Like Steve Kean and Terry Connor last year, Steve Clarke makes the bold step from assistant to manager of a Premier League club. Equally bold was West Brom’s appointment of Clarke, and the club must have taken into consideration the poor performance of assistants in recent seasons. While he has a fine reputation as an assistant and a coach, it is widely acknowledged that the skills necessary for a successful career in management are not forged on the training ground. Yet West Brom’s new manager does the advantage of starting afresh at a new club and doesn’t face the challenge of having to adapt existing relationships with the players.
Clarke inherits a side that made great progress under their former manager. In less than eighteen months Roy Hodgson turned West Brom into an established Premier League club following their promotion two seasons ago. Like all Hodgson sides, West Brom were organised and functional last year, and with his coaching background Clarke may well stick to a well-drilled systemised approach. However, Hodgson’s methods may prove restrictive should Clarke wish to introduce something new. The difficulty in taking over a highly organised team is that they can be unresponsive to dramatic changes in style or formation. Clarke may have learned this from observing Jose Mourinho’s successors at Chelsea struggle to impose a new identity.
Assessing what kind of manager Clarke is, and what kind of team West Brom will be, is not easy. Clarke’s influences are diverse. His reputation was forged working alongside Mourinho at Chelsea, a manager renowned for tactical discipline and organisation. Before Chelsea, Clarke worked with Ruud Gullit at Newcastle and after leaving Stamford Bridge was assistant to Gianfranco Zola at West Ham. Both men were determined to create teams that played with the same flair that they demonstrated as players. Most recently, Clarke worked at Liverpool with Kenny Dalglish who was happy to switch between formations depending on the threat posed by the opposition. Clarke has witnessed many styles of management and will have to decide how best to use these influences to develop his own identity.
West Brom seems like an ideal club to start a career in football management. It has a settled squad with individuals of real quality that suggest, to borrow a dangerous phrase, they should be too good to go down. With expectations tempered, Clarke has an opportunity to grow into the job and build on the work of his predecessors. West Brom’s board have a reputation for giving managers time, although the dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo in 2011 shows that they are prepared to make tough decisions if they feel it will benefit the club. Clarke will hope to get through his first season in management with minimal fuss and form a platform from which to build in the future.