West Brom: The Premier League's Quiet Achievers
By Dan Wheeler
What a weekend of football it was. First there was the FA Cup. Wigan through to their first ever semi-final. Everton in crisis. Carlos Tevez hit a hat-trick. Manchester United and Chelsea serve up an old-fashioned belter at Old Trafford. Sir Alex kept his hands in his pockets around Rafa.
Then there was the Premier League action: Queen’s Park Rangers’ survival plan gathered pace. Aston Villa climbed out of the relegation zone. Southampton picked up a vital point while Reading and Wigan (by virtual of the other results,) saw a little more water leak into their life boats. Then on Sunday, Liverpool continued their progress under Brendan Rodgers with an excellent win over everyone’s favourite team at the moment, Tottenham.
You may have missed it but there was another match going on this weekend too. You may not have heard much about it as it was a game that had nothing to do with the title race, the cup, or the relegation battle.
It was a match involving two teams cursed with mid-table “mediocrity” - the sort of affliction that means you don’t get much of a mention and you certainly don’t get on Match of the Day before your eye lids cave in with that lethal combination of fatigue and gravity.
So just in case you missed it, West Bromwich Albion beat Swansea 2-1 at The Hawthorns. It was Albion’s third win in their last four games and a result that took them to within four points of a potential European place next season.
It was a match played by two sides with much to be proud of - The Swans for their historic triumph in the League Cup and the Baggies for brilliant way they have seamlessly carried on improving despite obvious limitations.
Steve Clarke really has worked wonders. When he arrived in June 2012 the odds were long on him picking up where Roy Hodgson had left off. Hodgson had been poached by England after guiding Albion to ninth place, their best finish since the days of Ron Atkinson’s pulsatingly attractive side a generation earlier. And here was Clarke. About to pop his managerial cherry in the toughest place possible. There was a collective shake of the heads from the sages. Albion had reached their ceiling surely? The best thing Clarke could do was not get relegated.
Over the last seven months Clarke has shown exactly why Jose Mourinho called him the best coach he has ever worked with. His work at West Ham with Gianfranco Zola went largely unheralded because the team was so bad and he and Zola were inherited rather than chosen. An unfortunate but inevitable casualty of Kenny Dalgleish’s ill-fated second stab at the Liverpool job left him out of work again before Albion’s visionary chairman Jeremy Peace took a punt.
Such is Peace’s almost prescient reading of footballing trends, using the word punt is inappropriate. Peace is a master at anticipating the next big thing and is not afraid to make quick decisions, whether it is firing a manager, hiring another one or sealing a deal for a player before anyone else realizes how good they are.
He runs things his way at The Hawthorns and was the first to make a more European style management structure at a Premier League club fashionable. While everyone else had managers, Albion had a “head coach” and a “sporting and technical director.” So successful has the model been the club’s sporting and technical director, Dan Ashworth, was headhunted by the FA.
He has had his critics as you may imagine. The strata of management at the club has led some to claim the system merely provides Peace with extra layers of insulation from any criticism - that being the blame for failure should lie with those in positions of power rather than the impotent “head coach.”
But managers rather than chief executives or “sporting directors” have always bitten the dust first, regardless of who’s in charge of what.
Then there are the finances which, under Peace, are tighter than Justin Beiber’s trousers. Thanks to their superb scouting system, Albion make a little go a very long way with a host of bargain buys arriving and adjusting to life in the Premier League in no time. It is a policy that has, over the years, unearthed the likes of Zoltan Gera, Jonas Olsson, Youssef Mulumbu, Graeme Dorrens, Claudio Yacob, Gareth McAuley, Billy Jones and Peter Odemwingie. An outstanding record that one of the big boys would be proud of.
Clarke has augmented that with the powerfully coltish Romelu Lukaku who has 13 goals this season and is among the division’s most in-form strikers. The Baggies may be doing Chelsea the biggest favour in the long run but they are certainly benefitting from his education.
Clarke has improved Albion’s resilience at the back. They are keeping more clean sheet than they ever did under Hodgson and are more of a threat on the break. They are better at home and they look good all over the pitch. Even goalkeeper Ben Foster wants to play for England again.
Albion have nine games left and only three of those are against sides currently in the top ten. They are against Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal. With qualification for the Europa League unlikely to be guaranteed by finishing lower than fifth the Baggies do not have much room for error.
Clarke is rightly keeping a check on their chances but if Arsenal can be seen off at The Hawthorns at the beginning of April anything is possible.
You may even get to hear about it.