Saturday 24th November 2012, West Brom had just beat Sunderland 4-2 away from home, notching their 8th league win of the season in just 13 matches. The mood at The Hawthorns was buoyant; Albion had just recorded their fourth win on the bounce, something they’d not done in the top flight since 1980, and they were sitting third in the Premier League.
European football actually felt like a real possibility. Albion were beating the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool. The fear that came with Roy Hodgson’s exit was dispelled. Steve Clarke was in, and the Albion looked a different class.
But then, like most things with the Albion, there’s a sour turn.
In the following 25 league games that followed, Albion won 6, drew 5 and lost 14. So far this season, Albion have played 16, won 3, drawn 6 and lost 7.
41 games, 38 points. Forget Europe, it’d be far more sensible to start planning journeys to Bournemouth and Huddersfield.
To put that in to further perspective, in 38 games last season, Wigan achieved a total of 36 points and got relegated. In 2011, Birmingham were relegated from the Premier League after achieving 39 points in 38 games. If the best the Albion can do in their last 41 games is 38 points, then there needs to be serious questioning of where Albion want to be.
When Steve Clarke started at the Albion, there were questions over his lack of experience. The start of the 2012/13 season quickly took away any doubts about the man, and, arguably, that incredible start was one of the major factors to Clarke not being relieved of his duties earlier. After all, Clarke is a great coach, and if he could help achieve that start then surely he could also be the man to stop the poor form?
The real test for any manager is how well they recover from a period of poor results. The difference between the great and the good can be seen with ease when you look past a run of bad form and see it turned around. Arsene Wenger, for example, has overseen Arsenal through periods of awful form only to pick them back up. Alex Ferguson at Manchester United could have a terrible start to the season but then turn it round and win a trophy. To be fair, David Moyes, when at Everton, always seemed to have a poor start and then fight back and achieve a top 6/7 position.
Unfortunately for Steve Clarke, much as with Roberto Di Matteo when he was with Albion, you never felt that he knew how to stop the downfall. To be fair, you could almost feel that the fates were conspiring against him, not wanting him to stop the fall.
Last year, the poor form really kicked off with the Peter Odemwingie saga. This year, the poor form has been maintained with a series of ridiculous refereeing decisions, injuries and some individual poor performances. Steve Clarke is a nice guy, but someone up there has definitely got something against him.
But it would be wrong to say Steve Clarke has just been unlucky. Several journalists and pundits have argued that one of his biggest misfortunes was not being able to re-sign Romelu Lukaku. On TalkSport this morning, I even heard a comment saying that Lukaku actually helped carry the team to last years success. It just isn’t true.
Lukaku would have arguably helped convert several of the chances missed this season, but the fact is that Lukaku was a bit part player for the club during the successful start to the 2012/13 season. When Peter Odemwingie decided he’d had enough, then Lukaku came more to the forefront. And, fact is, Lukaku’s good form coincided completely with Albion’s downfall. Bizarrely, despite scoring 17 goals, Lukaku never actually did anything that significantly added to Albion’s points total.
If Albion had signed Lukaku again, would he have been enough to keep Steve Clarke in a job? We’ll never know. What we do know is that the board actually went out and spent the money in the summer, albeit late on, after Clarke had made a point of saying things needed to change. Sessegnon, Anichebe, Anelka, Amalfitano, Luganu, Vydra and Sinclair were all bought in, and Albion raised their wage bill and broke their transfer record two times. There is enough quality in the team to achieve as they did last year without Lukaku. Steve Clarke will have known that, and Jeremy Peace does know that, and there lies a massive reason as to why Clarke has gone. For the first time that I can think of, it’s entirely plausible to argue that West Brom are underachieving in the Premier League.
But away from poor luck and transfers, my mind was made up on Steve Clarke on one Monday night not so long ago. Albion are 2 nil up against Aston Villa, but the second half has been poor. As an Albion fan, we’ve seen this many times before, we know what’s coming. Villa are getting more and more comfortable, and Albion are looking like they’re unsure how to respond. Paul Lambert makes a triple substitution, bringing on pace against Albion’s fairly slow defence. 10 minutes later, it’s 2-1.
The signs are there. Albion are throwing it away. The players look lost. Everyone can see that a change is needed because Villa have figured out the Albion’s game. They’re starting to become dominant. A change in tactics is needed; but nothing comes until the 73rd minute. A first substitution for the Albion, a chance to regroup and change style and try to get control back. But, no. Clarke brings on James Morrison for Stephane Sessegnon. Like for like swap, no alteration in playing style. And then 3 minutes later, it’s 2-2.
Two points lost again, but it could be three, because Villa now look like they want it and Albion seem to be having some nightmarish performances amongst the team. The worst of the lot, Goran Popov at left back, is finally removed in the 83rd minute for Victor Anichebe, a striker. I sit there thinking “we’re going 3-5-2 then” but again, no. The players stay where they are, and Anichebe comes on as a roaming second striker. We play a 3-2-3-2 formation. The game sizzles out for a 2-2 draw.
In the weeks that follow, similar tactical decisions are made. But, perhaps most striking, the game that the Albion play had changed. Shane Long scored a marvellous goal from a long ball against Villa, and that was now the tactic. Don’t play, just hoof to Shane Long. It didn’t work.
And that is the reason Clarke had to go. There was never a Plan B, there was no escape route. Albion were the Titanic, and Steve Clarke was our very own Edward Smith. Afraid to change, and, unfortunately, a victim because of it.