STEVE Clarke hopes his old pal and former Baggies boss Roberto Di Matteo will receive a warm welcome on his first return to The Hawthorns as a manager tomorrow (ko 3pm).
The duo enjoyed a successful time together as players at Stamford Bridge during the 1990s, when Clarke admits he never viewed Di Matteo as a future boss.
But, after a serious injury ended the current Chelsea chief’s playing career, he revealed how he sensed a change in the Italian’s mindset and helped give him a nudge on the coaching ladder.
Di Matteo took the Baggies from the Championship to the top-flight at the first attempt in 2009/10.
He enjoyed some momentous results in the Barclays Premier League but a run of disappointing results cost him his job in January 2011 and he was replaced by Roy Hodgson.
“I would hope Robbie will be warmly welcomed back,” said Clarke.
“He’ll certainly be welcomed back by me and my staff.
“It’s worked out really well for Roberto.
“He’s gone on to manage something that a number of previous coaches couldn’t do.
“And that was to take Chelsea to a Champions League final – and actually win it.
“It was probably painful for Roberto at the time that he lost his job here but he bounced back really well from it.”
He added: “When I played with Roberto I didn’t see him as a future manager, some people you do, but not him.
“He had a really bad injury that ended his career early.
“He was devastated to have to stop early, like most people are in that situation.
“He was really down, took a couple of years out of the game and then, when I was coaching the youth team at Chelsea, he suddenly turned up one day and was standing by my side wanting to know what I was doing.
“He sat on the bench a couple of times and watched a couple of youth team games.
“I think that was his little, gentle introduction back into the game.
“I knew, from speaking to him at that time, he was interested in becoming a coach.
“I’m not surprised he’s done well because he’s a very deep thinker.
“A lot of players in their early to mid 20s don’t really think about stopping.
“You’re emersed in your football career.
“You don’t think about what you’re going to do.
“I didn’t think about becoming a coach until I was the wrong side of thirty.
“Robbie obviously did various things away from football in his couple of years out.
“He obviously missed it and decided to come back in.
“We speak occasionally.
“You don’t get that much time in this job to phone up all your old mates.
“But every now and then you bump into one another and send the occasional text – we keep in touch.
“He’s handled a tough situation at Chelsea very well.
“It doesn’t surprise me because Roberto’s a good man. He’s a decent person, first and foremost, and that’s important.”
Clarke insists beating the Blues would give him no extra satisfaction compared to taking three points off any other team in the Barclays Premier League.
But he admits it would be a proud moment, particularly as the third-placed Blues will be out for revenge after last season’s 1-0 defeat at The Hawthorns.
“If we won it will be slightly different because we’ll be beating a team that is above us in the league,” he said.
“That would be an achievement – something to be really happy about and proud of.
“On a personal level, to beat Chelsea wouldn’t be better than beating anyone else."
He added: “The fact we’ve done so well this season will start to make the games harder for us because people will come here knowing they’re in for a tough afternoon.
“They certainly won’t take us lightly.
“They’ll look at the results we’ve had this season and they’ll remember the fact the last time they came here they got beat.
“So, they will certainly turn up on Saturday knowing it will be tough to win.”