by Daisy Cutter
Back in August West Bromwich Albion were amongst a cluster of clubs considered by the bookies to be possible relegation fodder.
Now, merely four months on, they are on the cusp of being regarded as genuine European contenders.
Whether that entails a sustained Champion’s League charge remains fanciful in the extreme at this point despite their magnificent showing thus far – it would require supreme luck with injuries in addition to consistently performing at the peak of their powers with no dip or blip along the way – but certainly, with approaching half of the season negotiated, it is long overdue for these pages to acknowledge that the Baggies are realising something quite extraordinary. With fourteen games gone they find themselves level on points with Chelsea; a Chelsea who carry serious title intentions; a Chelsea who kindly borrowed them Lukaku because their striking options include a £50m man and a triumvirate of stunners in Mata, Oscar and Hazard; a Chelsea who were outplayed and beaten at the Hawthorns two weeks ago.
With players sourced from obscure scratching posts such as Racing Club de Avellaneda and Amiens SC new incumbent Steve Clarke has forged an exciting outfit that blends solidity and fluidity. With Odenwingie, Lukaku and the tireless firefly Long up front they have an array of assorted qualities that will pose problems for any back-line, all of it allied with pace to counter in devastating fashion. At the back they’re drilled into an admirable conformity but what cannot be trained on a Tuesday morning is their work ethic and willingness to fight for the cause which they possess in abundance. But what has really propelled what is, on paper at least, a mid-table Premier League side, into the stratosphere is West Brom’s midfield. The partnership of Yacob (who has lost fewer challenges than anyone else in the top flight so far) and Mulumbu has been nothing short of immense while the Cutter has been banging on about the virtues of James Morrison since our inception: at the risk of being disrespectful to the Baggies when is a traditionally top four side going to commit all-out for the signature of this fantastically under-rated talent?
What makes the success of this team all the more remarkable is that they’re arguably still shy of a poacher and should Clarke be given the resources in January to bring one in – even at the expense of Lukaku returning to the Bridge – then perhaps it isn’t so far-fetched after all to imagine them continuing their heady adventure above the Arsenals and Spurs.
It is interesting to compare where the club was at this exact point last season to the present with largely the same personnel. Already they are eleven points better off with a string of impressive victories that have slowly made people sit up and take due notice. It is not just the opposition who have been taken by surprise but neutrals too and it could be reasoned that now comes the hard part with a first half collapse at Swansea in midweek hinting that expectation may be a weighty concern as they move forward.
It is something Steve Clarke will be all-too-aware of and we can expect his under-stated delight in post-match interviews to get ever more self-deprecating should their fine form run into the busy Christmas schedule.
If West Brom were being tipped for the drop before a ball was kicked Clarke was widely punted as a possible first managerial sacking before he’d even warmed up his office chair. Now the former first team coach to Dalglish at Anfield is being touted as a number one to watch. But while the Scot deserves a large chunk of the plaudits it should be noted there are of course others equally worthy of praise. The sterling work of Dan Ashcroft as sporting and technical director was erudite common sense in a world of knee-jerk decisions. His eight years at the Hawthorns earned him a headhunted position within the England set-up where he is now the FA Director for Elite Development. This means a quick reunion with his former boss Hodgson. As has already been stated the Baggies’ squad is largely unchanged from the previous campaign yet have been sensational where last year they looked inconsistent and susceptible to a drubbing. This adheres to a long-held personal theory of mine about the man the tabloids refer to as ‘Woy’: Hodgson has all the attributes of being a superb coach but is undone by being Roy Hodgson.
With another man at the helm – and a tweak here and there – the team is now executing the vision he presumably had but lacked the personality to impart.
This afternoon West Brom host Stoke. Ordinarily this might be viewed as a slightly run of the mill top flight affair – tucked away at the back-end of the Match of the Day running order – but not this time. This one matters. For if West Brom hope to stretch this terrific form into a season-long punching above their supposed weight this is precisely the kind of fixture they must overcome.
Whatever transpires however there is already something proven beyond a doubt – the Baggies are boinging and it’s wonderful to see.