Saturday, 27 October 2012

So Far So Good

Yesterday saw the Baggies complete 10 league fixtures under Steve Clarke and  the record reads

P10 W5 D2 L3 Pts 17

At the moment that is good enough for fifth position in the Premier League and represents the best start the club has made in the Premier League era.

With 10 games in charge it is possible to form an opinion on how the new Head Coach Steve Clarke is progressing at the Hawthorns. Tactically he is more adventurous than his predecessor his default formation is 4-2-3-1 with a lone striker being supported by three attacking midfielders who have license to join the attack because the midfield is anchored by two deep sitting midfielders. However out of possession it is very obvious that the side remains well drilled and you still see Hodgson's two banks of four form up moving in unison across the pitch.

Generally Clarke approaches games with a mindset that is positive and is trying to win games rather than trying not lose and whilst it might have backfired against Man City most fans will applaud this approach. He does try to influence the course of games by making tactical substitutions the most frequent being the in game rotation of Long and Lukaku in the lone striker role. Some fans have questioned this tactic particularly when the substitute has failed to have an impact in the game but the
lone striker role is probably the most physically demanding on the pitch and being able to bring a fresh pair of legs on after about sixty minutes not only freshens up the side but also protects the main striker (Long in this case) from burn out.

Since his appointment in June Clarke has gone about his task with quiet authority although he has  yet to be tested in real adversity. The slight downturn of  back to back defeats bought a little bit of pressure to do well against Southampton but such are the expectations at the Hawthorns it is hardly a crisis.

The start to Clarke's reign has undoubtedly been bright and he has very few detractors amongst the Baggies faithful. The question now is can he sustain it for the next 10 games and beyond? At the start  the season I thought that he could guide us to a mid-table finish and I have not changed my view, anything better will be a huge achievement. The fact that we currently sit fifth in the table does not flatter the team across the 10 games there have been no points gained from performances that did not deserve them and it might be argued that we were a little unlucky not to return from Newcastle with at least a point.

However and this is something no coach will thank you for mentioning but to maintain the current position and certainly to push beyond it Clarke needs to get lucky. The one piece of luck Clarke needs above all else is for the core of his team to stay injury free particularly when the influential Mulmbu is away on international duty during January.

Although he has had to contend with some injury and suspension problems during the opening 10 games he has had the luxury of being able pick a team with a settled spine of Foster, McAuley, Olsson, Mulumbu, Yacob and Morrison who have been virtually ever present thus far.To my mind this is the engine room of Clarke's team and when I see these names on the team sheet I know we will compete and stay in games even if we do not have the ability to dominate play. Whilst I think we can sustain the loss of one of these players we would be greatly diminished by the loss of two of them.

So far so good for Steve Clarke, too many pundits condemned Albion to a relegation struggle on the back of his appointment, to date he has proved his detractors wrong and long may he continue to confound them.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

They Don't Throw Bananas Anymore

Thirty-seven years ago, Laurie Cunningham stepped onto the Hawthorns pitch for the first time and endured ninety minutes of racial abuse from the massed ranks on the Brummie Road terrace. He was playing for Orient, and roughly twelve months later he joined Albion. This might seem strange, given his earlier treatment by the club's supporters, but the reception he got at the Hawthorns was regrettably par for the course for a black player in England back in the 1970's and 1980's.

Cunningham joined the Baggies and was quickly followed by Regis and Batson. The racist chants on the Brummie Road stopped, because even the dumbest knuckle-dragger on the face of the planet understands that you cannot chant racial abuse at the opposition's black players without insulting your own black players. Large-scale racial abuse, as witnessed last week in Serbia, died out in England -- not because English fans became more enlightened, but because most teams employed black players. Their fans were confronted by the same contradiction that the Albion fans had faced when Cunningham arrived at the club. Society has also moved on, and terms that I grew up with are no longer acceptable. Fans have also become more enlightened, and maybe one of the first steps on that journey was accepting black players at the football clubs they supported.

At some point, racial abuse of black players became a line which fans understood should not be crossed, and today, it comes from the odd individual or John Terry. Back in the 1980's, as football slowly responded to the problem of racial abuse, the apologists for the fans' and players' behaviour used the now well-established, but somewhat tarnished, 'banter defence': "Yes, the words are rude and insulting, but they are in jest; we mean nothing by it," and, in the case of the players, they point to the post-match handshakes, so all's well that ends well. Frankly, it sounded pathetic at the time, and with thirty years of hindsight, it is sickeningly complacent.

Thirty years on, and the banter defence is deployed to justify tit-for-tat chanting between fans at Sheffield and Liverpool over incidents that involve the tragic loss of life, rape, and child abuse. Sorry, that is not banter; it is sick, and no less sick than racially abusing a black player. It is time to draw a new line, as far as fan and player behaviour goes.

