Surprise package West Brom ready to be more than just Midlands top dogs

The Baggies, under the guidance of Steve Clarke, have made an impressive start to the 2012-13 campaign and will have their sights set on improving on last season's mid-table finish
By Russell Stoddart at Villa Park

It might be the shortest journey they will make on league duty this season, but there was time for reflection.

A point at a ground where they had not won for over 30 years until last season should be satisfying for the perennial top-flight strugglers, but something has happened that makes them a strong tip to be this season’s surprise package.

Many West Brom fans thought that losing manager Roy Hodgson to England would spell an end to their brief mid-table comfort, but his replacement, Steve Clarke, has designs on it being merely the start.

West Brom 3-0 Liverpool
Tottenham 1-1 West Brom
West Brom 2-0 Everton
Fulham 3-0 West Brom
West Brom 1-0 Reading
Aston Villa 1-1 West Brom

A 100 per cent home record in the league - three wins out of three - is a promising start, but their 1-1 draw at Aston Villa showed they are streetwise on their travels.

This was a match that would have been lost by previous West Brom sides.

The loss of influential skipper Chris Brunt with a hamstring strain and Billy Jones with a knee injury required a major reshuffle at half-time.

Despite this setback, the Baggies came out after the break with a renewed purpose and their slick passing and rapier-like thrusts from the back often left Villa chasing shadows.

Shane Long was marginally offside with a clinical header before pouncing on a Ron Vlaar error to give the visitors the lead after 51 minutes. At this stage, West Brom were sitting joint-second in the table and not looking one bit out of place.

Credit must be given to Villa for the valiant way they refused to concede defeat and were probably worthy of a point when Darren Bent came off the bench to grab a late equaliser.

Finishing above Villa is no longer cause for celebration. Clarke will not settle for merely being top dogs in the West Midlands. After all, it is only a two-horse race.

Clarke was never more than a functional defender during his playing days at St Mirren and Chelsea, but he appears to have rare gifts as a coach and if he can make the transition to the top job without losing that the future is bright.

History is littered with good No.2s who were not proficient as No.1s. Malcolm Allison is perhaps the most notorious example after replacing Joe Mercer in the wake of Manchester City’s golden period 40-odd years ago.

What Clarke possesses is not just a perceptive eye for talent and a shrewd tactical brain, but he has down-to-earth qualities that demand loyalty and respect from his charges.

His former boss at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho, is prone to exaggerated claims, but when he described Clarke last week as “an incredible coach” ready for a crack at management, he meant it.

Several Baggies players have pointed to Clarke’s accent on organisation and allowing players to express themselves - qualities that are not often great bedfellows.

It remains to be seen if Clarke is the man who can lead the Baggies to their Promised Land, but at least he is pointing in the right direction.

His opposite number in the dug-out yesterday was under no illusions when he took over the hot-seat at Villa.

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Paul Lambert worked wonders at Norwich City, but the pressure at Carrow Road is nothing compared to what he faces at an underachieving Villa.

The gruff Scot is the first to admit it has been a rollercoaster ride since his summer switch, summed up in the space of four days by a 4-1 thumping at Southampton and then a remarkable 4-2 success at Manchester City in the League Cup.

While such results baffle and confound, Lambert is very much a ‘glass half-full’ man who will know there is a promising basis for success with at Villa.

The doom and gloom days of the eras of Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish may be at an end, but a return to the top six enjoyed under Martin O’Neill could remain a long way off unless owner Randy Lerner backs his young boss with funds.

Lambert knows his squad is wafer thin and needs strengthening in all positions, so he will no doubt be going to Lerner with the begging bowl before the January transfer window.

That said, there is some young talent beginning to blossom at Villa, and if Lambert can get Bent, Gabriel Agbonlahor and rough diamond Christian Benteke to hit top form then they have the firepower to keep out of trouble.