FOR one glorious moment Leon Clarke had the opportunity to make the biggest headlines of his nomadic 16-year professional career.
There he was at the ripe old age of 34 years and 230 days about to pull the trigger in front of the Kop at Bramall Lane after coming on as a 77th-minute substitute against Liverpool.
It had been a long wait to make his Premier League debut, one that he never imagined would come after being loaned to Wigan Athletic in January as United clinched their ticket to the top flight and then transfer-listed in the summer.
Beat Liverpool goalkeeper Adrian and he would clinch a deserved point for the Blades who had given as good as they got for most of the match against the European champions. He would also bring to an end a 15-match winning run for Jurgen Klopp’s side last frustrated in a goalless draw on March 3 at Everton.
Bramall Lane held it’s collective breath…but it wasn’t to be. Clarke fired high over the bar and with it went any remaining hope. Leaders Liverpool left the Lane having maintained their five-point lead over defending champions Manchester City, taking a maximum 21 points from the first seven fixtures and extended their unbeaten league run to 24.
Clarke flung himself to the ground in anguish. Wilder was almost as unforgiving as he was of goalkeeper Dean Henderson’s blooper, letting Georginio Wijnaldum’s shot slip through his hands to gift Liverpool what turned out to be the winner.
“There was talk he might have been offside, but Leon will know he should have scored,” said a surly Blades boss who only turned to Clarke as back-up because of injury and suspension to strikers David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp.
Eyebrows were raised when Wilder named unwanted Clarke in his 25-man Premier League squad, a move that was virtually forced on him after the striker failed to move on. United had 24 first choice professionals on their books so it made sense to add transfer-listed Clarke to the list.
“There were options for him in the summer,” said Wilder who listed seven players and released a further five immediately after the season ended. Indeed the Blades boss later made it known what he thought of those who were dragging their heels in finding other clubs.
“It depends if they want to go and play football,” he said before the season kicked off and a number remained. “The lads have got to decide what they want to do. I’d rather be a footballer.
“I’m not saying they should walk away with nothing, but I’d rather be a footballer and get on with it. It’s up to them. I know, if I was a couple of them, that I’d have been at a new club already.”
In the end Clarke, presumably one of those the manager was referring to, remained along with midfield man Ricky Holmes who returned to the Lane from loan spells at Oxford and Gillingham having struggled to overcome a back injury.
In fairness, Clarke’s only other competitive appearance for United since January 19 before being shipped to Wigan, came as a second-half sub in the midweek Carabao Cup third round exit to Sunderland.
The man who famously top scored with 19 goals in 2017-18 and was named in the Championship team of the season, was thrown in at the deep end. But as Wilder lamented after the Sunderland defeat three days earlier, when opportunities arise for players to force their way back into contention they have to take them. Against the Black Cats he made ten changes from the side that beat Everton 2-0 at Goodison Park and most, such as summer wild card Ravel Morrison, failed to make any impression.
So with Sharp set to return from his three-match red card ban and McGoldrick on the mend, Clarke will return to the shadows to see out his contract unless another man power crisis arrives.
You can’t help but wonder, however, what a story it would have been if he had found the sweet spot and in the sunset of his career a moment of worldwide fame.