The Premiership Interview: Chelsea educated, but a Baggie through and through

Neil Clement grew up training alongside Gullit, Zola and Vialli, but when the champions visit The Hawthorns today his commitment to West Brom's cause will be total. He talked to Phil Shaw
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Athens, 1994. The England Under-16 squad stroll through the streets, enjoying the historic sights on a balmy evening. Their game with Greece in the Panionos Stadium the following night is the biggest of their fledgling careers.

London, 1996. Chelsea's first-year professionals report for training near Heathrow. They are about to pit themselves against Ruud Gullit's senior players, legends like Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli, Mark Hughes and Dennis Wise.

One player was present on both occasions, although few observers would have identified him as a star of the future. Against the Greeks, he sat on the bench with Daryl Sopp and Anthony Ormerod as Matthew Wicks, John Curtis, Jason Crowe and Elliott Dickman filled the defensive roles. In Gullit's pecking order, he often seemed to be behind Mark Nicholls, Nick Crittenden, Jody Morris, Jon Harley and Rob Wolleaston.

A decade on, Wicks, the England Under-16 player who had the top clubs drooling, sells cars for a living. For him, as for Luke Staton, Paul Heritage and Andrew Wright, the life that appeared there for the taking never happened. The Chelsea boy most likely, Nicholls, is still playing, but for Uxbridge. The link between the squads - the only one from either now performing in the Premiership - is Neil Clement.

As more eye-catching individuals have fallen by the wayside, the 28-year-old utility player goes from strength to strength and will be involved at The Hawthorns this afternoon as Chelsea seek to honour the memory of Peter Osgood by tightening their grip on the Premiership title. These days, however, Clement is a West Bromwich Albion player. More importantly, given Albion's position just above the relegation zone, Clement is a survivor.

The wretched irony of such an epithet is that his father, the former Queen's Park Rangers and England defender Dave Clement, did not survive to see his son uphold the family honour. Depressed after a serious injury that he sustained as a fine career began fizzling out in the Fourth Division at Wimbledon, he took his life. Neil was three years old.

Too young to understand the enormity of what had happened, he and his brother Paul - who was then 10 and is now coaching Fulham's young players - grew up in the Midlands after his mother decided to move from London. "It wasn't particularly a football environment, so maybe it was in the blood," Clement recalls. "Like any kid, I loved the game. And there was always the incentive of following in my dad's footsteps."

In his mid-teens he was offered a scholarship at the FA's National School at Lilleshall in Shropshire. By the second year, his room-mate, Jody Morris, was already attached to Chelsea and told him the club wanted to sign him. "I'd always had a soft spot for QPR because of my dad, and it's an ambition of mine to play for them one day," he says. "But I went down to Stamford Bridge for a look around when I was 15, and of all the clubs that were interested, that was the one that really grabbed me."

Glenn Hoddle was his first manager and Graham Rix the youth coach. Clement liked their methods and the way they primed their teams to play. The progressive approach continued under Gullit, and a certain player provided all the inspiration a budding first-teamer needed. "Zola was the one I looked to in terms of preparation and training. His dedication was frightening. He was immaculate on the practice pitch. Every time he got the ball, it was as if it was the last time he would touch it."

Yet working with stellar talents from France, Italy and elsewhere was a double-edged sword. Clement started out "high on confidence and excited by the prospects", but he sensed over time that he was "trying too hard" during training. Nicholls, in particular, found greater favour with Gullit, while Morris came to be perceived as having the most potential.

Clement started just once in the Premiership for Chelsea, in a 3-1 win over West Ham in 1996. "Zola was unbelievable. He twisted Julian Dicks inside out. The game probably came too soon for me. With hindsight I could have done with my debut coming after I went on loan to Preston, Reading and Brentford. But it was a fantastic experience. I thought I had it in me to play more times, but it's good to be able to say I played for them."

It looks even better on the CV now that Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho have turned Chelsea into champions. Are they recognisable as the club he knew? "When I was there we had some top players. But even in the six years since I left they have moved on and up - the stadium, training ground, players. They could dominate for years."

The odd physio, kit man and coach is still at the Bridge from Clement's five-year stint, but a single player remains, and not the one he and others envisaged as the future of Chelsea. "Jody [Morris] was the outstanding talent as a teenager. He has been unlucky in the way things happened to him off the pitch. The way Chelsea developed as a club didn't help him either. I thought he would kick on when he finally left, but it hasn't really happened for him."

The contemporary who stayed was, of course, John Terry, an occasional golf partner of Clement's. "John was a couple of years younger, though we played in the youth team together. He always loved defending even as a kid. We would be messing about in training and he would throw his body in the way of anything. Totally fearless. But he has taken it on to a different level, the way he reads the game and leads the side."

Clement acknowledges but does not agree with the allegation, repeatedly levelled at foreign-based teams like Chelsea and Arsenal, that they do not give British players a chance. "If you're good enough, you'll get in, as John [Terry] and Ashley Cole have proved. But it is very difficult. Fans at those clubs demand instant success. To get it, they go and buy it."

