In a season of few surprises in the Premier League, the results of one club have stood out above the rest: West Bromwich Albion.
The Midlands club, located on the outskirts of Birmingham, have played second fiddle to neighbours Aston Villa for so long. Now under new manager Steve Clarke they have created a platform to aspire for much more than just regional bragging rights.
The introduction of Clarke is looking like an inspired piece of headhunting following fears that replacing Roy Hodgson would scupper a year of positive development under the now England manager. However the Scottish tactician, in his first role at the helm after a series of high-profile assistant posts, has slotted in seamlessly and feels the last 12 months have been hugely positive for the team.
“I think West Bromwich Albion as a football club can look over the whole year and say that they’ve done fantastically,” he told BBC Sport following their recent 2-0 defeat to Manchester United. “They had a strong end to the previous season under Roy. I was lucky enough to get the job in the summer, I’ve come in and tried to build on the strengths that were there and I think up until now we can say we’ve had a good season.”
Clarke arrived with an impressive résumé, notably working as Jose Mourinho’s assistant coach at Chelsea during the Portuguese’s time there and enjoyed spells at Newcastle United, West Ham United and, most recently, Liverpool. After 18 months at Anfield with Kenny Dalgish, his fellow Scotsman described him as “a fantastic assistant” who “would be an asset to any club” – praise that looks to be ringing true.
Despite the Baggies suffering back-to-back league defeats as the calendar ticked over into 2013, the hard-working outfit are still knocking on the door of European qualification. Having not appeared on the continental stage since a brief foray in the UEFA Cup in 1981, it’s certainly motivation to maintain their momentum. Currently lying in seventh, three points off UEFA Europa League qualification, they sit ahead of Liverpool and on the tails of Arsenal and Everton – largely achieved by having one of the best home records in the division.
Trailing only the leading Manchester clubs' home records, the Baggies have already chalked up more wins at the Hawthorns than during all of last season, including impressive victories over Chelsea, Everton and Liverpool. It’s been enough to sit as high as third on a number of occasions the season, the highest they have been in the top division since the third week of the 1984/85 campaign.
In the meantime they have been earning plaudits with their style of play too, which has maintained and developed its hard-working foundations and exemplary organisation, as well as growing into an accomplished passing side. The likes of Chris Brunt, James Morrison and Youssouf Mulumbu have been key to the success of this approach throughout 2012, with the addition of Argentinean Claudio Yacob looking a shrewd bit of business after he was brought in on a free transfer from Racing Club.
WBA are playing as a side well tuned to their style throughout, with centre-back pairing Jonas Olsson and Gareth McCauley providing a solid base, while energetic forwards Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie offer mobility along the front line. Right from the outset Odemwingie was impressed with Clarke’s outlook, emboldened by the Scot’s drive to look upwards in the league rather than prioritise mere survival.
“When I heard his ambitions for the season it was pleasing. He worked under big-name coaches; we knew he couldn't not be affected by those big-name coaches who want to win things. He said the goal was to build on our organisation and to almost double the number of passes that we make in every game. That was one of the targets, it helps you recover faster and create more chances.”
Romelu Lukaku, a 19-year-old loanee from Chelsea, has been a superb addition to the side, providing a daunting and powerful focal point for their attack. Having been short of chances at Stamford Bridge last season, after signing from Anderlecht with a big reputation, 6ft 3in Belgian has grasped his chance at The Hawthorns and leads the Baggies’ scoring charts.
He’s also feeling the benefits of working under Clarke, saying: “I have a head coach who wanted me from the beginning of the season and I have a great rapport with him. He's not scared to put me on the bench even if I played well the game before.
“It’s really good to have a head coach that is challenging me mentally and I like that because great players can always respond to that and hopefully I can be a great player in the future.”