Dale Stephens admits the goalposts have moved for Albion since Christmas.

But the midfielder is better placed than anyone to appreciate the need to build slowly and carefully among elite company in the Premier League.

Stephens and colleagues are preparing for a pair of home fixtures which could guide them towards a third season in the Premier League – or leave them in the relegation zone.

He would love, of course, to be higher up the table.

But he is confident the club are building the right way.

Albion were 13th, ten points clear of 18th-placed Burnley, after beating Everton in their final game of 2018.

Life has been a lot tougher since then.

They are 18th in a form table comprising only results since the turn of the year, ahead of Fulham and Huddersfield.

But Stephens only has to make a phone call back home to family and friends in Lancashire to appreciate what Albion have achieved up to now and the challenges ahead.

Stephens is a Bolton boy and grew up as a Wanderers fan, notably at the start of their glory years.

That was the 11-year stint which saw them stay in the Premier League, stringing together four successive top-eight finishes and twice getting into the UEFA Cup.

Like many clubs, Bolton may well have thought they were there to stay.

But they slipped from their perch and have failed to sustain or build on those heady days.

They are now heading for League One for the second time in recent years while staff members on and off the pitch have to wait for their wages.

It is only five-and-a-half years since Albion led Bolton at the Amex through a Bruno wonder goal and it felt like they were on the brink of a momentous result – until David Ngog equalised in the fifth and last minute of added time.

Look at the where the clubs are now.

Or maybe Stephens could think about his previous club Charlton.

The Addicks had a seven-year run in the Premier League and the impression from outside was that, in the end, just being there became not enough.

They have since hit hard times, with an unpopular owner, and crashed into League One, though fortunes are on the up again and they could win promotion this season.

So, it was put to Stephens, should Albion fans appreciate where they are – fully five points clear of the Premier League relegation zone?

Should they be aware how hard it is even to be where they are now and how easily it can slip away?

Stephens said: “It is always difficult. We are only in our second year.

“I think Bolton stayed there 11 years.

“We have always got to build slowly and the club have done that.

“We have improved our squad from the first season we were here.

“We know how difficult it is just to stay in this division.

“To do it long term for ten years, I think the best way to do it is to do it slowly.”

Stephens is aware what would have been a good position a year ago – essentially anything above the drop zone – is now reason for complaint and concern.

He said: “It is expectations. I think at Christmas on 25 points, maybe ourselves, our fans or whatever were looking towards the top end of the table, especially the top half.

“But it is a difficult league. The Christmas period came, we didn’t do so well and you find yourselves back towards the relegation battle.

“That’s the Premier League. There are a lot of clubs who are like that.

“It is split into two or three leagues in itself.

“At the moment, we find ourselves in the bottom half and with still a lot of work to do.”

Stephens says none of his family or friends have been affected by the financial problems at Bolton - “fortunately!”.

And, of course, it must be stressed that the ownership, structure and culture at Albion are a world away from those at some of those clubs who have fallen away, including Bolton and Charlton.

But anything which reminds how well Albion have done and how hard they must keep working is timely.

Bolton came 16th and then 17th in their first two Premier League seasons.

Like Albion, they also reached a quarter-final in their debut campaign – in the League Cup.

But their second season was tough. As well as coming 17th, they did not win a cup tie and none of their players scored more than seven league goals.

Charlton were up for one season, relegated and then bounced back for seven consecutive campaigns in the Prem.

Until relegation, they never finished lower than 13th and had a best end-of-season position of ninth.

They have now been out of the elite for 12 years.

Albion will see themselves as a club with greater catchment area, support and potential than both Charlton and Bolton.

But that does not guarantee points or league positions.

Stephens and company have had to shift their sights a bit but the focus remains bolted on to survival – and then steady progression.