UPDATE: Clarke has joined Wigan Athletic on loan until the end of the season. United have signed Aston Villa striker Scott Hogan on a loan for the rest of the Championship campaign.
IF Leon Clarke had any doubts about leaving Sheffield United, his manager Chris Wilder’s reaction to the likelihood told you everything you need to know.
Asked about Clarke’s omission from the squad for the trip to Norwich City, Wilder said: “There’s been a few enquires with Leon so we left him out of the squad today. I’m not saying he would be in the 18 anyway because I’ve still got a difficult decision to pick the right subs as well for different games.
“Conor Washington would have been in the 18 today so Leon wouldn’t have been so he stayed at home. We’ve had a few enquires regarding Leon and we’ll let you know when anything concrete happens.”
Time off, then, to ponder his future as United, including latest strike addition Gary Madine who made his full debut alongside Billy Sharp, headed to Carrow Road. Sharp equalised twice to earn a well earned point in a 2-2 draw which lifted the Blades to third, three points behind Norwich and six off leaders Leeds United.
With Wilder still hoping to sign a quality striker before the window closes at 11pm on Thursday and lift the promotion push, it sounds very much as if Clarke, 34 in February, who only last season was the darling of Bramall Lane top scoring with 19 goals, is now surplus to requirements.
Aston Villa’s Scott Hogan is reported to be a target. The 26-year-old Republic of Ireland international, who Villa paid £9m to Brentford two years ago, is said to have fallen out of favour after a series of niggling injuries. He has yet to score this season, having made only nine appearances.
Thirteen months ago, having established himself as one of the Championship’s hottest properties after a remarkable transformation of form, Clarke signed a new deal extending his future at the Lane until the summer of 2020.
This season he has slipped back to a more familiar figure. Signed by Wilder in 2016 from Bury he struggled to impress, partly hampered by injury, until demonstrating what he can be capable of with six goals in five appearances as United bade farewell to League One. One of those goals came in the win at Northampton which secured promotion and his further contribution helped clinch the title.
Last season Clarke was the first name on the team sheet. This time around he has made only nine league starts and scored three times in 26 appearances, most of them from the bench as ten-goal David McGoldrick established himself as the preferred partner for skipper Sharp. McGoldrick, a free-agent after being released by Ipswich, has made huge strides since impressing in a trial last summer. He has just earned a contract extension running until summer 2021.
Wilder sympathised with Clarke’s current predicament: “I’m not surprised that he’s attracting attention because of obviously what he’s done for us at the football club.” Adding: “It’s just been a difficult one for him really. He’s had a bit of a stop-start season. Decisions happen and I think you know I’m not frightened to make them.”
The arrival of Clarke in the summer of 2016 was greeted with a shrug of the shoulders by many Blades fans. Initially their worst fears were confirmed but last season the former Sheffield Wednesday man won over hearts and minds. Despite this season’s difficulties he will be remembered with fondness which from where he started from is a major achievement in itself.
Former Blades boss Nigel Adkins is reported to be a leading admirer, viewing a motivated Clarke with something to prove as the ideal frontman to inject a renewed impetus into Hull City’s remarkable rise up the Championship table. They lie 12th but are only six points from a play-off spot.
Bristol City, in even better position and only an hour-and-a-half from Clarke’s Bromsgrove home, may be a more attractive proposition for the player who top scored for the Blades with 19 goals last season. Aston Villa were thought to be interested in Clarke 12 months ago and have maintained a watching brief. At the other end of the table, Wigan Athletic and Millwall are also reported to be candidates for his signature.
It remains to be seen, however, if United would sanction a move to a potential promotion rival and if not whether Clarke would be prepared to leave the comfort of the Lane for a relegation fight in London or Greater Manchester.
“It has to be right for the player and it has to be right for the football club,” said Wilder.
Sharp, who triggered a contract extension after completing 23 appearances for the season in late December, is close to agreeing a new deal which may cover the remainder of his playing career. Wing-back Enda Stevens and defender Jack O’Connell are also in new contract talks. “We want our best players to stop here and I’m sure the lads themselves feel the same,” Wilder confirmed.