LEON CLARKE is one of those players who needs an arm around him. And boy is he feeling the love right now at Bramall Lane.
Fair to say the 32-year-old striker has finally been granted Sheffield United citizenship. It has been a long time coming for the former Sheffield Wednesday man. His arrival in the summer of 2016 from Bury where he scored 18 goals in 37 league appearances, was greeted with a resigned shrug of the shoulders by many Blades. Hostility from some.
By the end of last March that feeling of inertia was overwhelming as Clarke managed just three goals from 19 injury interrupted appearances. The player’s naturally lazy-looking style and his monotone Midlands accent didn’t help.
Interviewed after joining United which, with all due respect to Bury, is the difference between booking a bed and breakfast and reclining in a bubble bath at a luxury spa hotel, Clarke managed to convey the same enthusiasm as he would for opening the latest gas bill.
It was always going top be gamble, but the man who signed him, Chris Wilder, had faith he could get the best out of a wildcard. “You get ups and downs over the course of a season and, let’s be honest, I heard plenty of people saying Billy [Sharp] was not what he was at the beginning [of the season],” said the Blades boss before Clarke had come good last season.
“I don’t hear many saying that now. Leon is a damn good player, as some of his finishes have shown. He’s also proved his commitment to this football club by playing through injury.”
Leon Clarke, gloves and all, in his trademark celebration pose but in a Sheffield Wednesday shirt.
Perception began to change when Clarke returned to full fitness towards the end of last term, weighing in with six goals in five matches. Even so, he still hadn’t won over the majority. Yes, but he’s past it. He’s injury prone, his attitude is still suspect; he will never make the grade in the Championship. A widely held view.
Five appearances into the new season, no goals, a red card for utter stupidity and another injury later, appeared to be confirmation. Out he stepped at Hillsborough, the only fully fit striker as United struggled for personnel up front. Skipper Sharp, “two weeks into a four-week injury” said boss Chris Wilder, and Ched Evans in need of an ankle operation and “50 to 60 per cent fit”, nevertheless sat on the bench.
Anxious supporters need not have worried. Clarke stepped up the plate. Big time. A total of four well executed goals against former clubs Wednesday and then Wolves at the Lane three days later cemented his status as a fully paid-up member of the Blades Union.
His midweek brace against the big-spending promotion favourites from his birthplace, lifted United to second in the table, one point behind leaders Cardiff City. Clarke was substituted with 11 minutes of normal time remaining amid a standing ovation.
Including that late flourish to United’s League One title season, the striker’s stats now for his last 13 outings reads scored ten. Compare that to master marksman Sharp who has accumulated 55 goals since rejoining the Blades in 2015 but two less than Clarke in his last 13 matches.
Clarke, acknowledging the scepticism that has accompanied him, said after the victory over Wolves: “Every time I go out on the pitch it is a chance to impress and show up a few people who maybe don’t think I can play at this level.
“I am very settled here – probably the most settled I have been in a long, long time. I enjoy coming into work and it is one of the best set of lads I have worked with throughout my career – and I have been at a lot of teams, played with a lot of players and been with a lot of different squads.
Finding a home hasn’t been easy for Clarke. Since turning professional in 2003 as a trainee at Wolves, he has played for 16 other clubs and been loaned out on 11 occasions. In that time he has commanded just three transfer fees.
Wolves, who sent him to three clubs before parting company for a nominal fee when Wednesday signed him in 2007, paid League One Coventry City £750,00 seven-and-a-half years later. Lured by 18 goals in 27 outings for the Sky Blues in 2013-14 by early January. His return to Molineux didn’t go well. After Wolves went on to win promotion to the Championship, Clarke was loaned to Wigan before joining Bury on a free transfer.
Outwardly Clarke is a singularly strong, often stubborn, character. But behind the mask he is much more complex man. He has tried, tested and frustrated many managers who have often regarded him as selfish and immature.
Wilder with his no nonesense approach and public loyalty to the player, however, has elicited a response which is now paying dividends.
His dismissal last month after grabbing Barnsley captain Angus MacDonald by the throat is evidence that an unpredictable short fuse remains. Noticeably, despite clearly letting the side down, Wilder refused to admonish his player, claiming quite wrongly it was Clarke, not MacDonald also dismissed for retaliating, who was the victim.
Man management at work and it is clearly working for Leon.