When Roy Hodgson left West Brom last season and Steve Clarke stepped in to the big shoes left by the previous incumbent, many believed it was a risk that could see Hodgson's work undone.
For Clarke had never managed a team on a full-time basis in his career, let alone a Premier League side and his most recent employment had been to sit as Kenny Dalglish's right hand man in a disastrous spell at Liverpool (albeit with League Cup success).
How wrong we were to make such brash assumptions. Whilst the Liverpool debacle could've tainted the CV of Clarke, it appears that it's been used to an advantage. A learning curve if you will. Far from battling at the pit of the league, West Brom have in fact produced their best start to a top flight season in over ninety years under Clarke's stewardship.
The explanation for the doubt has arisen from the natural doubts as to whether a number two can display the nous required for the promotion to being the main man. Many have tried with mixed success but in recent times it has to be said that the policy of promoting from within has worked well with Chris Hughton and Roberto Di Matteo fine examples. Both have stepped up to management comfortably despite initial reservations, in the same way that Clarke has.
Clarke's apprenticeship has been served over fifteen years of assistant roles in which the Scot has held positions at Newcastle, Chelsea, West Ham and Liverpool. It was at Chelsea that his reputation rocketed sky high, surviving the regular managerial culls to form a key member of the management staff.
One such manager Clarke worked under was of course the self proclaimed 'special one',Jose Mourinho, who recently commended Clarke for his work at West Brom saying “Steve’s doing an amazing job and I’m the last to be surprised because I felt he was ready for that a long time ago. He’s an incredible coach.” Mourinho doesn't dish out that kind of praise for anyone.
Playing second fiddle may not appear as glamorous to the eye as the top dog job, but under Mourinho Clarke has received mentorship that most making their way in the game could only dream of. The access to such thorough tactical knowledge and match preparation will have formed many of the ideas that Clarke is now implementing on his own team.
Despite excelling in the reduced role of Assistant Manager over the years, Clarke's desire to move on to the managerial ladder has always appeared obvious since he spoke of the desire to step up whilst at Chelsea following Mourinho's departure. It has taken him another five years to eventually get the opportunity but an instant impact has been made.
Strong, understated signings have been made over the summer with Claudio Yacob particularly impressing in an effective partnership alongside Youssuf Mulumbu and Ben Foster's permanent move securing the Baggies a reliable keeper. Romelu Lukaku has the potential to be excellent but Clarke is smart enough to know he already has two good strikers on the books in Long and Odemwingie so won't rush him in. Yassine El Ghanassy and Markus Rosenberg also add much depth to the squad and prove Clarke is aware of the need for alternative options.
In addition to these, Clarke has displayed strong man management skills to convince Jonas Olsson to re-sign for West Brom despite links to Tottenham Hotspur over the summer.
These players have proven to be essential to the Baggies start to the season that has seen the Hawthorns become a fortress with four wins out of four achieved. The win over QPR over the weekend was a lot sloppier than what we've seen of the Midlands club this season defensively but displayed an ability to pick up the results when they aren't perhaps firing on all cylinders at the back. Nevertheless only Arsenal and Stoke have better defensive records this season so Olsson and co can't be criticised too heavily.
Clarke showed ambition from the offset this season challenging the players to push for trophy success this year, and on this form it's not beyond reason that they can't do so. There is a new found attacking vigour at the club and in spite of this, the defensive strength has been retained also in a perfect balance for the side.
We now have two weeks off for the international break, but after Clarke will face the toughest test of his managerial career to date as City visit the Hawthorns. Considering West Brom's home form and City's erratic start to the season, this may not be as straightforward a result as some may suspect. Clarke is fast building a strong reputation as a dynamic, progressive manager. Many ambitious number two's could learn a lot from the Scot.
image: © stadiumguide