Sportswriters in the Midlands are currently playing a game with Steve Clarke.
Every time he holds a press conference, they ask what reason he will be giving for West Bromwich Albion not qualifying for Europe this season. Only six months into his first managerial role, Clarke is downplaying his achievements while his team sits third in the Barclay's Premier League. "We won't get carried away and think because we're up there that we're big-time Charlies," he said last weekend, as if his players needed a mild rebuke.
Clarke can seem morose on the touchline, even when his team scores. The appearance is confounding, since he is as passionate and committed as any other manager, but he struck a contrast to the more restless Martin O'Neill last Saturday. In the aftermath of an impressive 4-2 victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, Clarke remarked that he was "mildly happy", but the dry tone should not be misleading. He has been preparing for this throughout a coaching career that involved stints alongside Ruud Gullit, Sir Bobby Robson, Jose Mourinho, Gianfranco Zola and Kenny Dalglish, so Clarke was never likely to be caught unawares.
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"There's more than one way to do it," says Pat Nevin, Clarke's friend and former Chelsea and Scotland team-mate. "Clarkey can come across as dour sometimes but we [as Scotsmen] know. I can't talk to the English media about it, because they don't get our dark, wry sense of humour. We understand it up here, but down south those guys learn to live with it, like Andy Murray does. Clarkey doesn't care about his personality, it's what his players see and if they believe and trust him. He's very good at his job and doesn't care if he looks good or sounds good on the television."
West Brom were dogged in their pursuit of Clarke last summer. The squad was strong, and the club's football department is run with uncommon astuteness by Dan Ashworth, the sporting director who will join the FA next summer. Under Roy Hodgson, WBA had finished 11th and 10th in the league, and they were seeking another steady, guiding hand. Clarke impressed so much during his first interview that when Ashworth wanted to meet him again, he was prepared to travel to Rutland Waters in Anglia, where Clarke was taking his annual fly-fishing trip with his father, brother and friend.
Nobody would have expected a revolution under Clarke, but his alterations to the way the team is coached, and approaches games, has brought significant results. That kind of subtle tweaking tells of a quiet assurance, since other managers would seek to impose their authority more blatantly. He is capable of ire, and once joined Mourinho in demanding the Chelsea players hand over their jerseys at half-time during a game against Bolton, because the score was 0-0 and they were "not fit to wear them". Chelsea won 2-0 in the end, and clinched their first title under Mourinho.
Ambitions are more sedate at West Brom, but Clarke has proved wily. Training sessions were regimented under Hodgson, who drills his players through repetition and shadow play, but Clarke is more varied and contemporary in his approach. Players tend to value his coaching, and routines now include using half the pitch for games so that the team learns how to press and also move the ball around tight spaces. West Brom continue to be diligent – only four teams have conceded fewer goals in the Premier League – but tend to move the ball forward more quickly and precisely. Only once this season have Albion enjoyed a higher percentage of possession than their opponents, but they have only lost three games, while both Liverpool and Chelsea have been overcome.
"He was an intelligent player," says Nevin. "He was exceptional at reading the game, and that's often a good sign that people will then go on to become good coaches. It's lazy commentary [from those who are] saying he's a No.2. At places he's been, when the manager left, the club didn't want to get rid of him. New managers tended to want to keep him on because he's so highly regarded in the game and you only had to watch him for a little while working with the players to see that he has top knowledge. The person he's closest to as a manager is Davie Moyes, they both have integrity, and if you have that, some ability and knowledge, you can go a long way in the game."
For long enough, Clarke fretted that he would never become a manager in his own right. He accepted the role of No.2 alongside Zola at West Ham out of loyalty to his old friend, but in private was concerned that it might hinder his own career ambitions. When Liverpool asked him to become assistant to Dalglish, Clarke was considering two job offers but felt there was greater experience to be gained at Anfield. He has been a shrewd operator, and West Brom are benefiting from that amassed knowledge. He is prepared to be adaptable, too, and has changed his team's formation on occasion when required.
Ahead of tonight's game at Swansea, this is the Hawthorns side's best start to a top-flight campaign in 59 years. At 49, and with 15 years' experience as an assistant, Clarke is establishing his reputation with a solemn authority.