Wisdom Smart Corporation loan will be repaid with cash, not by dividend, as feared by supporters.
The Hawthorns and the ACV process
“I met with the council the day before the Asset of Community Value (ACV) application went in, and they asked me about it. I said, ‘I have no objection at all’. There’s no plan for us to do anything with the stadium. I told that to the minority shareholders. I think that will go ahead.”
Burke: Shareholders 4 Albion, an independent association for minority West Bromwich Albion Group shareholders, applied for an ACV for the Hawthorns to help ensure Albion’s home is secured. There remain no plans to sell The Hawthorns, despite it being listed among the group assets secured against the MSD loan.
An ACV on buildings or land can be nominated by a group to be listed by the council. The listing is designed to protect the plot from a quickfire sale to third parties and safeguards its position within the community.
Where’s the money gone?
“Ian (Pearce) got some unfair media about past purchases and recruitment at the club, which wasn’t really down to him. But I understand fingers will be pointed in that area because we wasted a lot of money.
“When people say, ‘Where’s the money gone?’. You can see where it’s gone. When you’re amortising transfers due to buying players in the Premier League and then paying for them in the Championship, it’s painful. We have to manage that process.”
Burke’s view: Ahead of the 2020-21 Premier League season, the club spent a combined £27million on Diangana and Karlan Grant, which are yet to prove sensible investments. Grant, whose £15million fee was amortised over six years (£2.5million per year), has been in and out of the starting line-up this season, despite finishing as the club’s top goalscorer with 18 league goals last campaign.
With three years remaining on his contract, there is still £7.5million yet to send to Huddersfield for the 25-year-old forward. These are the expensive investments Gourlay is focused on limiting to ensure the club’s finances are sustainable long-term.
Is administration a reality if Albion do not go up?
“It’s not a word I’ve heard bounced around the club. It is not hanging over our heads as there are other things we can do (to ensure it does not happen). I don’t think it will get to that stage. It’s the last thing anyone wants to hear or discuss.
“We’ve got to look at investment into the club. I was brought into the club for people to listen to because of my 25 or 30 years of experience, and I’ve given my advice on certain challenges the club has. (Further investment) will be a decision for the owner.”
Burke’s view: With the injection of the MSD loan, the club is in a stronger position to cope financially if promotion isn’t achieved at the end of this campaign. There are several saleable assets in the club on long-term contracts and player sales will be prioritised if deemed necessary. There are no plans to sell the training ground or The Hawthorns to keep the club afloat.
Is there a point that you’d consider resigning?
“Good question! I’m not a quitter. I’m not at that stage at the moment. I think, and it’d be supported internally by my peers, the club is in a better position with me here than not here.”
(Top photo: Adam Fradgley/West Bromwich Albion FC via Getty Images)