'I was too naive and didn't listen as much as I should have done' - Sheffield United striker Leon Clarke
Leon Clarke is tired of talking about the past; sick of discussing old controversies and misdemeanours of his youth.
So, with the ink now dry on the contract extension which underlines his status at Sheffield United, the centre-forward is looking to the future and, despite insisting there is still plenty of football ahead of him, making plans for retirement.
“I wouldn’t mind doing some coaching with kids. I’ve been in the game a long time and had ups and downs. Maybe I can show them a different way to do things, a different path to take. It’s something that really appeals.”
Clarke might have endured plenty of highs and lows since turning professional 15 years ago, but his career has been on an upward trajectory since returning to South Yorkshire. The 32-year-old, who represented teams including Wolverhampton Wanderers, Queens Park Rangers and Sheffield Wednesday before joining United at the beginning of last term, enters tomorrow’s FA Cup tie against Ipswich Town as the Championship’s leading goalscorer and, perhaps most tellingly, wearing the captain’s armband.
Although Clarke’s desire to eventually work as a mentor might come as a surprise to many, Chris Wilder insists he is a markedly different character to the brooding, solitary individual often portrayed by the press. Certainly, as we analyse United’s performances this season and his stature both on and off the pitch, it becomes clear the 32-year-old is irritated by the fact some well-publicised but youthful indiscretions are still viewed as legitimate talking points today.
“Mistakes are what you learn from,” Clarke continues. “When I was young, I didn’t really have a father figure around me. Don’t get me wrong, there were some experienced players at Wolves who tried to help but maybe I was too naive and didn’t listen as much as I should have done. If I could give advice to people, when they’re at a really young age, maybe that will help them going forward and benefit them in the future. Everything is a positive.”
Whether he understands or not, Clarke’s transformation from footballing journeyman into the division’s most prolific striker will continue to fascinate. Likewise, the reasons why Wilder, rather than Neil Warnock, Kenny Jackett or any of the other managers he has played under, has been able to get the best out of his talents. A key member of the squad which cruised to the League One title last term, thanks in no small part to his flourish at the end of the campaign, Clarke has always been regarded as a player of top-flight potential. But it is only now, after being signed for a pittance from Bury, that his physical power and technical prowess have properly been harnessed.
Clarke, who cites a combination of tactics, experience and the unequivocal support of his team mates as contributory factors, has chosen the players’ tunnel at Bramall Lane as the location for an interview which, acknowledging the image of Chris Morgan behind him, dispels plenty of myths about his character.
“I’m not the same type of captain as Morgs,” Clarke smiles. “He was scary when you played against him. He really used to bark and growl. You knew he was a leader because he had that real presence about him. I’m more of a leader in terms of how I try to play. I try to work hard, press from the front and, through doing that, give us an opportunity to score more goals. I’m a much quieter captain than Morgs but probably a lot more hard working. But don’t tell him I said that.”
“I’m not sure if my picture will ever be up there on the wall,” he adds, glancing towards Keith Edwards, Jimmy Hagan and Tony Currie. “There’s plenty ahead of me, Billy (Sharp) is at the front of the queue. I just want a good season and the best for the team.”
Whether or not that includes a run in the cup, which United enter at the third round stage, could depend upon United’s activity during this month’s transfer window. Fortunately Wilder, whose attempts to bolster their options are being hampered by finance, has a proven track record of delivering big results on a meagre budget as Clarke’s performances demonstrate.
Wilder, whose side travel to Suffolk seventh in the table, used some of that money to extend his deal until 2020 after comparing Clarke to Brighton and Hove Albion’s Glenn Murray.
“It’s nice to be mentioned in the same breath as Glenn Murray,” he admits. “He scored a lot of goals for last season, did really well and got them promoted. I’d be delighted if I could do the same thing here. For me personally, touch wood, I’ll end up playing more games this season than ever before. I feel fitter than I’ve ever done, as fit as I did at QPR. I feel I’ve got a few more years in me yet. Thirty in football might be the new 20.”
Talking to Clarke, it becomes apparent that after a leading a nomadic existence for much of his career, United feels like home.
“It’s really easy to buy into what this club is all about. If you speak to people at the club, the people who work here at the ground behind the scenes and also at the training ground, everyone wants the same thing and that’s the best for Sheffield United. I think the way the manager sets the team out to play helps too because it’s positive and attacking. Maybe it wasn’t always like that before he came in. We just all want to achieve something good.”
With the Steel City derby against Wednesday looming large on the horizon, Wilder could choose to name a much-changed starting eleven at Portman Road. But whatever team he selects, Clarke, who was on target twice during September’s 4-2 victory at Hillsborough, is confident it can do the business.
“We’ve all got different attributes,” he says, considering the qualities of United’s other frontmen. “The rest of the lads are real quality players. Clayton (Donaldson) is quite similar to myself in that he likes to get behind a defence and stretch a game. Billy works hard, is a real fox in the box. If you give him half a chance, he’ll put it away. “Brooksy (David Brooks) is an exceptional talent and can go really far in the game. He’s a bit of a wildcard in that you don’t know what to expect because of the talent he’s got. The fact I’ve played with all three shows the manager trusts me and that feels good.”