Clarke negotiates first Baggies test

Posted by David Instone

Steve Clarke has arrested a worrying decline in West Brom's form.PA PhotosSteve Clarke has arrested a worrying decline in West Brom's form.

If that was the first crisis of Steve Clarke's time as West Bromwich Albion's head coach, it would appear he has come through it safely.

Surprising though it may seem to the wider football world, doubts had been raised about the Scot in light of his side's tail-off in the second half of last season and dismal start to this campaign. And the questions that came weren't without substance.

For "tail-off," we can probably read "nosedive." Albion -- despite another victory at Anfield and the exhilaration of the leaving present they handed Sir Alex Ferguson in the form of a rousing fightback and a final-day 5-5 draw at The Hawthorns in May -- were poor over several months from Christmas week onwards.

Sixteen points from 19 games, coupled with FA Cup elimination at the third-round stage, was relegation form -- sub-relegation form, in fact. Just as well, then, that they had stockpiled more than double that tally in the first half of the league campaign.

It was those results, up to and including a Boxing Day win at QPR, that saw to it that Clarke emulated the feat of Roy Hodgson 12 months earlier by piloting the club to a top-half Premier League finish.

With Romelu Lukaku going back to Chelsea and Albion's defence having leaked goals horribly at the end of 2012-13, though, experienced and respected Hawthorns voices detected danger signs. Was that pre-Christmas rush just an extended purple patch in which fortune smiled kindly?

The head coach needed a good window and a good start this time. He got one and not the other, although it was only on the last of the 90-odd days on which transfer business could have been done in the summer that Albion sprung so dramatically and effectively into action.

They had been desperate in their home defeats against Southampton and Swansea either side of a draw at Everton and had slumped to the foot of the table with one point and no goals from three matches. For most of the close season, Nicolas Anelka was the only new face, the supposed marquee signing, with Uruguay captain Diego Lugano following in early August.

Scott Sinclair West Brom
GettyImagesScott Sinclair had a slow start at West Brom but is beginning to settle at The Hawthorns.

True, Matej Vydra then arrived on loan and Scott Sinclair likewise from Manchester City the following week, but their combined initial impact was modest. Pessimism reigned. In the very nick of time, though, the phone lines, which had yielded relatively little over three-and-a-half months of a summer that offered new TV mega-millions, suddenly turned red hot.

First Morgan Amalfitano, then Stephane Sessegnon and reserve keeper Lee Camp, followed in the twilight hours by Victor Anichebe. In the space of a manic Monday at the end of English football's record-breaking transfer window, Albion had smashed records of their own, with their highest-ever outlay on a player exceeded on both Sessegnon and then Anichebe. They even went close to reeling Lukaku in again as well by way of a spectacular bonus.

The payback was almost immediate. In the next home game, following a draw at Fulham, Sessegnon opened the scoring against his former club Sunderland, and Amalfitano rounded it off as Albion continued their habit of sounding the death knell on opposition managers.

Paolo Di Canio wouldn't have been the only impressed observer as a revitalised side then won at Manchester United and came back to The Hawthorns to give as good as they got in a draw with leaders Arsenal. Having barely laid a glove on Southampton and Swansea, Albion were now mixing it on pretty equal terms with the big hitters. They were barely recognisable as the team who appeared to have been setting off on a long bid to beat the drop.

The better of the draw they had at Stoke on Saturday maintained the momentum, and the outlook at the club is bright once more.

Clarke has achieved the widely acknowledged managerial utopia of having two good players -- more than two in some cases -- in every position. And, up front, he has talent falling over itself in the hustle for places.

Neither Anelka or Anichebe have yet scored, the latter in only four appearances, but Amalfitano has followed up his Hawthorns strike with a gem at Old Trafford, Sessegnon underlined at the weekend what a class act he is, and Saido Berahino remains one of the stories of this still-young season.

Chuck Shane Long, Vydra and the recently sidelined Sinclair into the equation -- the presence of the still goal-less Markus Rosenberg now appears to be an utter irrelevance -- and it's clear Clarke has enough at his disposal to encourage aspirations of another season in the top 10. Even the defence that leaked goals in the spring has been fixed, for now without recourse to new personnel.

After years as the trusty "right hand" at bigger clubs, notably to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool, Clarke is making a good impression as the main man. He is delivering easy-on-the-eye football as well as pleasing results and it's not impossible to visualise Albion facing a battle to hang on to his services somewhere down the line. But what might have happened had he gotten it wrong with his recommendations to his board at the end of the summer?

Jeremy Peace acted ahead of the game by dismissing Bryan Robson in 2006 and Roberto Di Matteo in 2011, certainly in the sense of there having been no mass calls from fans for managerial change. Here is a chairman for whom actions speak louder than words; one who doesn't set out to court friends -- but one with an excellent record of appointments and the timing of them.

As Clarke looks onwards and upwards, we will probably never know how much credit he had left in the bank with his boss when this successful wave of last-ditch signings washed over The Hawthorns.


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