Clarke in at the deep end
New boss Steve Clarke takes a step into the unknown in his first managerial job with mere survival a realistic initial target…
Roy Hodgson may not have been universally loved at the Hawthorns but on leaving in May, he was certainly respected. He moulded an effective, if not always attractive, side and secured survival with something to spare – and this remains Steve Clarke’s first hurdle. Although there were no relegation scares last term the Baggies still have work to do to establish themselves in the top tier.
Without the financial muscle to compete with even the newly-promoted outfits, Clarke must be canny as he bids to build on his predecessor’s work. However, the Scot is a managerial novice and despite his years of top-level coaching, taking sole charge of a club sees him breaking new ground. He arrived alongside Kenny Dalglish to re-right Liverpool in the wake of Hodgson’s departure in January 2011 and as history repeats itself, the 48-year-old must have a similar impact at the Hawthorns.
After the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo last February, chairman Jeremy Peace turned to experience in the shape of Hodgson but in appointing Clarke the club have taken a significant gamble. He may have worked with some of England’s biggest clubs but always as the quiet man in the background. Now he is firmly in the firing line and with a demanding fanbase examining his every move.
While it is understood that the Scot will be handed the freedom to concentrate on work on the training ground – his title is head coach, rather than manager, with technical director Dan Ashworth leading the off-field operation – the buck ultimately stops with him. Having rolled the dice with Clarke, the chairman ought to offer him every chance to make an impact but time is not necessarily on his side. The Baggies have endured plenty of setbacks in recent years and another drop into the Championship is not part of the plan.
Albion fans are understandably cautious. With a modest degree of bargaining power, summer signings have taken time to arrive. Stopper Ben Foster has made his move from Birmingham permanent, while relative unknowns Yassine El Ghanassy and Claudio Yacob have been recruited from Belgium and Argentina respectively. But there is a feeling that there is a shortage of depth in the Baggies ranks, and the concern remains that strikers Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long could yet be lured away from the Black Country. The club finished last season in tenth, 11 points clear of trouble, and in light of the summer’s changes, anything approaching a repeat performance would be considered a major success.
Clarke has been thrown in at the deep end but if he can secure a solid platform early on, he can begin to build a project at the Hawthorns. In the absence of a significant cash injection, the Baggies must continue to rely on shrewd transfer business and in-house development. And while the first XI may not be among the strongest in the division, the club have a production line of young talent waiting in the wings. England juniors Saido Berahino and George Thorne impressed during loan spells last term while defender Craig Dawson is out to make a breakthrough after his selection for the Team GB side this summer.
But all three will need time if they are to force themselves into regular contention. If Albion can begin with a bang and drag themselves towards the 40-point mark, the second half of the campaign would become a profitable learning curve for Clarke and his squad. But early struggles could make it a long winter for the inexperienced boss.
Ben Foster (Birmingham), Claudio Yacob (Racing Club de Avellanda), Yassine El Ghanassy (Gent – loan).
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