In his heyday at Chelsea, Steve Clarke was known as a no-nonsense, tough tackling defender at the heart of a Blues side which won the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup in the mid-to-late nineties – as a manager, he’s calm, collected and humble. Two very different styles to the man, but it is the latter attributes of which that are winning him and his West Brom side the early-season plaudits as they have begun the 2012-13 campaign in barn-storming fashion.
Currently sitting in fourth spot in the Premier League (at the time of writing), the Baggies – notorious for their ‘boing’ between the top two divisions – seem to have put paid to their up-and-down tag and have finally settled into a groove in the top flight. Theirs is a side of good, hard-working professionals who play crisp, passing football and have earned their current place on merit – making the Hawthorns a fortress and slowly starting to earn their corn away from home. Granted, they’re currently smarting from a tough defeat at Swansea and, at the time of writing, have yet to play their first fixture in December (Stoke at home) but if anybody had said to 49-year old Clarke that they’d be sat in a Champions League spot by the end of November, he’d have snapped hands off.
It’s testament to the man’s hard work, quietly going about his business in the game, shadowing household names such as Jose Mourinho, Gianfranco Zola and Kenny Dalglish, that he could be sat in such lofty heights only five months into a managerial post – the first one he has taken in the game. His pedigree as a first-class coach mixed with an ice-cold, steely persona have thus far served him well and his current Baggies side are truly reaping the benefits. Refusing to get over-excited about picking up a win against his former club Chelsea and not kicking himself too hard about a defeat to Swansea, ‘Some you win, some you lose – we move on’ he stated following their 3-1 hiding on Wednesday night.
He has chopped and changed at times this season, utilising his squad to the full, but generally keeping the spine of the side together – Foster-Olsson-Mulumbu-Long. Each player is familiar with his role and there are operators in that XI that can hurt teams – Chris Brunt is a very tricky winger with a super left foot to boot, Romelu Lukaku – on loan from Chelsea, is also proving to be a handful up front, bustling, intelligent and very lively. And Shane Long is a tireless and industrious worker. These are the types of players that excelled so well under Roy Hodgson – they’re simply taking their decent, honest games onto the next level under the shrewd coaching of Clarke and, after having played part of a settled side for a while now, are starting to prove that they’re not simply in the top flight as mid-table fodder. Just ask Chelsea, Everton or Liverpool, all of whom have been humbled by the Baggies at the Hawthorns this season.
Clarke, ever the realist, is refusing to get carried away with his side’s impressive start, quickly vanquishing ideas of a shot at Europe, stating ‘To talk about European football would be folly. We’ll keep our feet on the ground.’ So while one must be impressed with his ambition to take West Brom the extra mile, it must also be noted that his level-headed nature is what his side needs.
Complacency, it seems, would not be tolerated with this current crop of players. Only recently, Clarke’s former boss Jose Mourinho sent a quick-fire text to him prior to their win at Sunderland, simply stating a few words of encouragement on his side’s flying start. Praise indeed; if the Baggies continue their current form I see no reason why Jose might not be sending the Scotsman a similar text come May next year, maybe for Clarke guiding West Brom to their first top six finish in the Premier League. Is it beyond the realms? Not when you considering that a richly decorated side such as Liverpool are struggling to even make the top ten. Football’s changing and Steve Clarke is moving with it – all credit to the man.
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