LEON CLARKE can hardly have imagined that at the age of 32 he would be enjoying the best days of his football career.
But that is exactly what has happened to the striker, at his 17th club and who crowned the most memorable 90 minutes of his life at Bramall Lane on Saturday. His four second-half goals put paid to Hull City who had taken an early lead and moved United up to second in the Championship table.
“If you look at Leon for consistency he possibly should have been playing in this division for a lot longer than he has been,” said Blades boss Chris Wilder. “I’ve said all along when we got him in that he was going to be a big player for us and he’s certainly turning out to be one.”
For much of Clarke’s time at the Lane after signing from Bury in the summer of 2016 it didn’t look that way. Injuries and a wrongly perceived lack of desire didn’t endear him to supporters. Add the burden of having to overcome being a former Sheffield Wednesday player and by early April the future didn’t look bright for Leon despite the manager’s unwavering support.
That quickly changed with six goals in five appearances towards the end of last season’s promotion campaign and Clarke has picked up where he left off. Now United’s top scorer with eight, one short of last season’s total, he had become a Kop hero even before Saturday’s extraordinary performance.
“Just look at the reception Leon got,” added Wilder. “Ive been down here a long time and I can’t remember anyone getting a reception like that.
“He could have scored six. He got into the box, his all round play was excellent. He will take the credit absolutely 100 per cent and deservedly so. He’s the star of the show tonight.”
Clarke is a complex character who needs to feel the love. Often beset by personal problems and known for having a short fuse on the pitch, he finally appears to have found a place he can call home. If you include his late burst last season, the striker has scored 14 goals from his last 19 appearances.
He puts his new-found form down to purely being given an opportunity to play on a regular basis. “It’s been a long time since I can remember that I’ve played so many games in a row,” he said. “The teams where I have been in the past where I have played 15, 25 games I’ve scored goals. When I was at Bury I scored 20-plus goals and that was missing almost three months of the season as well through personal problems. Southend was the same, Scunthorpe was the same. It’s just playing games consistently.”
Confident in his own ability, Clarke is also remarkably humble. “All I do is try to work hard. I have to win a lot of headers. I just try my best like all the rest of the lads in the team do as well. They give it their all and we’re all on the same wavelength.”
He added: “The first part of defence is attack. I try to harry defenders, I try to close them down and put a lot of pressure on them so they’re hopefully going too make mistakes. Hopefully the midfield and the defenders are backing up behind me so they can pick up the second balls.”
The striker says he’s not surprised that United occupy an automatic promotion spot with little over half the season remaining. “There’s nobody to fear in the league,” he said. “We know if keep doing what we’re doing we’ll go a long way.”
Keith Edwards, the last Blade to score four goals at the Lane before Clarke, echoed the views of many fans as an outspoken sceptic in the player’s early days. Not least because of his temperament. Clarke provoked a needless red card earlier this season. He is now one booking away from automatic suspension after collecting his fourth yellow card on Saturday, again which could have been easily avoided. But Edwards has been won over.
“The variety of the goals Leon scored were exceptional,” said the man who hit four against Gillingham in the old Division Three, now League One, in 1983. “The technical strength he showed to put the first three away was superb. If there was ever any doubt, he’s just proved out there what a fine player he is.”