"Youssouf who?" was the thought of most Albion fans when young Democratic Republic of Congo international midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu arrived at The Hawthorns on loan from Paris-Saint Germain in January 2009. He featured sporadically for the remainder of that Premier League season which ultimately ended with relegation to The Championship, but over the last two seasons, he has become one of the best, most highly-rated players in our squad.
In truth, he was never given much of a chance to establish himself for the remainder of the 2008/09 season, as he suffered a succession of injuries which prevented him from making his debut until April in a 2-2 draw away at Portsmouth.
Once the season was over, most supporters forgot about Mulumbu and instead concerned themselves with wondering whether the likes of Robert Koren (now at Hull City) and Chris Brunt would still be at the club to try and help us achieve promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
However, whilst transfer speculation surrounding some of our better players was gathering pace in the local and national media at the start of pre-season, Mulumbu displayed the kind of commitment which has endeared him to supporters ever since. Despite still being contracted to Paris-Saint Germain in France, he returned to pre-season training with Albion in the hope that he would be able to earn a contract. Thankfully, new Head Coach at the time Roberto Di Matteo recognised this commitment and offered Mulumbu a permanent contract which was signed on 10th July, after agreeing a fee of around £175,000 with Paris-Saint Germain.
The young midfielder was not guaranteed a starting place at the beginning of the season, but got given a chance in our opening league game at home to Newcastle United and took it, putting in a Man of the Match performance and really making supporters sit up and take notice of his undoubted ability.
This performance helped him become a regular for the rest of the season and had it not been for the outstanding form of Graham Dorrans, Mulumbu would probably have ended up gaining even more plaudits than he received from supporters and team-mates alike.
His one weakness in The Championship was that his distribution was occasionally not as good as perhaps it needed to be, particularly when you consider how important it is for defensive midfielders to not lose possession on the edge of their own penalty area. This slight weakness led to some supporters suggesting that he may not be able to make the step up to the Premier League, as better players would be able to punish these lapses in concentration.
However, had it not been for the occasional injury and a couple of suspensions, it is certainly reasonable to assume that Mulumbu would have been an ever-present in our midfield throughout last season in the Premier League. His tough-tackling and work ethic makes it difficult for any opposing midfield players to really control the pace of the game, with his exuberant celebrations and genuine appreciation of the fans who travel up and down the country every week making him a firm fans' favourite at The Hawthorns.
Despite scoring only three goals in The Championship, he scored a very impressive total of seven in the Premier League, making him our second-highest scorer behind Peter Odemwingie. This shows that whilst Mulumbu does an excellent job in a defensive midfield role, there may be the potential for him to be moved further forward into a more attacking position if he continues to develop this side of his game.
Goals such as his winner against Aston Villa at The Hawthorns and the other qualities I have mentioned helped Mulumbu to win both Player of the Year awards last season (Supporters and Players), despite the form of the likes of Odemwingie, who scored 15 league goals in his first season with the club. However, the consistency which Mulumbu showed throughout last season means that his Player of the Year awards are both richly-deserved.
So, how far can Mulumbu go in the game? It was rumoured that Bayern Munich were interested in signing him earlier in the summer, although they would have to pay several times more than the £1.5m being quoted in the national paper which started the rumour. However, as with any talented player at pretty much any club, it is inevitable that eventually an offer will come in which may be too good to refuse. At the age of 24, he has made 178 career appearances and is captain of the Democratic Republic of Congo national side. With this kind of pedigree, every Albion fan should make the most of having Mulumbu at the club, because another season like last season could see his stock rise incredibly highly in the game.
For the time being though, he is an Albion player and will be part of the spine of the team again next season as we look to build on finishing 11th in the Premier League last season.