Clarke relishing chance to be No 1
HE is the man who has stood alongside some of English football's most famous managers and developed a reputation as one of the best assistants in the business: loyal, discreet, a sophisticated coach and an astute handler of dressing-rooms full of superstar players.
Today, for only the second time in a 30-year football career, it will be Steve Clarke who is picking the team.
The new West Brom head coach -- to give him his full title -- was a caretaker manager for one game at Newcastle United in 1999, but otherwise this is a managerial debut for the man who has been No 2 to the likes of Jose Mourinho, Kenny Dalglish, Gianfranco Zola and Ruud Gullit.
He has always hoped the chance to be boss would come sooner but now that it is here, he is more than ready.
One of the ironies about Clarke's career as the man in the background -- that has followed a distinguished playing career at St Mirren and Chelsea -- is that it has landed him with an unwarranted reputation for, he jokes, being "dour".
"When you get to know me I am alright, you know?" he says. "I'm personable and agreeable. I can have my moments like everyone else. As a manager or head coach, it is really important for me to be myself."
The offer from Dan Ashworth, West Brom's director of football, and chairman Jeremy Peace to be the man in charge was a long time coming.
Clarke had hoped to make the step up when he left Chelsea in 2008 after four years as an assistant at the club.
Luiz Felipe Scolari had brought in his own staff and sidelined Clarke although there are no hard feelings on that score. He has seen enough in his time just at Chelsea to know how quickly things can change.
In the end, he joined West Ham United as assistant to Zola in September 2008 to take himself, he says, "out the comfort zone" at a club at which, unlike Chelsea, he did not have the benefit of having been a player.
Clarke is seventh on Chelsea's all-time appearances list and remains a favourite among the fans.
He was talked into staying another season at West Ham and then in June 2010 was sacked, with Zola, despite the team having avoided relegation.
Contemplating his first league game in charge of West Brom at the club's training ground yesterday, the memories of leaving Liverpool were still fresh.
He spent a tumultuous 18 months alongside Dalglish, until it was brought to an end in May when the owners Fenway Sports Group sacked the manager.
In Clarke's case, his time at Liverpool was abruptly terminated a couple of weeks later, with "a call from the girl in human resources".
Originally, Clarke had been offered the Liverpool assistant's job by Damien Comolli in January last year. After seven months out the game, he considered it a "no-brainer".
"Initially, it was sold to me as a short-term deal -- January to May. There was no talk of 'If you do well, you get an extension'.
"Kenny and I attacked the job with great enthusiasm and gusto. It picked up and we finished the season really well.
"I don't need to tell you the size of Kenny Dalglish in relation to Liverpool Football Club. The owners were put in a situation where they felt obliged that the only way to continue was to give Kenny the job full-time which included a full-time contract for me.
"I was happy to sign it. My wife and I had a lovely flat in the city. I was enjoying the job and working with a really good bunch of players. We reached two cup finals. That was a good season. We had some highs along the way getting to those finals.
"It was a big low to lose the FA Cup final, a massive high to win the first trophy (the League Cup) in six years and then the disappointment of the league campaign.
"The league campaign is a strange one to put your finger on. We played so well in so many games and didn't get results. Which is a failing in ourselves.
"I'm not saying we were unlucky because ultimately in the league you finish where you deserve to finish.
"There were some crucial turning points. Just after we won the League Cup we played Arsenal in the league (March 3). It was a massive game.
"If we had won we were in touching distance of the top four and would put ourselves back in contention.
"We played really well and lost the game 2-1 to a last-minute Robin van Persie goal. From that moment, the disappointment of the group was too much to overcome and the players realised they weren't going to bridge that gap to the top four.
"There were so many good teams ahead of them and I put that down as the defining moment when the league campaign faltered and from then we didn't pick up many points.
"It was a decision (to sack Dalglish) that the owners decided to make. They put a lot of money into the club.
"It was a big decision to get rid of Kenny because he has got legendary status in the city.
"I was at the game at FC Gomel and five or six times they sung the name Dalglish and that, I think, is just to let him know that they still love him and they don't hold any grudges for last season. The owner decided to make the change -- that's just the way football has become.
"Kenny said to me, 'Don't you go, you might get a chance to work with the new manager.'
"Briefly, I spoke to Brendan (Rodgers) because he was linked with the job and he said, 'Don't do anything silly because you never know.' Then, out of nowhere I got a phone-call from the girl from HR to tell me I was being let go."
As for the other big episode of the season? "I don't want to go on too much on the Luis Suarez incident," Clarke says. "It had an influence on the season at Liverpool and possibly the owners' decision to make changes but it would be wrong to say it was Kenny's fault.
"I don't think he was given enough protection by the club.
"The club should have someone a little bit more experienced in that line, and those matters.
"I'm sure if everybody could go back to the beginning of that episode the whole thing would be handled completely differently."
A thoughtful man, who weighs his words carefully, Clarke (48) is yet another Scot who has graduated to management.
In his case, he began his working life by completing a four-year apprenticeship as an instrument technician at what is now Glaxo in Irvine, in his native Ayrshire, and it gave him a valuable grounding in how to dealing with different characters.
He has specialised as coach and under Dalglish at Liverpool and Avram Grant at Chelsea he was responsible for taking training.
Under Mourinho, who liked to coach himself, he would be put in charge of part of the group during sessions and encouraged to put his own ideas into the drills prescribed by Mourinho.
At West Brom he does "90pc" of the coaching but also tries to pass responsibility to his assistants, Keith Downing and Kevin Keen.
Roy Hodgson set the bar high with a 10th-place finish last season and 11th the year before, both achieved with 47 points.
This season will not be easy, Clarke has no doubt about that, especially when newly promoted Southampton can spend £12m on Gaston Ramirez.
But he has great belief in his players and West Brom's successful approach to staying in the division on a realistic budget.
"I want to be in charge of a good team and one that plays football to excite the public. If it was only fantasy football everyone would play like Barcelona, but it's a results-driven industry.
"I'm responsible for West Bromwich Albion and making sure they retain Premier League status.
"Along the way I would like to have some games where the crowd go away and are genuinely excited by the way the team has played."
Clarke has exchanged texts with Mourinho over the summer, mainly discussing potential signings and their suitability for the Premier League, but after a lifetime in the game, Clarke does not need advice about how to run a football club.
"Managers like Jose have such a profile in the media, their questions will always be about my time working with him.
"Hopefully in a few years' time they are talking about Steve Clarke, the manager or the head coach. As long as they talk about what I have achieved and what I have done that would be great." (© Independent News Service)