LEON CLARKE may have become a frustration for the man who signs off the pay cheques at Bramall Lane and manager Chris Wilder, but can anyone really blame the 34-year-old for standing his ground?
Transfer-listed in May after having spent five months on loan to Wigan Athletic whilst Sheffield United clinched promotion to the Premier League, the striker has shown no sign of wishing to leave. After the transfer window for lower league clubs closed this week, it appears Clarke is destined to finish the remaining 10 months of his contract whiling away his days on the training ground at Shirecliffe.
Although named in United’s 25-player Premier League squad, the only conceivable route into the first team now would be as an emergency measure during an injury crisis.
For 32-year-old Ricky Holmes, the only other of the seven listed player to have not have found a new club and whose contract expires next summer, a back injury put his career prospects into a new perspective.
Wilder, however, mentioning no names is not impressed with unwanted squad members counting their cash. “It depends if they [transfer-listed players] 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.”
Both Clarke’s and Holmes’s bank managers are happy with the situation. Already on more money than they could reasonably expect to earn elsewhere, a pay increase to reflect Premier League status has enhanced that. It is fair to assume they were already being paid more than at previous clubs before suddenly becoming significantly better.
If United are not prepared to divvy up the remainder of lucrative contracts, as they reportedly did to get unwanted striker Ched Evans off the books, both players appear more than willing to swallow their pride.
Shamefully, a situation many highly paid younger players on the periphery at other clubs are prepared to settle for, effectively holding their employers hostage, but in Holmes, and particularly Clarke’s case, this does not apply.
Why? Clarke has reached the point where he is beginning to confront what life may be like without football. A serious back injury has led to Holmes reflecting on just how long he may have left in the game.
Sent back to the Lane for treatment from a loan spell at Oxford United last season, Holmes was then dispatched to Gillingham where again hampered by injury, he didn’t make one appearance.
Then Gills boss Steve Lovell, who has since been sacked and replaced by Steve Evans, said: “He still has a contract at Sheffield United and it is up to him to work something out there, but you never say never do you? If he gets something sorted there I would love to have him next year. The first thing he has to do is get over this injury, to get it 100% right.”
For Clarke, receiving a significant bonus for effectively putting his feet up at Hotel Bramall Lane, a cash reward which may prove crucial away from the game rather than getting lumps kicked out of him in the lower leagues, is understandable at his age. It’s not as if he is withdrawing his labour and having signed a three-year contract on arriving from Bury in 2016, the club saw fit to improve and extend that 18 months later.
Two seasons ago the striker was at the forefront of United’s return the Championship, top-scoring with 19 goals and establishing himself as a firm Kop favourite. The form of the ex-Sheffield Wednesday man was something of a revelation after a disappointing first season with United in League One, blighted by injury. Most fans were unimpressed by Wilder’s much-travelled acquisition with a reputation for being a difficult character.
It was only at the end of that promotion season that a fully-fit Clarke provided a glimpse of what was to follow, scoring six goals in seven appearances. Often captaining the side when keeping Billy Sharp on the bench, Clarke then enjoyed a golden season at the Lane, playing the best football of his career, the highlight being scoring all four goals to demolish visiting Hull City.
His fall from grace was dramatic. Unable to rekindle the fire, he quickly became a bystander in United’s promotion season to the Premier League and played the latter half of that campaign on loan to Wigan.
It was with the Latics – where he scored just three goals in 15 appearances – that Clarke arguably played his biggest role for the Blades. Laying on the goal that sunk Leeds United at Elland Road in April, which meant Wilder and his men were masters of their own destiny in the race for the second automatic promotion spot.
For that alone we should all be grateful and maybe Leon, a veteran of 16 different clubs with the bruises to show for it, has earned the right for a bit of me time.