West Brom: Will Steve Clarke Be Back?

It's difficult to imagine Alan Irvine ending the season at West Brom - especially as their run-in is very similar to the one that cost Norwich last season. A Peace offering?

Last Updated: 05/08/14 at 15:39 Post Comment

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LAST SEASON
Premier League
17th, 36pts -16 GD FA Cup Third round League Cup Third round Top league scorer Saido Berahino, Stephane Sessegnon 5 each Bookings 65 (seventh highest) with no red cards.

Manager Alan Irvine (since June 2014; age 56) Odds on being first out of his job 4-1 (favourite)

Players in Brown Ideye (Dynamo Kiev, £10m), Craig Gardner (Sunderland, free), Joleon Lescott (Man City, free), Chris Baird (Burnley, free), Sebastien Pocognoli (Hannover, £1.5m), Andre Wisdom (Liverpool, loan), Jason Davidson (Heracles, undisclosed), Cristian Gamboa (Rosenborg, £2m).

Players out George Thorne (Derby County, £2m), Billy Jones (Sunderland, free), Steven Reid (Burnley, free), Nicolas Anelka (gone), Liam Ridgewell (Portland Timbers, free), Zoltan Gera, Diego Lugano (released)

Club turnover in 2012-13 £70m, 15th

Wage bill in 2012-13 £54m, 15th

If you wanted to make a splash with the announcement of your new manager, you wouldn't choose the afternoon of England's World Cup opener to let the news slip out. That, though, was West Bromwich Albion's decision with Alan Irvine.

The sheepishness is understandable in some ways. Irvine's record at Preston and Sheffield Wednesday does not cry out 'Premier League manager' - or even, for David Moyes' former assistant and latterly Everton's academy chief - 'manager'. The man who led Albion to a highest finish since 1981 just a year ago, Steve Clarke, must wonder at the injustice of it all.

The immediate cause of Clarke's dismissal was defeats at home to Norwich then at Cardiff - two teams who would end up being relegated, unlike Albion. But in September Albion had won at Old Trafford for the first time since 1978 and, but for Andre Marriner's blunder, would have ended Jose Mourinho's unbeaten Stamford Bridge league record in November. Arsenal and Everton had been held, too, and the latter had snatched the highest scorer from the season before by making a better loan offer for Romelu Lukaku. West Brom were 16th when Clarke was sacked. This was disappointing after the excellent season before but given the circumstances, the Scot was surely entitled to more time. He will think - and many others will agree - that the Baggies would have finished higher than 17th and the right side of 40 points rather than with merely 36 had he remained in charge.

West Brom were not the only club last season to part company with a manager who had excelled in 2012-13; Swansea, for instance. But whereas the Welsh club evidently had a plan when they replaced Michael Laudrup with Garry Monk, it took four weeks for Pepe Mel to emerge from nowhere as Clarke's replacement. With the Spaniard taking eight matches to record a first win, the speculation that his would be a short reign was all too quick in coming and at the end of the season Mel was on the road back to nowhere as far as working in this country was concerned.

Irvine is 56, a remarkably advanced age to manage in a top flight in any country for the first time. Nigel Pearson at 50, with his promotion earned on the pitch, is the next oldest among current Premier League managers to get his first chance in a league's highest level. But unless you can afford to headhunt you can only recruit from among the applicants.

Tim Sherwood was favourite for the job only to be pipped at second interview, but would have been unconsidered had he not had his very public audition at Spurs. Many Albion fans reacted to the appointment of Irvine with understandable displeasure, though others gave the chairman, Jeremy Peace, the benefit of the doubt - in part because of the success of appointing another long-time assistant, Clarke, a state of affairs that must leave the former manager rueful. Though Peace is accused of being cheap, there is also a belief that Sherwood, with lieutenants Les Ferdinand and Chris Ramsey, would have been expensive and also less committed.

Somehow West Brom survived the managerial mess of last season, aided in large part by the farces played out at Cardiff and Fulham, and Norwich's failure to bank enough points before their torturous end-of-season run. If the Canaries had been able to dig out enough points in the closing weeks then Albion would have been down.

Albion's biggest and most unexpected drama began during the post-Clarke interregnum. Nicolas Anelka scored two goals all season, both helping secure a December 28 point at West Ham, but the celebrations created a completely unnecessary sideshow. Anyone can be fall for a stunt but the Frenchman's attempt to defend the quenelle despite the overwhelming evidence of accompanying antisemitism left no doubt as to either his guilt or his ignorance.

With or without Anelka, goals were hard to come by, with the promising Saido Berahino joint top scorer with five while making almost two-thirds of his 32 appearances from the bench, though he scored the crucial winner against West Ham as a starter, earning Albion's final points. Stephane Sessegnon matched his scoring total but Victor Anichebe disappointed after a transfer that seems unlikely to reach its maximum value of £6m. A lot is being staked on Brown Ideye, a £10m Nigerian refugee from Dynamo Kiev.

No one started more games that Liam Ridgewell but the veteran defender is on his way. Still, the recruitment of Joleon Lescott on a free and Andre Wisdom on loan strengthens the back line, and Craig Gardner is a useful midfield acquisition from Sunderland.

Irvine cannot complain about his opening fixtures as an elite manager, with Sunderland the visitors on the opening day before trips to revamped Southampton and Swansea. In September, Everton and Burnley travel to the Hawthorns either side of a visit to Spurs. The best guess is that doubts will be suspended for the first few weeks but struggles could come to a head if Burnley are not dispatched.

Whoever is manager - Irvine, a successor, a caretaker - will need to get points in the bag come March in a run of five fixtures starting with Villa and Stoke and concluding with Leicester and Palace. The match in the middle is Manchester City away. What follows this quintet is a sandwich with a softer centre - Newcastle away - but a run similar to the one that sank Norwich this year, with Liverpool and Manchester United, and then Chelsea and Arsenal to finish the season.

Should Irvine not go the distance, then Albion should at least contemplate a portion of humble pie and a return to Steve Clarke. It seemed an excellent match and if it's not too late then a Peace offering could bring some much-needed stability.

Philip Cornwall

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