West Bromwich Albion supporter Adam Heal gives us the lowdown on his club ahead of the meeting with the Whites on New Year’s Day.
What’s your view of West Brom’s campaign so far?
I think it’s fair to say it’s been a dream. Given the fact that a lot of the pundits had us down for a relegation scrap after the appointment of Steve Clarke in his first managerial role, it’s been even more impressive. We’ve still come unstuck in some of our traditionally bad games (Swansea City away, Stoke City at home), but we've played some great football, and to be hovering around the UEFA Champions League places and effectively safe from relegation by Christmas is some going.
How would you assess Steve Clarke’s time at the club?
It’s always a gamble when you put someone into their first head coach position when he’s been a number two for so long, so I think there was some nervousness from a lot of fans as to what the season would hold. But, he’s taken the foundations from Roy Hodgson, brought in some quality players, and flourished. He’s tactically very good, knows when to rotate his squad, and isn’t afraid to think on his feet during games in order to get a win or to protect a lead. He also seems very modest and publically praises the players a lot, deflecting any praise from himself to them.
Have you noticed a change in playing style under Clarke?
Hodgson was very focused on the 4-4-2 formation, so yes there has been a big change with Clarke’s preference for 4-5-1. This has made us quite solid at the back as he uses Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob to sit in front of the back four and protect them. He also then uses the so-called ‘free role’ for one player behind the main striker and this has enabled us to attack very well, enabling the full-backs to get forward. The only slight issue is out wide when the midfielders don’t track back and we can be exposed on the flanks.
What were the aims and expectations at the start of the season?
Quite simply to avoid relegation and get to 40 points in any way possible!
It’s probably fair to say you’ve been the surprise package of the season. Can you maintain this form for the rest of the campaign?
As the halfway point approaches, we’ve played most teams in the league, so why not! The Africa Cup of Nations will hurt us a bit, as will suspensions, injuries and the possibility of some of our better performers getting approached in the transfer window. Realistically, we will probably drop a few places over the remainder of the season. But we do have a nice little cushion so fingers crossed.
What would qualifying for Europe mean to the Baggies?
Up until recently we hadn’t really thought about it much, but as the 40-point mark gets closer and with us still being in a great league position, maybe it’s time to have a reassessment! It would be amazing to think that we might be able to see some European football at The Hawthorns, and the ability that would give us to attract better players and keep growing as a club would be something that all Baggies fans would relish.
Who have been your star players this season?
There have been so many that are worth mentioning, but for me there would be three stand-out players - Yacob, James Morrison and Shane Long. Yacob was a free signing and could be worth millions, he doesn’t get all the glory, but does all the nasty work and does it with simplicity - we really do miss him when he’s out (as he currently is). Morrison has been fantastic sitting just behind the striker and creates so much of the attacking play, and as for Long, he works hard, is so committed and is now contributing the regular goals that his play deserves.
Zoltan Gera remains a favourite at Craven Cottage – he’s still banging in some spectacular goals for the Baggies isn’t he?
Yes, he’s a Hawthorns favourite as well. It’s great to see him back and after losing him to injury for all of season, he’s been like a new signing. His goals against Liverpool and Sunderland were class, but he has weighed in with others too.
Fulham beat the Baggies 3-0 earlier this season – you’ll be looking for revenge on New Year’s Day I imagine?
One of our worst performances this season was at Craven Cottage, but our home form is excellent so we will be looking for three points.
For those Fulham fans making the trip, what are the best things about visiting The Hawthorns?
It’s a similar size ground to Fulham so the close-knit atmosphere is always good. There’s usually some good banter between fans at The Hawthorns, and many times both sets of supporters join in the same songs when its a common theme. And, of course, the local delicacy that is the Balti Pie is always worth a try!
What's the one song Fulham fans are bound to hear?
There’s a bit of a thing going on at the minute to mock our local rivals that we’re now the top team in the Midlands so you’ll definitely hear something related to that. And, of course, our ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ rendition and ‘Boing, Boing’ will be heard.
I’m going for a 2-2 draw. I think we may have a few injury problems by New Year’s Day after a tough trip to Old Trafford to play Manchester United three days earlier.