Not for him the criticism often aired by Jermaine Pennant after his sojourn as the eternal understudy at Highbury. "I don't complain that I never got my chance. I had opportunities. More than anything, though, I got the best footballing education I could possibly have had."

Clement would draw heavily upon it after Gary Megson took him to Albion, initially on loan, during the spring of 2000. Then, as now, the club were embroiled in a fight against relegation - to the third tier of the English game - which they escaped only on the final day. Such late-season drama would become an annual event at The Hawthorns.

"The turnaround has been phenomenal. In my first full season we reached the play-offs. The following year we gained promotion - on the final day again - by beating Crystal Palace. That was probably a bit soon for the club, but you can't turn down the chance when it comes."

Albion went straight back down, then up again, but at the midway point of last season they were favourites for the drop once more. Bryan Robson had replaced Megson as manager, yet crushing defeats cast doubt on his credibility. Clement cites a fixture between Christmas and New Year, at Manchester City, as a collective and personal turning point.

"We didn't have a shot on target but Richard Dunne's own goal equalised for us late on. It started a feeling that maybe it wasn't a lost cause after all. Thomas Gaardsoe got injured that day and I moved to my preferred position at centre-back. I did well and have tended to stay there."

Albion achieved the so-called great escape on the final afternoon, forcing supporters and scribes to re-evaluate Robson's worth. "What he did was give us confidence," explains Clement. "He told us we were good enough to stay up, which perhaps we didn't believe any more.

"He also got us playing better football. We started passing the ball around and creating chances, which we weren't doing under the previous manager. Gary Megson instilled a great work ethic, and we used to try to out-run teams. But we never looked like outscoring them."

Robson's team currently occupy the place where they finished, immediately above the relegation places, but Clement makes sense when he asserts that they are "in a better position than last time". He adds: "We need to put down roots in the Premiership, like Bolton or Charlton. We have to be looking towards the top half rather than the bottom."

In these transient times, many players refer to their employers as "the club" or "they". With Clement, Albion's longest-serving player and often their captain, it is always "we". If he stays until the end of his contract he will have spent a decade there. "Last January I had six months left and I thought I might be leaving, but the manager and the club showed how much they wanted to keep me. I was chuffed to stay.

"I'm even on the club history DVD, Full Throstle. It's great to be part of the traditions, and to have played a part in helping Albion back to where we belong. People have come and gone, the stadium and training facilities have all changed, but I'm still here."

Versatility may be the key to his longevity. "I like central defence or left-back best, but I've also played in centre midfield - I scored at Blackburn in that role in our first-ever Premiership match - and at left wing-back. That's a very tough position to play at this level, especially when opponents play 4-4-2 against you. Their full-backs and wide midfielders double up on you. In the Championship you can play 3-5-2 and get away with it, but the teams we're up against now are too good. The full-backs are happy to bring the ball forward and go two-on-one against you.

"I even played on the right of midfield once, in a vital promotion match against Rotherham. Never again! Not one of my best games. But you will play anywhere to stay in the team. I just want to play as many games as I can. I'd like to play 500 for Albion. I'm already up around 270."

Several of his adolescent colleagues did not manage one, but Clement reflects no less warmly on them. "It doesn't mean that they failed. Some decided football wasn't for them. A lot are doing well in other areas. And people catch up. A kid who was little at 15 can grow taller than the one who was a giant. Others are as fast at 14 as they will ever be."

Growing pains are a problem in the Premiership, too. Albion's ability to get through them successfully may well depend upon the extent to which they can foster Clement's survival instinct.

Like father, like son A player in the image of his old man

"Strong and powerful, a good athlete and a very upright runner, like his dad," says Gerry Francis of Neil Clement. "You can see the resemblance, and not just in his looks. You can tell he's Dave Clement's son."

Francis played with the late Dave Clement for Queen's Park Rangers and England . Neil is left-footed whereas Dave was an overlapping right-back, but intriguingly, given the West Bromwich player's liking for centre-back, his father switched from central defence only after joining QPR in 1965.

Neil knew Dave won five caps, two in World Cup qualifiers against Italy, and that his 405-game sojourn at Rangers included a runners-up spot behind Liverpool in 1976. He had the word of Francis and others that Dave was an outstanding player, but he was too young to have seen him play.

"Dave Sexton, his old manager at QPR, asked John Motson if he could put something together from old video tapes," explains Neil. "I still watch it. But I also meet loads of people who remember him."

Francis, for one. "Dave was a bit older than me, but we both came through the youth team at QPR and played in the same side for 10 years or more. We roomed together, we went on international trips together. I knew his wife, Pat, well and, though I'd moved to Crystal Palace and he was at Wimbledon, they came down to a place I had in the South of France in the summer before his suicide. His death came as a major shock to all of us who were at QPR, and it's still hard to put into words how we felt. "

Francis is glad to see another Clement establish himself at the game's top level. In a strange way, says Neil Clement, he believes his father has, too. "I feel he is with me in spirit and sometimes think he is up there watching over me.

"What's happened has happened, and it's a shame he isn't around to see how me and my brother Paul [a coach at Fulham] have got on. But I'd like to think he would be proud of what I've achieved."

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