SIX MONTHS into a three-year contract and Leon Clarke’s Sheffield United future appears to be hanging precariously in the balance.
Manager Chris Wilder is making supportive noises about the injury-prone striker who celebrates his 32nd birthday on Friday, but it is increasingly difficult to see where he fits in.
The former Sheffield Wednesday journeyman thought he had secured much needed stability when moving to Bramall Lane for a six-figure fee last July, his 17th club in a chequered career that has included 11 loan moves and four free transfers. Maybe he has found a home but if he chooses to see out his contract it is likely he will spend the the next two-and-a-half years on the training ground at Shirecliffe iinterrupted by an odd cameo appearance from the bench.
This is the only logical conclusion to be drawn, especially since the arrival of James Hanson from Bradford City who made such an influential start to his Blades career and scored in the 4-0 demolition of AFC Wimbledon at the Lane.
That along with the exciting development of Caolan Lavery who struck a peach of a goal on Saturday and is starting to live up to the promise that persuaded Wilder to sign him in the summer, has pushed Clarke further down the pecking order as a partner for 19-goal top scorer Billy Sharp. Matt Done, who has fallen out of favour and Marc McNulty recalled from a loan spell at Bradford, are also in the mix and far less prone to injury.
“We brought Leon in because we needed an alternative to go through,” said Wilder. “It’s unfortunate for him because his season has been stop start with injury. He’s a good kid, he wants to do well but he’s never got going yet with injury.
“Leon’s commitment to this club is not in doubt. He’s shown that by playing through injury in the past when he didn’t have to. He did it because he wanted to help out and wants the team to do well. That’s the measure of him.”
You would expect nothing less from the Blades boss, after all you don’t kick a man when he’s down. You offer encouragement. Wilder’s United reign has been almost flawless but there is no getting away from the fact that signing Clarke, with the benefit of hindsight, was a big mistake and now he has been left behind. Apart from emergency cover can anyone imagine the striker realistically establishing a first team place?
Wilder cited the reason for Clarke’s poor start at Bramall Lane was due to fitness issues and a troublesome ankle problem which revealed a chipped bone following scans. It calls into question if Clarke was ever fully fit in the first place. Those problems have continued and trying to play through the pain barrier hasn't helped
It has also been difficult for Clarke off the field. His 50-year-old father, Darel, died after being punched in a Wolverhampton pub on New Year’s Eve in 2015 which knocked him out. On regaining consciousness he went outside and then fell off a bike, hitting his head and was rushed to hospital with a bleed on the brain. Two days later his life support machine was turned off.
A coroner recorded an open verdict on the cause of death just hours before Clarke remarkably played in United’s infamous 3-0 home defeat to Southend in August. His commitment is unquestionable.
But despite fitness worries, the striker who attracted United’s attention after scoring 18 goals for Bury last season, has managed just three for his new club in 19 appearances, 10 of them from the bench. Of all of United’s strikers, he and Sharp have failed to establish a rapport on the field and look like strangers when paired up.
“There a lot of nonsense spoken that Leon and Billy can’t play together,” said Wilder in December. “For me, it’s absolute garbage.” So much so that since then Wilder has felt the need to add a further two strikers to his arsenal and bemoaned the fact that apart from Sharp the others haven’t been doing their jobs.
Less than a fortnight ago after a 2-2 home draw with Gillingam, Wilder was less forgiving. He said: "Leon may feel a little hard done by today because he’s not been involved and he’s been injured, but he’s had opportunities. We should have someone up there alongside Billy. Billy has chances he scores and that [his strike partners’ failure] is letting us down at the moment.”
Clarke and Hanson, 6ft 2in and 6ft 4in respectively, are big men but very different players. Hanson offers a physical, no-nonesense presence; Clarke for all his stature does not excel at that aspect of the game.
“He is widely recognised as one of the top centre-forwards in the division and he will complement what we have," said Wilder back in July. That statement looks hollow now.
Similarly a great deal of expectation has been heaped on the shoulders of £150,000 arrival Hanson. The difference being the 29-year-old has achieved in 90 minutes what Clarke has taken 16 league appearances to do – score a goal. Hanson’s overall contribution was impressive, too. It’s early days but he demonstrated he is a good foil for Sharp and substitute Lavery, something despite Wilder's protestations Clarke is clearly not.
“Sometimes circumstances are out of your control and at other times you move to play football rather than sitting back to pick up your money,” said Clarke shortly after arriving at the Lane, fingers crossed that his man-in-a-suitcase lifestyle was over.
Unfortunately, he’s unexpectedly reached another crossroads in a career that’s had far too many.