And boss reveals secret behind McAuley's impressive top-flight formSTEVE Clarke admits Craig Dawson will face his toughest task yet when he returns from an impressive loan spell at Bolton at the end of the month.
The England Under-21 centre-half has helped the Trotters surge into the Championship play-off places with a series of outstanding displays.
When his time at the Reebok Stadium ends he will be eligible to play in the Baggies’ final four Barclays Premier League games in May – but must first get picked ahead of Player-of-the-Season contenders Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson.
“It's been tough for anyone to get in front of them this season,” said Clarke.
“Gabi Tamas has been working really well in training and any time I've asked him to play he's been excellent.
“But the form of the two centre-backs, Olsson and McAuley, has been top again.
“You look at the way we defend and they're a key part of that.
“For anyone to try to disrupt that partnership will be difficult.
“But what we'd like to do is get Gabi [Tamas] or Craig to a level where they can challenge them and raise their own performances or get someone in who can do even better.
“We want competition for places.”
He added: “Craig is back at the end of the month when his 90 days are finished.
“It’s very possible he will get a chance.
“We’ve had somebody watching every game, I’ve spoken to Dougie Freedman and we’ve had good feedback.
“He’s done well, but we expected him to.
“We have let one of our players drop down to the Championship, one of our good young players, similar to when George [Thorne] went to Peterborough.
“We expected George to do well and he did.
“We have dropped Craig down a level into the Championship and we expected him to do well - and he hasn’t let us down.”
At the other end of the age spectrum the Albion boss has hailed 33-year-old McAuley, who has only missed one Barclays Premier League game this term, as his player of the season.
And he revealed what he considers to be the Northern Ireland international’s secret to success during his first two top-flight seasons.
“Throughout the season the vast majority of the squad have had moments where they've been good and important for the club and for the team,” said Clarke.
“Almost everyone has made a good contribution but if you're looking for consistency over a season then Gareth is a stand-out for me.
“It just goes to prove age is no barrier.
“If you're hungry enough, fit enough and good enough you can be a top player.
“It doesn't matter when you do it.
“He got his chance late to play in the Premier League and he made the most of it. It shows in his performances.
“He's a person who looks after himself well. He looks well, he eats well, he hasn't got a pick of fat on him.
“He's good, he works hard every day in training, he trains the way he plays - at 100 per cent.
“He doesn't shirk on training, he doesn't protect himself - he puts everything in.
"When you have players like that they tend to have longer careers.
“He's probably trained 90 per cent of the sessions this year, which is fantastic for any player, never mind a player everyone keeps saying is a little older.
"You're only as old as your body feels.”