One of the more surprising rumours to emanate from this weekend’s round of Premier League football was the rumour linking AS Monaco to West Bromwich Albion’sco. The French principality club had used £50 million of owner Dmitriy Rybovlev’s oil-money to sign Radamel Falcao in the summer, but have now allegedly turned their attentions to the rather cheaper option of Berahino, the nationalised immigrant from Burundi who earns a paltry £850 a week on his current deal at the Hawthornes.
Berahino had just scored his second league goal of a season for a West Brom side who sit eleventh in the Premier League table after arresting a slow start to the season with a run of just one defeat in seven games. It is Berahino who best epitomises the respectable, unsung job Steve Clarke continues to do in the West-Midlands, building a progressive, well-equipped side on a modest budget. Finishing eighth in his first season in charge after spending just £4 million in the summer, Clarke was given a bigger wallet this year by chairman Jeremy Peace, spending £12 million on the likes of Victor Anichebe and Stephane Sessegnon.
There was a fear that the absence of Romelu Lukaku, who chose Everton as his preferred loan destination for this season after scoring 17 goals for the Baggies last season, would have a destabilising effect, but Clarke has found a gem in Berahino. After coming to England to seek asylum from war-torn Burundi, the striker joined Pheonix United before moving to West Brom’s Centre of Excellence aged 12. Signing his first professional contract in the summer of 2011, he is now on the verge of an England call-up after his blistering form which has seen him score 6 goals in 9 games, including a League Cup hat-trick against Newport. Furthermore, his impressive goal-scoring rate has translated to his time with the England under-21s, managing four from his first three caps with Gareth Southgate’s team.
His rise has been noticed by Roy Hodgson, familiar with Berahino after his time as a manager at the Hawthornes, and now looks set to hand him his first senior call-up as England prepare to take on Germany and Chile in World Cup warm-up friendlies. All this while Clarke is urging caution
“My own personal opinion is that he is not quite ready for full international football. It is not for me to tell Roy how to do his job, but that is my personal opinion” he said, “People are trying to push him too far too quickly. Give the boy time to grow and develop.”
His latest goal against Crystal Palace, a clinical finish after controlling a cross from Sessegnon, suggests he is doing just that, very quickly. Much to the satisfaction and the annoyance of Clarke of course, who will surely have to hand Berahino a much improved wage in order to fend off the growing interest from Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton.
James Morrison, the creative Scotsman who occupies West Brom’s right spot, has been particularly glowing in the commendation of his young team-mate, saying his form is a result of an improved attitude.
“He was a bit big-time really,” said Morrison. But he has realised that and since then has never looked back and been a model professional. He has worked extremely hard, come back in pre-season and lost a lot of weight and looks fit”
Also significant about Berahino’s strike against Palace was not only that it came as a substitute, similar to the goal he scored against Manchester United at Old Trafford, but for the identity of the man he came on for. Billy Jones’s pulled muscle meant that for the first time this season, Clarke’s back-line of Jones, Gareth McAuley, Jonas Olsson and Liam Ridgwell was disbanded.
Only 5 sides have conceded less than the 10 they have shipped and if they had not met Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge in such dazzling form when they traveled to Anfield, it would have been a more impressive tally. Settled continuity has been the theme behind their solid start, as well as the fine protection offered to them by the midfield duo of Claudio Yacob and Youssuf Mulumbu.
Yacob, one of last year’s top signings after arriving on a free transfer from Racing Avellaneda, has continued his excellent form, boasting a 90% pass success rate as well as averaging a healthy 3.6 tackles per game, 36 in total. He is the best at the club in both statistics with Mulumbu alongside him registering 21 tackles and 35 interceptions so far. It is a solid, settled partnership, they have been separated for just 2 of their opening 10 games, snappy in the tackle and tenacious, a fiercely competitive spine that has been assembled on just £175,000, the fee West Brom paid Paris St Germain for the services of Mulumbu back in 2009.
They have all provided the stable foundations to allow the attacking quality of the excellent Sessegnon and Berahino to thrive, as well as that of Morgan Amalfitano, the 28 year old loanee from Marseille, who has been a revelation with 2 goals, 2 assists and created 16 chances so far. Only 10 goals have been scored, spread out between just 6 scorers, though in the likes of Shane Long, Nicolas Anelka,Victor Anichebe, Scott Sinclair operating as back-up to Sessegnon, Berahino and Amalfitano, Clarke can be assured that he has enough strength in depth to suggest that the dearth of goals won’t be a problem for too long. The games with Manchester United and Arsenal saw them register 12 shots on goal in both, 4 points the reward for impressive attacking freedom and fearless confidence.
The win at United, a display of calculated counter-attacking, reaped their first victory at Old Trafford in 35 years. There assured display was indication of the shift in mentality at the club, from perennial yo-yo club (a tag fitting with their “Boing Boing” adage) to consolidated Premier League outfit, they are now looking upwards under an ambitious Clarke.
His work on constructing a deeply talented squad which soundly mixes top-flight experience with the raw potential of the young, all on a wage bill that stood at just £48.3 million as recently as February, has been astute and commendable. Due a fair amount of credit for that has been Peace, the chairman who has not only run the club eminently, but also attracted the likes of Anelka and Diego Lugano to the club while strictly maintaining a wage bill that runs at a 75% proportion to their turnover. Peace has only had to sack one manager, Roberto Di Matteo, since the Italian directed them to the Premier League two years ago, Hodgson’ departing the club to take the job of England coach. The FA’s appointment of Dan Ashworth to the post of Head of Elite Development after 8 years with the Baggies is reflective of the brilliant job done behind the scenes which is now beginning to bear fruit in the likes of Berahino.
Many will hold disappointment at the lack of home-grown talent being nurtured at West Brom’s academy in recent years, though it will be hoped that the emergence of Berahino, plus the £3 million a-year investment pledge after the £2.5 million renovation work at their Great Barr training ground was handed category one status in the FA’s Elite Player Performance Plan, will be a significant boost for the club’s progression. Clarke and Peace will be optimistic that it will change the fortunes of a facility that lost 16 year-old Isiah Brown and attracted interest from the bigger sharks of Arsenal and Liverpool in 14 year old Yan Dhanda. The latter saw the chairman so incensed that he threatened to scrap the club’s youth system.
Those currently receiving coaching at the site in Halfords Lane will be inspired by Berahino’s climb to the top that started off against the odds, bringing to the assurance of many that a breakthrough into a Premier League side should not be an unreachable dream. With Clarke running the club with sound judgement underneath the discerning ownership of Peace, there will be plenty of incentive for the next generation of players. For now though, things are looking very bright for West Brom.