AT the ripe old age of 33 Leon Clarke is enjoying the best season of a professional career spanning 15 years and 17 clubs. That is in no small part due to the kid gloves treatment, no pun intended, he continues to receive from his boss.
There are many things remaining unsaid at Bramall Lane as Sheffield United make their final push to secure a play-off birth. The way Chris Wilder is handling Clarke, voted this week by fellow professionals into the PFA Championship team of the year (see below), and a dogged refusal to lose faith offers a glimpse into restrictions the manager is working under.
He says he has no favourites and never will have. The old maxim that you are only as good as your last performance is a centrepiece of his philosophy. One that continually gets results and is widely accepted and respected by his players.
But while other strikers, particular captain Billy Sharp, regularly pay the price for letting chances go begging and are called out as such, Clarke has been allowed free passage in an ever-present role, barring injury or suspension, based on the hope he can recreate his spectacular form of early season. So much so that until recently only one goal in 15 appearances hasn’t once cost him his starting place, brought about his substitution or even a cross word.
What does that say about what Wilder thinks of his forward options, or lack of them? Of what should happen over the summer? If United were to make it to the Premier League it goes without saying that a new strike force will be needed.
But what if they remain in the Championship and, unlike this season, promotion is the expectation from kick-off not an aspiration? Is it likely that Clarke, or even Sharp will be first choices to spearhead the challenge?
Having accrued 31 goals between them with three matches of the regular season remaining, the answer to the latter may well be yes. But after a flying start, missed opportunities in front of goal have been a consistent let-down from otherwise promising performances. Clayton Donaldson, who can maybe count himself unlucky, Ched Evans and Manchester United loanee James Wilson, both with fitness issues, have not provided an answer. It is unlikely Wilder, given the proper funding, would not seek to address the problem.
Meanwhile, he appears to have adapted his golden rule to extract the best from a man whose personality and confidence level is as complex as a spider’s web. What is the norm for others is not for Clarke. Mind games and an arm around the shoulder are at play, along with the captaincy in Sharp’s absence.
True to Wilder’s uncanny knack of extracting the maximum out of what he has to work with, it is paying off again. For which Clarke, taking nothing away from his achievement this season, must be thankful. He is back on the goal trail with three in his last four appearances.
It is a measure of Clarke’s impact earlier on that despite the barren spell that followed, as United prepare for their trip to Birmingham he remains one goal behind Derby County’s Matej Vydra, the Championship’s leading marksman.
United’s born-again striker now needs another to overhaul his biggest tally in a season to date, amassing 18 for Coventry City in 2014. He bagged 17 at Bury prior to signing for the Blades in the summer of 2016.
Both were in League One. His record equalling 18th goal against Millwall last weekend came, of course, in the Championship. Viewed in perspective that has to be regarded as a superior feat when taking the quality of the opposition into account.
Clarke, beset by injury problems last season and regarded by many onlookers as not up to the job, offered a glimpse at the tail end of United’s League One title-winning campaign of what was to come. Fully fit he returned to the team, scoring six goals in seven appearances to finish with nine.
He then made a seamless transition to the next level and by early December was the Championship’s leading scorer with 14, including all four (4-1) against Hull City at Bramall Lane.
Blades fans blinked in amazement. The former Sheffield Wednesday striker previously regarded by many as lazy was now producing high energy performances, establishing himself as a firm favourite with the fans.
Clarke deserves his PFA accolade. Whatever the outcome this season holds he has been a major part of United’s extraordinary return to the Championship on limited financial resources. Wilder will be keeping his fingers crossed that the man who celebrated his 33rd birthday in February, still has a big say before the end of the month. He could yet finish as the league’s top scorer and the more the merrier Blades fans will be.
A player who is at last enjoying his day in the sun.
PFA CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM OF THE YEAR:
GK | John Ruddy (Wolves)
DEFENCE | Ryan Fredericks (Fulham) Sol Bamba (Cardiff ) Willy Boly (Wolves) Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham)
MIDFIELD | James Maddison (Norwich) Rúben Neves (Wolves) Tom Cairney (Fulham)
FORWARDS: | Bobby Reid (Bristol City) Leon Clarke (Sheffield United) Matěj Vydra (Derby)