Football's problem is that clubs have siege mentalities -- us against the world -- and too often are swift to condemn the actions of rival fans and players without acknowledging, let alone condemning, their own fans' and players' shortcomings. The game's leaders need to make a stand, not just condemning the opposition, but their own fans -- a braver course of action. Warnock had a stab at it following the incidents at Sheffield, but, being Warnock, blew it with a throwaway remark about Kirkland going down like a ton of bricks. Martin O'Neill's condemnation of Sunderland supporters' chants concerning Steven Taylor was much less unequivocal, and O'Neill deserves credit for that.

Equally, when players transgress, the clubs need to look beyond their immediate self-interest and not try to defend the indefensible. Liverpool's response to the Suarez incident was lamentable, and Chelsea's rank cowardice in not stripping Terry of the captaincy sent mixed messages to fans and players. Put simply, if I were to racially abuse a customer or colleague at work, I would be out of a job, and I would not enjoy the support of my employer if criminal proceedings were bought. In truth, nor would a youth team player at either club, who would be hung out to dry for a similar offence. The message is clear: Suarez and Terry are a little bit too important to their respective clubs to be challenged when they step over the line. That is why the FA need to be steadfast in their approach with regard to player discipline, because too often clubs fail to stand up to the star players.

Fans need to take a long, hard look at themselves and try to understand how witty they would find a chant about their own loved ones who had died in tragic circumstances or had been sexually abused. It is a question of your dignity as a human being: How far are you prepared to let yourself be dragged into the sewer by the tribalism of football? Think about that, and just don't join in; nobody makes you. If fans persist, then the authorities should take action. A couple of Man United v Liverpool games behind closed doors might bring a few fans to their senses.

I have an ongoing love affair with football, but there are times when the passion spills over into something ugly, making me more than a little uncomfortable. I understand the keen rivalry between clubs, particularly local derbies with decades of history, but when that turns into naked hatred, we all need to pull back from the brink.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Compare and Contrast

QPR, here is the defender you should have signed
Yesterday Albion met QPR at the Hawthorns. Both clubs harbour similar ambitions for the season and would be pleased with a comfortable mid-table finish although the two clubs approach to the challenge could not be further apart.
QPR have been bankrolled by a series of wealthy owners and are now owned by Tony Fernandes and the Mittal family. Since promotion QPR have bought in high profile players on high wages and an equally high profile manager in Mark Hughes.
By contrast Albion have built gradually and in the absence of a sugar daddy have managed within their relatively modest means. The contrast in approach is embodied by Gareth McAuley and Anton Ferdinand both signed in summer 2011 to strenghten their respective sides back lines. McAuley was picked up by Albion on a free transfer having not played in the premier league. Ferdinand joined QPR from Sunderland for £1m ending a largely forgettable stay on Wearside where he failed to live up to an £8m price tag after moving from West Ham. McAuley's league career started late and was plying his trade at Leicester in the Championship when Ferdinand was making his big money move to Sunderland.  
McAuley's arrival at the Hawthorns was largely unheralded  and there were envious glances at other centre halves that moved that summer including Dann, Johnson and Ferdinand himself, however in the last twelve months McAuley has established himself as a no nonsense does what it says on the tin centre back. Ferdinand on the other hand has continued his patchy form which saw him depart from Sunderland and yesterday he looked like a very average player.
QPR's wage bill is certainly higher than the Baggies and whether the disjointed performance that they put in at the Hawthorns is a consequence of  the changes they made over the summer or a more fundamental malaise only time will tell, but the whole enterprise looks like it's been built on sand. They have bought players who in many cases not lived up to early promise Zamorra, Wright-Phillips and Ferdinand or players who have been at the very top of the profession but are now on their way down like Bosingwa and  Ji-Sung who might not be as motivated by a relegation scrap as being in contention for trophies and titles.

Albion simply could not afford those players wages and by necessity focus on the unsung gems unearthed by an extensive scouting network. The players either regard playing for the club as a stepping stone to greater things or the peak of their achievement in the game. At the moment the Albion way is working and we have opened up a 12 point gap between the more celebrated players from west London it might be a false position and QPR may yet come good but yesterday there were times when the two teams looked worlds apart but not in a way Tony Fernandes would have hoped for when he appointed Mark Hughes and sanctioned the overhaul of the playing staff.

Hughes will not be sacked in the morning despite the gleeful taunts of the Baggies fans  but Fernandes is entitled to ask what he is getting for the money that he has pumped into the club. Or is he? Importing Hughes as a quick fix and throwing money at players does not build a team nor a club maybe the mess he has got is exactly what he paid for, all the money in the world does not give you the wisdom to spend it wisely.

Albion have achieved what they have by investing long term in the infrastucrure of the club by not indulging managers nor fans with short term fixes doing the best the club can with the resources available. It has not always been popular but there is continuity and a plan which is now paying divdends.  Fernandes must stick by Hughes and focus on building long term and hope that they muddle through, but having bet the house on staying in the division one does wonder what relegation would mean for the club and unless they tighten up as a team that is a real danger.