Halfway into a two-year contract, West Bromwich Albion’s sagacious manager Steve Clarke is set to be offered an extension to that deal. It is just reward for a fine body of work in the Scot’s first managerial role.
The Baggies began life under Clarke’s stewardship with a serious statement of intent. Comprehensive home victories against both Liverpool and Everton sandwiched a deserved draw at Tottenham Hotspur.
Immediately, the rookie boss was lauded as a man with the requisite credentials to make a success of life in the top job having spent his post-playing career working under a catalogue of high-calibre football men. Ruud Gullit, Jose Mourinho, Kenny Dalglish, and Gianfranco Zola all called on Clarke’s services to assist them.
By the time Clarke’s team won 4-2 at Sunderland on 24th November, they had moved into third spot in the Premier League and enjoyed a five point cushion over fifth placed Everton. It was some achievement – even more so for the enterprising brand of football being played in its attainment.
Additionally, Clarke’s transfer dealing eye was being proved particularly astute. The capture of Argentine midfielder Claudio Yacob for no fee has transpired to be one of the signings of the season. Likewise, the year-long loan for Chelsea’s talented young forward Romelu Lukaku was a masterstroke. The Belgian’s 13 goals, and towering all-round contribution in the Baggies’ cause, are sure to render him part of the plans of whoever becomes Roman Abramovich’s latest man in the swivelling Stamford Bridge hot-seat next term.
After that televised storming of the Stadium of Light, the whispers concerning genuine aspirations for European football at The Hawthorns were becoming rather more audible.
Sadly, the days of a relatively small fish being able to sustain a presence at the high-end of England’s top division are in the past – although not as far gone as is commonly perceived.
Limited by a small squad, but more so by the oppressive wealth and subsequent might of England’s powerhouse clubs, West Brom, and others like them, are destined to find a metaphorical brick wall barring any outlandishly heady hopes.
That truth was complicitly confirmed by the F.A. last April when they appointed Roy Hodgson to manage the England national team. The 65 year-old’s suitability for that most esteemed of posts had been reinforced – after a rocky period in charge at Liverpool – by 15 months at the Hawthorns’ helm which concluded with a respectable tenth place Premier League finish.
Since the November high this term, the Baggies’ form has been markedly mixed. There have been notable results – including a 2-0 win at Anfield – and more high intensity football which proved too much for; Norwich City, Sunderland, and Swansea City on their travels to the West Midlands.
Tellingly – and despite early exits from both cup competitions – fatigue of body and mind has crept in. Stoke City and Fulham are among five teams to leave The Hawthorns with a full point quota. Arsenal, Manchester United, and West Ham United, on home territory, have all found West Brom a less than formidable visiting prospect. Most desperate of all was a late collapse at Reading, when a two goal advantage on 82 minutes had turned into defeat by the final whistle.
That is the present reality. It is a tale with which Fulham, Stoke City, and even Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers have been familiar in recent years. Further up the table, both Everton and Newcastle United have maintained a longer assault on the prized Champions League berths only to run out of steam near the last – the one exception being the Merseysiders’ ground-breaking 4th place finish in 2005.