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.

Written by Andrew Crawley

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Why Ferdinand Saga Shows England are Failing to Progress

Rio FerdinandIt was a development that bought all the typical England debates bubbling back to the surface. The classic club vs country row. The questioning of the desire of our top stars to turn out for their country. You know the rest.

But the quarrel surrounding Rio Ferdinand’s recall then withdrawal from the England squad for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers also highlighted another disparaging issue that continues to dominate England’s international scene. An issue that has been holding back England’s progress for some time and remains a concern despite some promising advances during Roy Hodgson’s reign.

It is the subject of this country’s so called ‘golden generation’, and the inability to move on from these players and think in the long term. The idea of the English golden generation, which has included the likes of David Beckham, Michael Owen, Frank Lampard, and Ferdinand, is a term that has caused much debate and ridicule.

They were the group of players who, after being so dominant at their clubs and winning so many plaudits at domestic level, were supposed to divert their class to the international stage and end England’s barren run in major tournaments.

But their time never came, as tournament after tournament has gone by with England failing to mount a serious challenge to claim their first trophy since their legendary 1966 World Cup win.

However, despite these shortcomings, many have clung to the idea that players of this ‘golden generation’ are untouchable when it comes to the England team. Despite the frustration of seeing England teams featuring the likes of Beckham and Lampard failing to deliver when it matters on the international scene, coaches and fans have developed a strong desire to see their names on the team sheet.

It is almost as if they can not imagine an England team without them and they see no other alternative. Even when attempts to take them out of the equation and try other systems have been made, it has not been received well.

Rio FerdinandWhen England were struggling away to minnows Andorra in a European Championship qualifying tie in 2007, travelling fans responded by chanting David Beckham’s name as a way of criticizing then manager Steve McClaren, who had dropped the former Three Lions captain upon taking over as head coach.

Many observers have also allowed their fondness for these players cloud their judgement and common sense when it comes to commenting on the issue. The calls by some for Michael Owen and Ferdinand to be included in Hodgson’s Euro 2012 squad last year was the perfect example of this.

Superb servants Owen and Ferdinand have been in for the national side at times over the years, it was ridiculous to consider them candidates for the squad given their record with fitness and injuries, especially Owen. Even Ferdinand’s club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, doubted whether the defender could make a meaningful contribution in Poland and Ukraine.

He stated that Ferdinand’s fitness situation meant he would not be able to cope with the tight schedule of tournament football.

So it seems at times that many analysts concentrate too much on what players have done in the past rather than important factors such as more recent form and fitness.

Of course, we love to reminisce and treasure classic moments such as Owen’s hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Germany and Beckham’s last minute free kick against Greece in 2001. But to use moments like these as sole justification for their inclusion in vital tournament squads almost a decade later is ludicrous.

A mind-set like this also prevents younger, new talent getting opportunities in the side. England’s over-reliance and affection for their top stars has cost them dearly in the past.

England National TeamSven Goran Eriksson was particularly guilty of this, and his decisions to take a crocked David Beckham and Wayne Rooney to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups was to cost them dearly later in the tournaments. Fabio Capello took a reckless gamble on Gareth Barry in South Africa three years ago and paid the price when his lack of fitness was exposed by a rampant Germany side in the last 16.

Even the great Sir Alf Ramsey’s devotion to his World Cup winners was to prove costly, as this prevented a new generation of players gaining valuable international experience. This led to England failing to even qualify for successive World Cups in 1974 and 1978.

So England must break free of this habit and continue to blood new and younger talent. But this does not mean they should banish the more experienced in the squad completely. If they are in form and making valuable contributions to the team, of course they have earned their place.

But they should never be running unopposed for their place in the team, and we should not view a team without them as inconceivable. England only needs to look at how other nations have progressed for inspiration.

Germany’s loss of their captain Michael Ballack through injury was a huge blow to their 2010 World Cup hopes. However, this allowed younger players such as Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil a chance in the first team. Both impressed hugely in South Africa and have been permanent fixtures in the side since.

Although Roy Hodgson’s squad is still a work in progress, it has been refreshing to see some of the younger and untested players getting time on the pitch.

This is a practice all of England must come to terms with if they are finally to shake off their under achieving international tag.

Written by Andrew Crawley