A look back at a triple-promotion winner
THE arrival of Chelsea on Sunday afternoon, along with the trials and tribulations currently surrounding their captain John Terry, takes the mind back to one of the great Albion stalwarts of recent times, Neil Clement.
A graduate of the Chelsea youth system, Neil was a contemporary of Terry’s and, perhaps, a victim of his friend’s ability, Terry thrusting himself forward into the first tem spotlight, preventing Clem from doing likewise given that no Premier League would be looking to field two such youthful centre-backs in tandem.
The barriers to entry at Stamford Bridge proved to be a blessing for the Albion for, as we embarked on a history defining struggle to avoid the drop at the end of 1999/2000, we were able to bring Neil to The Hawthorns as one of the “famous five” deadline day signings who helped haul us away from the brink of oblivion and set us on our way back to the top.
Clem initially came in as an on loan left-back, but we sagely made the move permanent that summer, setting in train the events that would create one of the great Albion careers of the 21st century so far.
As we moved to a 5-3-2 system, Neil began to excel as the left sided centre-back, sometimes moving across to play as a marauding wing-back instead. He was learning as he went along, there was inevitably the odd error here and there, but week after week, Clement grew in stature, becoming an ever more reliable presence at the back.
And then there was that left foot, a wand fit to compare with Chris Brunt’s. Whenever a free-kick arrived within 30 yards of goal, all eyes turned to Neil Clement and, time and again, he delivered, majestically. He could wrap that boot around the ball, caressing it lovingly around the most brick like of walls
That didn’t happen by accident either for after training, especially on Fridays, with everybody else long back in the hutch, Clement would still be out there, bending balls into the postage stamp in the top corner, honing and developing his skill.
A sensitive character, he wasn’t always the cup of tea of choice for the more abrasive Gary Megson, hence the arrival of Paul Robinson, but beneath that reserved exterior was a steely determination and time and again, Clement fought back to regain his place in the Albion team, wherever it might be.
For deep down, nobody cared more than Clem did. Defeats, mistakes, criticism, they all wounded a sensitive character but equally, he was a character that would not crumble in the face of them, life having dealt him far heavier blows than a few ill chosen words.
The game played its tricks on him too as Neil became a martyr to knee injuries that perhaps prevented him reaching his fullest potential, ultimately taking the game away from him as he had to retire far too early.
Each time, until the last, Neil would fight back and reclaim his place in the team, each time upon his return we were happier than ever to see him, not simply because he was one of us, but because he got better than ever with age.
His final bow, the promotion season of 2007/08, told you everything you needed to know about Neil Clement. With the club in turmoil on the opening day, players rushing to leave in the wake of the play-off defeat, we were short handed on the opening day at Burnley. Neil wasn’t even vaguely fit but in extremis he answered the call, got on the bus and played. He had a rough afternoon, but he had been there, he had been a team man, he had done a job. We didn’t see him again for nigh on eight months, a measure of just how out of commission he was on that opening day.
When we saw him again, it wasn’t at The Hawthorns. It was at Wembley Stadium, Clem brought back into the fold for the FA Cup semi-final against Portsmouth. That alone was measure enough of the man.
From there, he played out the rest of the season, a comforting, mature presence at the heart of the defence as Tony Mowbray’s magnificent, wonderfully vulnerable side, took the final steps to the Championship title, Neil becoming the first man to be promoted three times with the Albion in the process.
The trophy was collected, fittingly, at Loftus Road, where Clement’s dad Dave had made his name as a swashbuckling full-back. He left the field after 53 minutes of his 300th appearance for the Albion, to a standing ovation from the travelling Throstletariat. We never saw him again. His career was over.
All too often, it’s only with hindsight that we truly appreciate footballers. Looking back at the career of Neil Clement some seven years since he hung up the boots, there’s only one conclusion to be drawn: he was a truly great Albion man, one of the central figures of the modern era.