Once dubbed England’s typical ‘yo-yo’ club for the profusion of successive promotions from the Championship to relegations from the Premier League, over the last two-and-a-half seasons, West Bromwich Albion have made huge strides in burying that label and emerging as a strong, comfortable Premier League side.
There was never any doubt that the Baggies were great to watch but they could never manage to stabilise the club in the Premier League for a long period of time. A great example was when Tony Mowbray secured the Championship title and also a trip to Wembley for the FA Cup semi-finals in the 2007/8 season but they were relegated in 20th place the following season.
Once a great midfield player for Chelsea, Roberto Di Matteo replaced Mowbray after he left for Celtic and Di Matteo, who originally appeared unfazed by the pressures of the managerial dugout, secured an immediate return to the top-tier of English football in the 2009/10 season, finishing in the second automatic promotion spot.
Di Matteo and West Brom started the season well, many believing their hoodoo could be over under the Italian, as the Midlands club became the only team that season to take points away from Old Trafford with a 2-2 draw away at Manchester United. But slowly over the course of the season, the good work the 43-year-old created began to unpin and Di Matteo was sacked as the club lost thirteen of their last eighteen games under him and were out of the drop zone purely on goal difference.
The club were closer to the mire and with an experienced and knowledgeable coach in Roy Hodgson available, West Brom threw all their eggs into one basket to try and tempt the Englishman to the Hawthorns and were successful.
Hodgson had something to prove after going from a UEFA Europa League runner-up with Fulham to a sacked Liverpool manager in a typical ‘hero-to-zero’ story in a very short space of time. The 65-year-old came into the club and pulled off a great escape, winning five and drawing five out of their twelve remaining games, including a settling of scores 2-1 win over Liverpool at home, nicknamed ‘Roy’s Revenge’ by various media outlets.
Although Di Matteo was gone, he was remembered by the supporters for signing Peter Odemwingie, who scored 15 goals and created 9 assists in what was a huge contribution after signing the Nigerian for as a little as £2m from Spartak Moscow that season. West Brom eventually finished 11th thanks to Hodgson and the following campaign got even better under his reign.
Many saw what Hodgson was building at West Brom and drawn comparisons to the job he done at Fulham. When he first joined the Cottagers in 2007, Fulham were scrapping at the bottom and his appointment came as a surprise because he hadn’t managed in England for 10 years. But he proved to be a shrewd appointment by Fulham’s chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed, as Hodgson steered the club away from relegation fears and created a solid base for the next manager to work from – something he was now replicating at West Brom.
Wins over Liverpool at Anfield, a 5-1 drubbing over rivals Wolves in their own backyard and a 1-0 over Chelsea helped West Brom finish the 2011/12 season in 10th place, their highest finish since 1981.
But disappointingly so for West Brom fans, Hodgson was being watched and was offered a job he simply couldn’t refuse – the coveted England manager role. It is the ultimate job and the pinnacle of an Englishman’s career if you reach it. Hodgson said goodbye and the biggest question on everybody’s minds that summer was just who could replace Hodgson, despite the secure foundations he had laid down.
Not many names were linked with succeeding Hodgson but the man who was chosen wouldn’t have been predicted or called for by many. Steve Clarke, out of work following what he claimed as his ‘sacking’ at Liverpool, was appointed on a two-year contract in the summer of 2012 and was immediately predicted to struggle in his first role as manager.
Clarke, 49, worked as Jose Mourinho’s right-hand man in the Portuguese’s trophy-laden love affair with Chelsea from 2004-2007. Mourinho was impressed by Clarke and he was more than just the Special One’s protégé. After the success story of Mourinho and Chelsea ended in sourness, Clarke also left to join West Ham and worked with Gianfranco Zola for a short time, helping the club finish 9th in the Premier League and then narrowly avoiding relegation the next.
Upon his arrival at West Brom, Clarke claimed he thought the opportunity to manage would have come quicker but his first job was a difficult job to take on at that time, as Hodgson had defied the odds to keep West Brom up. There was obvious talent in the squad, and there was this new-look solidity created by Hodgson, but for his first crack as the ‘number one’, Clarke duly delivered.
He started the season off with a bang, defeating Liverpool and then Everton at home early doors and apart from slight dips in form during the campaign, West Brom eventually finished 8th in the Premier League. Key signings such as, Claudio Yacob showed Clarke had an eye for a bargain in the market and returning to his former paymasters Chelsea for Romelu Lukaku proved to be a hell of a decision.
The Belgium international scored 17 goals in all competitions to silence the critics who questioned the £18m Chelsea paid Anderlecht for his services the season before. But it felt as though Lukaku, who has earned the chance to work with Mourinho in his second coming at Chelsea next season, seemed to reap all the credit when Clarke deserved praise for pulling a signing of that calibre off.
Lukaku had his doubters and he has showed what he can do. But with all the talk about him and the future of a star-studded Belgian side in the future is apt, but Clarke played a huge role in getting the best out of the striker.
Also, West Brom and Clarke finished head and shoulders above teams that had spent large sums of money to even dream of a top eight finish. Sunderland under Martin O’Neill spent big money on Steven Fletcher (£12m), Adam Johnson (£12m), Danny Graham (£5m) and Alfred N’Diaye (£2m) and finished nine places behind West Brom in the table.
QPR also invested heavily on Chris Samba (£12m) and Loic Remy (£8m), added with a ludicrous wage bill, and were relegated from the Premier League, therefore with Clarke’s only major investment being the permanent signing of Ben Foster for £4m, enough acclaim wasn’t given by those who judged Clarke before he even walked through the doors.
And Clarke didn’t fail to deliver any big scalps on the road either, as West Brom did the double over Liverpool, winning 2-0 at Anfield in February and Chelsea joined Liverpool and Everton to taste defeat at the Hawthorns this season.
It may be quite late to discuss Clarke’s debut season at West Brom but with the lack of striking options now at the club, it has somewhat unearthed that Clarke had a threadbare squad, yet managed to get the best out of players and not once moaned about his budget. He pipped big spenders such as, Sunderland and QPR, and clubs with bigger squads such as, Stoke City to a high position in the table. Clarke came into a club who were stable at the time and made them just that bit better and that’s why he deserves more plaudits for his management and West Brom’s transition from ‘yo-yo’ to solidity is remarkable.