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Fall guy?

Steve Clarke's role as head coach made his sacking more likely but less deserved, writes Adam Bate.

Last Updated: 15/12/13 at 11:18

"This was the unanimous decision of the football club's board of directors following a disappointing performance throughout 2013. Albion have won only seven of their 34 Barclays Premier League games during the calendar year - a 20 per cent win percentage yielding a total of only 31 points - despite a substantial investment in the first-team squad."

As explanatory statements go, this was surely one to file under D for disingenuous. The facts behind the decision to relieve Steve Clarke of his duties as West Brom's head coach are accurate. But the context is wilfully ignored. Perhaps the most obvious point to consider is that the majority of those 34 Premier League games formed part of the club's highest league finish in 32 years.

Since racing to 33 points by Boxing Day of last season, results have certainly been disappointing. However, the loss of momentum last term might be partially explained by the fact that Albion were the only Premier League club not to make a signing in January, thus missing the opportunity to build on Clarke's impressive work. A decision that was not of his own making.

And besides, while the phrase 'victim of his own success' may feel a tired one, it seems highly unlikely that the Baggies would have managed so few victories from their fixtures in the second half of last season should the need for points have been greater. After all, their efforts were nevertheless sufficient to cling onto a hugely commendable eighth place in the table.

No, it seems altogether more fair to assess the merits of this parting of the ways on the basis of the current campaign. Here too, matters are not so clear cut. While comparisons will inevitably be drawn to the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo in February 2011, the Italian was dispensed with amid talk of unhappy players and a run of eight defeats from 10 games. Home fixtures against Blackpool and Wigan had been the only matches to return points.

Despite enduring a difficult year, Clarke's descent has felt rather more swift. A high-profile win over Manchester United at Old Trafford at the end of September - the club's first triumph there in 35 years - formed part of a nine-game sequence that featured just one defeat. More recently, there was the unfortunate stoppage-time penalty call that robbed Clarke of the honour of being the first ever coach to outwit Jose Mourinho's Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Four defeats

It is the four consecutive Premier League defeats that have brought matters to a head. Even this poor run includes an odd-goal defeat at Newcastle and a 3-2 reverse at home to Manchester City in which the spirit of the players could not be called into doubt as they clawed back from three goals down. Subsequent defeats to Norwich and, finally, Cardiff were enough to end his reign.

Of course, these decisions shouldn't be entirely informed by the past but rather the question of what will happen in the future - specifically, whether or not Clarke is the best man to oversee an upturn in fortunes. Significantly, the initial reaction of several key players to the decision - most explicitly that of young talent Saido Berahino via Twitter - would appear to suggest this was not a case of that old cliche about a manager failing to locate his dressing room.

Our player wage bill is the highest in the club's history and we feel we have built a squad capable of being very competitive in the Premier League.
Richard Garlick

But West Brom's sporting and technical director Richard Garlick is adamant. "Our player wage bill is the highest in the club's history and we feel we have built a squad capable of being very competitive in the Premier League," he points out in the aforementioned statement. "It has been well documented that we have not had the rub of the green in certain games this season but that does not cloud the generally disappointing points return during this calendar year."

The reference to the club's wage bill is a curious one on several counts. Not only must the similarly burgeoning income be considered but the increased spending of rivals too. Three of the four clubs currently below West Brom in the table have higher wage bills. Moreover, there is the vital issue of who is ultimately responsible for this budget. Given that Clarke's role is that of head coach, the man charged with signing off on acquisitions surely falls under the remit of Garlick himself.

Dan Ashworth and Roy Hodgson had a successful relationship at West Brom

It highlights a potential flaw in the director of football structure. For while the key strength of the system is that it can remain robust in the face of a transition from one coach to another, that is of little use if those at the top are making poor decisions. What if you have a capable coach and a less than capable director of football? Not so much a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but more a case of keeping the bathwater and blessing it at the altar.

Dan Ashworth received considerable plaudits for his work at the Hawthorns and it seemed his brother Paul might get the nod as his replacement in the summer, only to have his hopes dashed by one of the men charged with making the appointment. "I got down to the last three, but in the end, none of us got it," revealed the former FC Rostov sporting director in an interview with the BCAA. "They gave it to Richard Garlick, the legal director, who was actually one of the three people who interviewed me."

Romelu Lukaku has been sorely missed as he scored 17 Premier League goals last season

Difficult summer

Garlick's first transfer window did not go well. Replacing the 17 goals of Romelu Lukaku was always likely to be a challenge and with the club's record goalscorer in the Premier League era, Peter Odemwingie, also gone it was clear attacking quality was needed. Instead, the remnants of what used to be Nicolas Anelka looked set to be the club's headline buy and September arrived with Albion's only acquisitions coming in the form of temporary signings and free transfers. Neither Matej Vydra nor Diego Lugano were believed to be high on Clarke's own list of targets.

It can take two bad decisions on players and the whole lot can come crashing down around you.
Jeremy Peace

Comments shortly before the transfer window closed revealed his frustration. "I am concerned that we have left it too late and maybe we don't get the right players in," he said. "I can make recommendations but it is down to the club to bring those players in. Is it frustrating to be sitting here now not having made a big name signing or a big cash buy? Yes, for sure. We haven't spent any money this window - we have brought in players on loan and on frees. But my job is to get over that and make sure the players we do have here go out on the pitch and do their best for the club."

Investment finally came in the closing hours of the window as Albion uncharacteristically parted with over £12million in order to secure the signatures of Stephane Sessegnon from Sunderland and Victor Anichebe from Everton. Baggies chairman Jeremy Peace had rather presciently told the Daily Mail a fortnight earlier: "It can take two bad decisions on players and the whole lot can come crashing down around you."

Nicolas Anelka has failed to fire since his summer arrival at the Hawthorns

Peace is not a man prone to extravagance and is even less inclined to relish being backed into a corner, so it's fair to assume that the decision to invest so heavily and so late in the summer was made with significant reservations. Clarke's comments could be interpreted as an attempt to ramp up the pressure on the money men to provide him with the tools to better allow him to do his job. Ultimately, it may have led to his downfall when the first hint of tough times came.

What happens next will, of course, define how this strategic move will be regarded in the long term. Just as Manchester United's decision to retain Alex Ferguson a generation ago became the default argument for sticking with a manager, Southampton's axing of Nigel Adkins to bring in Mauricio Pochettino last season is threatening to make the undeserved sacking de rigueur.

But given the identity of the club, perhaps it is the firing of Di Matteo that is more pertinent here. On that occasion, Albion were able to bring in Roy Hodgson and begin a new journey. But is there a Hodgson around to appoint now? The admission in the club's initial statement that they will "now begin the search" for a replacement suggests this might not be the fait accompli that more risk averse supporters would hope to see.

What is clear is that West Brom's board of directors remain determined to be proactive in their approach. In reference to Gary Megson's time in charge, Peace said in August: "We had been told in no uncertain terms what to do by the first guy who was here and then we were blamed when it went wrong. It was the wrong culture." The chairman may have succeeded in changing the culture at West Bromwich Albion but the irony is rich. Because for Steve Clarke, it must still feel like the same old blame game.

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