Leon Clarke, most people would agree, is not your average footballer.
Quiet, reserved and intensely private, two sleeves of tattoos provide the only clue about how he earns a living.
His personality should, by rights, make Clarke a manager’s dream. And yet, as the long list of clubs on the 32-year-old’s CV suggests, most have struggled to harness his talents. Which begs the question why, as he enters tomorrow’s game against Nottingham Forest searching for his 11th goal in 14 games, is Chris Wilder succeeding where so many have failed by unlocking Clarke’s potential? The answer, Sheffield United’s manager revealed earlier this week, is good old fashioned belief and a willingness to let Leon be Leon.
“We’ve always thought he’s a Championship player,” Wilder explained. “And when you look at his qualities, why wouldn’t he be? Lots of people were saying he could only do it in League One but that was just a nonsense. Leon is a big, strong lad and technically, he’s very, very gifted.”
Clarke (pictured) scored six times in as many outings towards the end of last term as United cruised towards promotion. Despite a slow start to the present campaign, he claimed his second brace in the space of a week when, after tearing Carlos Carvahal’s side apart during the Steel City derby, Wolverhampton Wanderers visited Bramall Lane on Wednesday evening.
“The manager has been brilliant with me and the fact that he puts me in the team ahead of some of the strikers we have is a confidence-boost,” Clarke said. “He has been great and ever since I have been here, we have had a good relationship and understanding.”
Clarke’s respect for Wilder can be traced back to the beginning of last season when, soon after arriving from Bury, his progress was halted by an ankle injury. Although he was frustrated at the time, Wilder made a point of continually talking-up the player’s credentials and shoe-horned his name into almost every interview. It was a show of faith which Clarke appreciated and is still determined to repay.
“The manager is very clear in his instructions,” he continued, after helping United climb to second in the table. “Everybody knows what is expected of them, there’s no confusion whatsoever which is good.
“There’s a really good atmosphere among the group and confidence is obviously high. We don’t take anybody lightly but we’re not scared of them either. We feel like we can cause anyone problems with the way we go about things.”
“Leon proved what he’s all about when he offered to play through that injury,” Wilder added. “That told you about the type of guy he is. People have this perception about him, that he can be difficult, there’s no point in denying it, but he’s not like that at all. Don’t get me wrong, there’s times when I tell Leon something, he gives me one of those looks and I think ‘I’d better make myself scarce here.’ Joking side, though, he’s a popular lad and you can see that with one of his recent celebrations. We enjoy having him here.”
Wilder was referring to events following Clarke’s first goal at Hillsborough when, having steered the ball beyond Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Kieren Westwood, he was mobbed by team mates after racing to the visitors’ bench.
Having been described as a “dressing room leader” by both Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell in recent weeks, Clarke said: “I am very settled. Probably the most settled I have been in a long, long time. I enjoy coming into work and it is one of the best set of lads I have worked with throughout my career and I have been at a lot of teams, played with a lot of players and been with a lot of different squads. It is the best group and squad of players I have worked with.”
“I would not say I am in the mode of Billy (Sharp), who is a good talker and also speaks to people before the game,” Clarke added. “He is very similar to the manager. I just try and play a certain way and hopefully people will follow my lead.”