Leon Clarke has been told he can become an even better player next season after being named in the Championship team of the year by the Professional Footballers’ Association.
The Sheffield United centre-forward was selected ahead of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Diogo Jota and Lewis Grabban of Aston Villa in the poll following a series of impressive performances this term.
Clarke, whose goals have helped fire Chris Wilder’s side into play-off contention only 12 months after winning the League One title, enters Saturday’s match against Birmingham City searching for his 19th of a prolific campaign.
Despite turning 33 in February, Wilder insisted a combination of attitude and experience means Clarke’s best years are still ahead of him.
“I think Leon can get better, yes,” the United manager said. “Look at Glenn Murray. He’s had a similar career to Leon. He (Murray) is still going strong and contributing for Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League.
“It all depends on the player. We’d love him to keep on improving and I think he can. If he does, he obviously becomes better but it makes us better as a group too.”
Wilder’s underlined his faith in Clarke’s ability by extending the striker’s contract until June 2020 before the recent transfer window.
“I knew last week, about Leon being in there, so I pulled him over in front of the rest of the players,” Wilder continued. “I know he won’t have liked that but I wasn’t bothered. It’s not been a one chance, one goal season for Leon. So, from a team point of view, we are delighted with the way we are playing. To be recognised by your fellow pro’s is an outstanding achievement.
“You don’t score the goals Leon has done without having confidence in your ability or the ability of your team mates. But it won’t do him any harm at all. It’s a great accolade for him and also, as he will tell you, for the players he works with. We are playing well and Leon is playing his part in that.”
Clarke, a £150,000 signing from Bury, is set to make his 64th appearance for United at St Andrews. Despite spending nearly £18m in the transfer market last summer, City enter the game only two points above the relegation zone with three matches remaining. United travel to the Midlands three behind sixth-placed Millwall, who host Fulham tomorrow.
“I’m not looking at the run-ins others around us have got,” Wilder, whose team faces Preston North End and Bristol City after returning from the Midlands, said. “You can’t predict anything. We know we need some big moments and big wins to drive it on and take it to the wire.”