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Sep 11, 2012

Peace plan paying off for Baggies

They seem to specialise in good decisions round West Bromwich these days.

A club that endured 16 seasons out of English football's top flight and then spent much of the next decade boing-boinging in and out of it is currently using the soundest business and boardroom wisdom to try to ensure they are now here to stay.

Hard though it is to believe, Albion imploded in 2002 when they first reached the Premier League. So torn apart were they by internal fighting in the aftermath of an unexpected promotion triumph that one chairman sacrificed himself and his successor was left to resolve a row over bonuses that almost led the players to strike.

It was no basis for survival on the pitch and, sure enough, the club went straight down with a bump, an alarming 16 points separating them from the safety line.

There have been three other brief incursions among the elite since, including a second promotion on the CV of Gary Megson, but now comes more than a hint of permanence.

Notwithstanding the fact that their sworn enemies Wolverhampton Wanderers took seven points from their opening three League games last year and still contrived to finish bottom by a distance, Albion are in early-autumn dreamland as they await the resumption of their programme on Saturday. Certainly, they are in uncharted territory: third in the table on the back of the two wins and a draw, which add up to their best start to a top-flight campaign for 34 years.

Through the astute, sometimes distant, chairmanship of Jeremy Peace - that is intended more as a comment on his demeanour than the fact he has an office in London - they have performed brilliantly off the field as well as entertainingly and with no little success on it.

When Bryan Robson oversaw a slow start to the 2006-07 Championship campaign, Peace responded - despite his part in the "Great Escape" and 249 appearances for the club - by sacking him. Tony Mowbray came in and reached a play-off final and an FA Cup semi-final as well as winning a promotion. Good appointment.

Celtic's subsequent call was too great a lure to the North-Easterner, whose departure had Peace and his men peering into the reservoir of available talent once more. Up popped Roberto Di Matteo. Twenty months or so later, he was gone, fired as it happens, but not before winning promotion and making the side at least competitive in the Premier League.

The fact that the Italian has gone on to lift the FA Cup and Champions League adds all the credence necessary to the argument that he, too, was an inspired pick. Which brings us to his successor.

Roy Hodgson was initially tasked with no more than just keeping Albion up. He did that and then some in the three months that remained of 2010-11, then he built on the achievement of that 11th-place finish by bringing them home in tenth spot last season - the club's highest finish in the division since 1980-81.

So Peace's last two departing managers have moved into the No. 1 role with Chelsea and England respectively. That's some endorsement.

Unless we're misreading the signals, his decision-making is to be challenged again shortly. Dan Ashworth, their tireless director of football and a man to whom much of the credit for Albion's rise has gone, locally at least, is expected to announce soon that he intends to link up with Hodgson on the international circuit.

Now, reeling in a manager from a pool packed with men ready to take the bait is one thing. Identifying someone from a much smaller, and more obscure, group to oversee the scouting system and link the football side of the club to the corridors of power is something else altogether.

Steve Clarke's title of head coach is no Hawthorns word game. He is just that. He essentially does the coaching and selects the team, with some of the traditional managerial duties having been hived off and plonked on another desk. This is an important part of the Peace plan. Choosing a man to work effectively above Clarke will be anything other than straightforward but the chairman's impressive track record over a full ten years at the helm suggests the decision is in good hands.

Peace is also reported to have had Ashworth tied to a 12-month notice period. It won't, of course, stop the 65-year-old Hodgson wanting him on board at the FA much sooner than that but it will presumably guarantee Albion some hefty compensation. More sensible planning.

The legacy will also be considerable. Albion, full of flair but also riddled with holes in the Mowbray era, have looked a more solid, better-balanced side ever since he, as one of his final acts, signed Youssouf Mulumbu as a holding midfielder. Paul Scharner performed a similar job at his side until his release in the summer and, now, the signs are that summer recruit Claudio Yacob can blend into the role seamlessly. He looks quite a find from Argentina.

With a strong spine to their team - and the signing of the unheralded Gareth McAuley now leaps out as a masterstroke - Albion's entertainers can get to work. The club's cup is positively running over with attacking options, Romelu Lukaku already having been unleashed twice to great effect from the bench in Premier League games in support of the likes of Shane Long, Peter Odemwingie and Marc-Antoine Fortune. Sweden international Markus Rosenberg remains an untapped talent for now, simply unable to force a way through the logjam.

Late in a summer in which Albion supporters learned that a statue was to be unveiled in West Bromwich town centre of Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson in 2014, the modern breed have had their markers looking like, well, statues.

It's as if the fans have also arrived at a decision - namely that their team are looking like a mid-range Premier League outfit who can score goals, stay afloat again with something to spare and make the wilderness years a distant sad memory.

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