DESPITE Albion currently sitting in fifth place, Steve Clarke has dismissed talk of his team participating in European competition next season as hugely premature – but it is a dream that was realised by the Baggies’ Academy last weekend.
A mix of under-11s and under-12s players travelled to the continent to compete in the Premier League’s Christmas Truce Tournament – a unique international youth development competition which honours the sacrifice made by football players during World War I.
Last year’s winners Manchester United were the only other English club in attendance and the young Baggies joined representatives from Belgium, France and Germany in the Belgian town of Ypres after winning a six-team play-off tournament in November.
As part of the trip, Albion’s players visited the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing, a monument dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient, whose graves are unknown.
But there was added poignancy for the club's youngsters. Harold Bache, a former Baggies player, died at Ypres in 1916 and his name is listed on the monument alongside 57,000 other fallen soldiers.
Last Friday, the club's players visited and laid flowers at the site of the Christmas Truce, where allied soldiers and German troops played football in ‘no man’s land’ on Christmas Day 1914.
They were then joined by representatives from Manchester United, Anderlecht and Beerschot for a memorial service in honour of second lieutenant Bache at the Menin Gate, where George Harman, Finn Azaz and Rayhaan Tullock (pictured top) laid a wreath and Albion shirt - printed with 'Bache 1916' on the reverse.
Finn was chosen for the honour as he attends Harold’s former school, King Edward’s, in Birmingham, while George delivered a moving speech about Harold.
When the tournament got underway, the Baggies won one and lost two of their group fixtures before suffering penalty shootout heartbreak in their final fixture against French outfit Valenciennes.
Albion were defeated 3-0 by Belgian side Beerschot in their group opener and then fell to a dramatic 4-3 loss to FC Bruges. The Baggies were 3-1 ahead thanks to a Rayhaan Tullock brace and a Levi Hudlin strike only to be defeated in the final moments of the game.
James Rowland’s solitary strike earned Albion a 1-0 victory over Schalke in their final group game, before they lost on penalties in the seventh-place play-off.
Albion Academy's head of education, Mike Scott, believes the coaching staff and players alike learned a great deal from their visit to Ypres.
“It was an incredible experience," said Mike.
"We all learned a great deal about the history of the First World War and how so many football clubs have a link to the Menin Gate Memorial.
“For our Academy, it was an honour to be able to educate our players and also remember a former Albion player in Harold Bache who lost his life while serving his country.
“It is a fantastic event that is organised by the Premier League and is a great advert to show how football and education can develop a greater understanding of the importance of shared histories.”
Unfortunately, due to the European age categories being in operation and not those employed in Academy fixtures, only two of the under-12s players who helped Albion qualify for the Christmas Truce Tournament were eligible to appear in Ypres.
This meant that the squad Albion fielded was largely made up of under-11s players.
However, the under-12s players who were too old to appear still made the trip and took part in an exhibition match against Ypres under-13s, which they won 5-3.