The joy of Jed Wallace: The heart and soul of West Brom’s revival

The joy of Jed Wallace: The heart and soul of West Brom’s revival

When Jed Wallace first stepped onto West Bromwich Albion’s training ground, club staff were confident they had secured one of the summer’s Championship signings.

Fifty-six combined league goals and assists in his last three seasons at Millwall lured second tier clubs with the slightest chance of landing his services for an approach, with his free agent status only making a deal easier. While his on-field exploits initially put him on the radar, Albion’s superiors place equal value on his reputation as a leader off the field.

With an alarming descent from the safety of the Premier League in the mid-2010s to the league’s mediocrity of today, recruiting new figureheads and dressing room figures with a burning desire to reach the top flight of English football was a priority for then-manager Steve Bruce, Chief Executive Ron Gourlay and the recruiting department. As expected – and desired – he became a key member of the leadership team and perhaps the star of the team almost overnight.

So, with interest from across the league, one has to wonder if thoughts of regret crossed his mind as Albion hit bottom in the championship back in October. A key selling point for Wallace was the potential to play in the Premier League and he joined West Brom because he felt their chances of promotion were higher than almost any other side that had seriously lobbied for his signature.

Despite interest from his former side Millwall, who were trying to keep him, and current leaders Burnley, among many others, Wallace saw a squad, recently bolstered by the signing of his close friend John Swift, with quality and depth enough to turn around to recognize him his dream.

As the season progressed and West Brom’s collective performance declined rapidly, Wallace might have thrown in the towel and given up, which seemed like the impossible. Instead, he continued to demonstrate the principles – relentless running and leadership qualities on the pitch – alongside the technical quality that has made him one of the Championship’s most sought-after players outside of the league from Whitehawk and Farnborough.

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It’s difficult to name many other potentially transformative signings in recent years. While West Brom are still in the bottom half of the table, a far cry from what they expected ahead of the season’s start in late July, Wallace’s character has such an unequivocally positive impact on a dressing room that many fans began to lose confidence.

There may have been players with more talent than Wallace, but could his career in the West Midlands match Gareth McAuley’s? Of course, they play in completely different positions, but like Wallace, McAuley came from the bottom half on a free transfer from a Championship team and immediately won the hearts and minds of fans by showing himself as a class both on and off the field.

While an arm around a younger player’s shoulder endears him to team-mates, coaches and fans, moments like his post-match interview after Albion’s 2-1 win over Sunderland really capture what makes him unique. With children Jack Johnson, Thomas Stewart and brothers Finlay and Samuel Butler tragically dying earlier this month at Babbs Mill Lake in nearby Solihull, an emotional Wallace dedicated the win to them. He also honored the life of Julian Widdowson, the club doctor, who died in the days leading up to the game.

Carlos Corberan was impressed by the human side of his entire group of players – not just Wallace. “I work with a group of players with human values,” says Corberan the athlete. “I can’t name you a player who isn’t in the same dynamic as the rest. Everyone has different personalities and some show more emotion than others, but the human value of this group is so high. That is very important in order to be able to keep up in football.”

West Brom, Rotherham

West Brom’s 3-0 win over Rotherham left them 16th in a crowded Championship standings but just five points from the play-offs (Picture: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Still, it would be remiss not to mention how good Wallace was on the pitch. If Albion were to hand over a first-half player, he would undoubtedly be the unanimous and undisputed recipient. He is the club’s top scorer (four) and top assist provider (five) and added to his goal tally on Saturday with a brilliant left-footed shot that opened the scoring in the 3-0 win over Rotherham. He also delivered a typically spot-on cross to Grady Diangana, which he converted in the second half just after the winger came on as a substitute.

“I think it was the best game I’ve seen from him since I got here,” says Corberan. “Today his commitment to the team and his attacking actions were fantastic. He was one of the better players when it came to crossing, finishing and getting in.”

With the 3-0 win over Rotherham at the weekend, initial rumors of an unlikely promotion are growing into confident conversations on the terraces of The Hawthorns. A win against Coventry City on Wednesday puts the club in eighth place, two points away from the play-offs with half the league season remaining. Although Corberan is on an upward trajectory with quality abounding, he is nonetheless firmly focused on keeping his players’ feet on the ground.

“We know where we were when I got here at the club,” he says. “We know that in the championship you can break this positive dynamic as soon as you’re not at the right level in a game.

“We want to remain competitive, be an important team and a team with a winning mentality. It is not always to observe the future, but to observe the past. We will not forget the situation in which we started quickly because we have to protect ourselves from everything.”

Manage expectations all you want, Mr. Corberan, but the results speak for themselves: Albion are the best team in the league. With high-profile players like Wallace, Tom Rogic and Okay Yokuslu at the top of their games, a fanbase accustomed to Championship promotions dares to dream.

(Top Photo: Gustavo Pantano/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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