Sport

Stoke Give Berahino the Chance to Mend his Reputation

Saido Berahino holds aloft the Stoke City number nine jersey, a beaming grin etched on his face as camera shutters flick away, capturing the start of a new chapter in the 23-year-old’s career. Berahino cannot help but chuckle when a reporter engages him: “You’re not normally allowed to talk, are you?” The ensuing question, however, confirms suspicion that this represents an opportunity to talk about the past, every bit as much the future; an opportunity to set the record straight now that the shackles are off. But what really went wrong at West Bromwich Albion?

 

In 2011, under Roy Hodgson, Berahino signed a professional contract with West Brom, a club he joined at the age of 11 after impressing in Sunday league. A loan to League Two strugglers Northampton Town followed, and then-manager Aidy Boothroyd recalls a spark of brilliance that forged a more permanent loan, this time at League One Brentford. A goal record of 4 goals in 8 games showed promise, but here lay the first signs of a volatile personality. Berahino was hauled off after 46 minutes in a 2-0 defeat to lowly Leyton Orient in March, and took to Twitter to voice his frustrations in an outburst at manager Uwe Rösler, catalysing a crisis in their relationship that ultimately cut short the loan.

Berahino was rewarded with a contract extension at West Bromwich Albion; an event that, coupled with the departure of Steve Clarke two weeks later, would go on to define his career to date.

Berahino continued his rise up the Football League ladder, and joined Championship Peterborough for the duration of the 2012-13 season, but a long-term knee injury curtailed his stay. He returned to West Brom, now under the tutelage of head coach Steve Clarke. From an early stage Clarke recognised that Berahino was a talent, and the failure to re-sign Romelu Lukaku on loan (17 league goals for West Brom in 2012-13) gave Berahino an opportunity – a full home debut in the League Cup second round against Newport County.  Berahino scored a hat-trick, and then upon graduation to the Premier League, scored the goal that downed Manchester United a month later, announcing his arrival on the big stage.

 

Those performances, plus four goals in three England U21 qualification matches, were rewarded with a contract extension at West Bromwich Albion; an event that, coupled with the departure of Steve Clarke two weeks later, would go on to define the career of Saido Berahino to date. Berahino was a vociferous opponent of Clarke’s sacking (unfortunately, again, via social media), and it is hard to imagine that his replacement Pepe Mel had the same endearment for him, or even retrospectively for the English game, and Mel left the club by mutual consent at the end of the season.

Berahino has done wrong, and Berahino has been wronged. But now, liberated from imprisonment, he is at a cross-road; this doesn’t represent last chance saloon, but it surely can’t be far from it.

Berahino started the 2014-15 season in electric form, and equalled his Premier League tally for the previous season in early October, with braces coming against Sunderland and Burnley, the latter highlighting his first-class movement off the shoulder. He continued to impress, and find the net, but in an unsanctioned Sky Sports interview Berahino expressed a first desire “to move on to bigger things”, exasperating club officials. Beneath the clichés bandied around in the media (‘money-grabber’ etc.) however, there was a naivety in the comments- “I’m pretty sure the fans wouldn’t mind me pushing on and moving on to bigger things,” – a childish trait, typified also by his refusal to celebrate each of his four goals against Gateshead in the FA Cup in January.

 

The transfer rumours continued to intensify on the back of a season tally of 14 Premier League goals, and the West Brom Player’s Player Award to boot. In May Berahino scored twice in a 3-0 victory over newly-crowned champions Chelsea. The first was exceptional; receiving the ball with his back to the goal, Berahino allowed the ball to run across him before turning and curling a pinpoint shot into the far corner, despite barely seeing the goal in the process. Potential suitors queued up for the signature, and Tottenham were seemingly in pole position come August – a strike partner for Harry Kane, whom Berahino eclipsed in the England U21 setup.

 

West Brom stood firm. Berahino handed in a transfer request. Still West Brom stood firm. But now Berahino’s performances began to sour as a result, a trend that would continue to the present day. Tony Pulis began to omit him from his match day squads, deeming the transfer saga “disruptive”, and the situation became untenable upon closing of the transfer window, when Berahino threatened to strike. In angry tweet, Berahino declared he would never play again under Jeremy Peace. Pulis duly obliged, upset at the situation, and between the 31st October and the New Year, Berahino did not start a single game, “lucky to be on the bench” according to his manager.

 

Analyse Berahino’s response to each wave of speculation, however, and an interesting development occurs; a transition from palpable regret to the almost total absence of it, as if something was amiss. In February 2016 Berahino publically apologised to the fans of West Bromwich Albion, to the club “that always believed in me.” There was a sense that perhaps Berahino had retained the same focus that drove his development in the Albion youth ranks. Yet, in the space of a year, that love for the club has dissipated in acrimonious fashion – in his first words as a Stoke City player, Berahino delivered the same apology to the fans, but now stopped short of apologising to the club hierarchy.

There was a naivety in the comments- “I’m pretty sure the fans wouldn’t mind me pushing on and moving on to bigger things”.

Berahino started the first three games of the current season, but was then exiled to train with both the Under-18 and Under-23 teams amid concerns he was overweight, a suggestion he vehemently denies. There is strong suspicion that this may well be a façade, masking a final refusal to sign a new contract at the club behind the scenes. Berahino has undeniably made mistakes, but this time the club hierarchy have let him down, and the media portrayal of him as a troublemaker, has allowed them to do so with no consequence, eroding away his confidence and reputation. Berahino was in dire need of change.

 

Mark Hughes is no stranger to this sort of transfer, and he has looked to instil greater attacking purpose to the Britannia throughout his tenure. Marko Arnautovic, Bojan, Xherdan Shaqiri and Joe Allen all arrived at Stoke City with a point to prove, and have flourished in Hughes’ project. This is the perfect opportunity for Saido Berahino to start talking on the football pitch again, to finally start fulfilling the potential, converting that spark of brilliance into match-winning performances. Berahino has done wrong, and Berahino has been wronged. But now, liberated from imprisonment, he is at a cross-road; this doesn’t represent last chance saloon, but it surely can’t be far from it.

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