By Liam Twomey
Perhaps the greatest tribute to the astonishing progress West Brom have made in recent times is that while Saturday’s victory over Chelsea might be considered a surprise, it was no great shock.
The Blues were without a win in three Premier League matches, had one eye firmly fixed on Tuesday’s crucial Champions League clash with Juventus, and were facing a side who needed just three more points to secure their best start to a league campaign for 35 years. It was a record the Baggies achieved with impressive confidence and conviction.
Steve Clarke’s men now sit fourth in the table, only a point behind the European champions. They will almost certainly not stay there, but have laid for themselves a fantastic foundation to best their previous highest Premier League finish of 10th, achieved under Roy Hodgson last season.
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Who do we credit for this success? Traditional British football logic dictates that, as the public face of his club and the man to take the bullet when things go awry, the manager should take the plaudits.
It is undoubtedly true that Clarke has been a revelation in his first managerial post. The understated and soft-spoken Scot has taken no time to adjust to his increased breadth of responsibility or to convey instructions and authority to his players. There has been no ‘settling in’ or ‘honeymoon period’, just a string of increasingly impressive results.
Building on the well-drilled and defensively disciplined unit refined by Hodgson, Clarke has added urgency and fluidity to an attack which occasionally looked a little one dimensional last term, encouraging his players to marry creative freedom with their industry. His efforts mean West Brom are now as exciting to the casual fan as they are satisfying to the tactical puritan.
"We are improving as players individually which is very important,” striker Peter Odemwingie told reporters after victory over Southampton earlier this month. “I can see that. It is so obvious many players have improved and the manager deserves a lot of credit for that.”
That Clarke is acquitting himself as well in a suit as he did in a tracksuit is no surprise to those familiar with his coaching career. Working under Jose Mourinho, Gianfranco Zola and Kenny Dalglish, the Scot learned much about the art of managing both tactics and people, as well as becoming familiar with the aura which enables great personalities to galvanise those around them.
Indeed, addressing the media back in September, The Special One revealed he always saw his former assistant as a success story waiting to happen. “Steve’s doing an amazing job and I’m the last to be surprised because I felt he was ready for that a long time ago,” he said. “He’s an incredible coach.”
Yet, as impressive as Clarke’s contribution has been to West Brom this season, he is but the latest distinguished cog in what has steadily emerged over the past decade as one of the most remarkably effective machines in English football.
When Jeremy Peace became Baggies chairman in June 2002, he did so with a plan. Boasting an impressive background in the finance industry which stretched back over 30 years, he was determined his club would rebel against the culture of short-termism and unbridled spending which remains worryingly pervasive in the English game.
With fresh direction, West Brom quickly became renowned for their financial prudence, but initially enjoyed only brief flirtations with the Premier League. Promotions in 2002 and 2008 yielded immediate relegation, while the same fate was only postponed for one additional season after their 2004 ascent. Boing boing Baggies, indeed.
Since returning to the top flight in 2010, however, the Midlanders have resisted the call of gravity while scaling unprecedented heights. This is despite having a net transfer spend of under £5 million in each of the past three seasons and currently servicing the division’s second lowest wage bill.
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It is a task at which he has succeeded magnificently. First-team stalwarts Claudio Yacob, Billy Jones, Gareth McAuley, Zoltan Gera, Yussuf Mulumbu, Jonas Olsson and Odemwingie were all signed for a combined total of under £2m. Ashworth himself reportedly scaled a fence in Buenos Aires earlier this year in order to watch Yacob train. The accomplished and tenacious Argentine destroyer is now widely regarded as one of the signings of the summer.
Of course, success comes at a price and, barely four months after Hodgson had been parachuted into the England job in time for Euro 2012, Ashworth too became coveted as the Football Association sought a director of elite development. He is currently assisting with the process of selecting his replacement at the Hawthorns before taking up his new post next summer.
When it comes, his departure will undoubtedly be a blow. But with a talented squad, Clarke at the helm and Peace controlling the purse strings, there is no reason why West Brom cannot keep defying the odds for some time yet.
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