These are heady days at The Hawthorns and the man in charge has confounded the bookmakers and pundits
Steve Clarke smiled politely when he was asked what reason he would be giving this week for not taking West Bromwich Albion into Europe. Albion's head coach has his feet firmly on the ground but he is more than happy for others to allow their imagination to run wild on the back of a superb start to the season. "Although everybody is saying stay calm, supporters can get carried away a little bit if they want – they can dream," he said.
These are heady days at The Hawthorns. Albion sit fifth in the table after picking up 20 points from their opening 11 games and welcome Chelsea, the European champions and the club Clarke represented with such distinction as a player, coach and assistant manager for close to 20 years, full of confidence. "Every week we look as though we can get a positive result," Clarke said.
The Midlands club have won five of their six home matches in the league and it is a measure of how well they are playing that it would be no surprise if they repeated the 1-0 victory over Chelsea in March, which led to André Villas-Boas being sacked and Roberto Di Matteo, Albion's former head coach, taking over at Stamford Bridge.
Few envisaged Albion's season panning out this way. Roy Hodgson's departure in May to take over as England manager felt like a major blow at the time and the decision to appoint Clarke in his place appeared, on the face of it, to be a gamble. For all his experience in football, including working alongside José Mourinho, Kenny Dalglish, Gianfranco Zola and Ruud Gullit, Clarke had never managed before. Several bookmakers, as well as pundits, wrote the Scot off and he was installed as second favourite in the sack race before a ball had been kicked.
How times have changed. These days it takes a while to scroll through that list, past Martin O'Neill, Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert, as well as all the usual suspects, before Clarke's name appears in the lower reaches, in an area that may as well be marked "safe as houses".
The 49-year-old has made the transition from No2 to gaffer with the minimum of fuss and, although he inherited a decent squad from Hodgson, who laid solid foundations by leading the club to 11th and 10th place in the Premier League during his 15 months in charge, Clarke has done much more than merely carry on where his predecessor left off.
The supporters have warmed to him and he has quickly earned the respect of the players, who like his humility and have welcomed changes to the training regime. Hodgson's obsession with "shape" and "pattern of play" drills instilled the tactical discipline lacking under Di Matteo and duly reaped rewards. Within the dressing room, though, there is a feeling that training is more enjoyable under Clarke, who places greater emphasis on ball work and likes to set up the sort of sessions Mourinho favoured at Chelsea, where one goal is moved up to the halfway line and the pitch is condensed to encourage plenty of touches and pressing.
The playing style has also been tweaked. Under Clarke, Albion are more incisive in possession and particularly ruthless on the counterattack, which helps to explain why they have made fewer passes per game than they did when Hodgson was in charge. The only match when Albion have had more of the ball than their opponents this season was the 1-0 win over Reading in September. At Wigan last Saturday, Roberto Martínez's side had almost twice as much possession yet Albion won 2-1.
That game was another occasion when Clarke displayed his tactical expertise and also confirmed that he is not afraid to make big decisions. He moved away from his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation and played with two up front for the first time, with Peter Odemwingie, who scored both goals in the 2-0 win against Southampton five days earlier, dropped to the substitutes' bench. At least Odemwingie knew there was a good chance of getting on; Clarke has used all three substitutes in every game this season, which has freshened things up on the pitch and also helped to keep everyone happy.
Some things require little tinkering, in particular Albion's solid defensive spine, which starts with Ben Foster in goal, runs through to the underrated centre-halves, Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley, and has another layer of protection via the excellent holding midfield duo of Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob. Further forward, James Morrison is playing the best football of his career while Shane Long, who has three goals and three assists to his name in the Premier League, is full of aggressive, selfless running.
These are still early days and Clarke was quick to point out that Hull City started like a house on fire four years ago, when their record was identical to Albion at this stage, only to end up surviving by the skin of their teeth after losing at home against Manchester United on the final day, when Phil Brown, their manager, grabbed a microphone and serenaded the fans. Albion host United in the last game of this season, although it is hard to imagine this impressive Baggies side fighting relegation come May or, for that matter, Clarke turning into a karaoke singer.