West Brom Manager Steve Clarke One of the Unsung Heroes of the Season

Steve ClarkeIt was a season where many fans and clubs across the country began to celebrate the end of something come May. It was the end of an era at Old Trafford as Sir Alex Ferguson finally stepped down as manager after 27 years in charge. Long-time servant Paul Scholes also announced his retirement after 19 years at the club.

It was a similar story just down the road on Merseyside. Liverpool bid farewell to club legend Jamie Carragher after 737 appearances, while Everton will have to come to terms with life without David Moyes, who left Goodison Park to become Ferguson’s successor at Manchester United.

However, this wasn’t quite the case for all the clubs in the Premier League. Further south, down at The Hawthorns, West Brom seem to be looking forward to a new era of promise and stability in the top flight. Under Steve Clarke, in his first managerial role following an impressive career as an assistant, the Baggies thrived and impressed many observers throughout the 2012/13 season.

The Midlands’ side secured a more than respectable eight place finish in the Premiership, a place below Liverpool and one above Swansea, who continued to attract many admirers with their style of play under Michael Laudrup. While the end of the season may have been dominated by tributes to Ferguson and Carragher, credit must also go to West Brom and Clarke for a hugely successful and potentially pivotal year.

For years, West Brom were the yo-yo team of the top flight, constantly drifting between the Premier League and the Championship. Despite some notable promotion campaigns in the second tier, they never seemed able to gather any momentum or consistency once they reached the promised land of the Premiership. Promotion to the top flight in the 2001/02 and 2007/08 seasons was followed my immediate relegation the following year.

West BromAnd while a final day victory in the 2004/05 ‘great escape’ campaign saved their Premiership status on that occasion, it was simply delaying the inevitable as they suffered a second relegation in four seasons a year later. But since promotion was secured yet again in 2009/10 under Roberto Di Matteo, fans have seen a transformed Albion team.

Although outrage at the Italian’s dismissal in February 2011 threatened to dismantle West Brom’s progress, his successor, Roy Hodgson, continued where Di Matteo left off, leading the club to final league positions of 11th and 10th in his 15 months in charge.

So Clarke could not really have asked for a more ideal beginning to his managerial career, taking the reins of a decent Premier League side where good foundations had been laid by the likes of Hodgson. But there were still a certain amount of pressure on both Clarke and the club.

West Brom did take a gamble by appointing an unproven candidate like Clarke following a solid spell under the vastly experienced Hodgson. Of course, the curse of promoting an assistant to the top job is one that has been felt by a number of clubs up and down the country. Sammy Lee and Chris Hutchings are just two more recent examples of long term assistants who have had brief and forgettable spells in the hot seat.

And there were still expectations that Clarke had to live up to. While it wasn’t essential that he delivered a trophy or European football, he still had to build on Albion’s recent development while at the same time establishing a realistic outlook on the club, something that is easier said than done in modern day football.

Steve ClarkeProgress and success can do peculiar things to a club’s approach to the game, which was highlighted through Di Matteo’s dismissal two years ago. However, Clarke has done a superb job in his first year at the Hawthorns. Though they never looked like troubling Liverpool in seventh place, they did have some notable highlights throughout the season.

An opening day 3-0 thrashing of Brendan Rodger’s side was certainly one of these highlights, as was the 2-0 victory in the return fixture at Anfield in February. And the epic comeback in the 5-5 draw with Manchester United on the final day, Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game as manager, emphasized the ruthless but professional environment Clarke has helped establish at West Brom.

So while the Midlands as a whole might not have been a hotbed of enthralling football this season – West Brom’s local and former Premiership rivals Wolves will play League One football next season following a disastrous year – there is a feeling of anticipation around The Hawthorns that West Brom will at last become full time, rather than part-time, members of the top flight.