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Loneliness of the lower league loan star

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Paul Fletcher | 11:30 UK time, Monday, 20 April 2009

Billy Clarke hates driving, so this must obviously be one of those cruel twists of fate that life sometimes throws up. That's because the 21-year-old is currently on his third loan spell of the season and racking up the miles behind the wheel.

First Darlington, then Northampton and now Brentford - no wonder the Irishman has developed an intimate knowledge of the motorway system. In the course of my entire interview with him he only swore once, it was almost an instinctive reaction and came immediately after I asked Clarke how many miles his car has done.

An added complication, though a very welcome one, is that Clarke's girlfriend is heavily pregnant and so he is coming to the end of one of the more unusual and hectic campaigns a lower league player is ever likely to encounter.

Or, as Clarke puts it: "You might say that I have been around the block."

Billy Clarke in action for Northampton TownClarke, technically, is an Ipswich Town player, has been since he came over to these shores from his native Cork at the age of 15. Having represented the Republic of Ireland at a range of junior levels, he was seen as a player with immense potential.

He made his first-team debut for the Tractor Boys as a 65th-minute substitute in a 2-1 defeat at Cardiff in late November 2005, replacing current boss Jim Magilton. A first start came the following month before Clarke was loaned out shortly afterwards to nearby Colchester to gain some first-team experience. He may not have known it then but it was the shape of things to come.

The forward played fairly regularly for Ipswich in the 2006-07 campaign, opening with three goals in five games, and again during the early months of last season. He slipped out of the picture after Christmas and was loaned out to Scottish side Falkirk for the final three months.

After failing to score in his previous 43 appearances for Town, Clarke realised at the start of the current campaign that he would be unlikely to play much of a role this season.

"I kind of knew from day one I wouldn't be getting a game," he told me.

Clarke was not about to sit around in the reserves. And if he felt like a young man with a point to prove, he has certainly put the miles in to change people's perception of him.

First up came Darlington, too far from Ipswich to commute so the club put him up in the same hotel as another new arrival, Liechtenstein international Franz Burgmeier.

Clarke scored eight goals in 20 appearances as Darlington started the season strongly. He often played in the hole between midfield and attack, earning rich praise from Steve Claridge, who did a scouting report on the player for The Guardian newspaper. Clarke's loan expired at the end of 2008 and Darlington's promotion hopes have since hit the buffers. Then again, many things at Darlington haven't worked out as anticipated. For example, entering administration wasn't part of the blueprint when the season started back in August.

Clarke did not hang around and joined League One side Northampton on loan at the end of January. The club put him up in a flat owned by a former player and he was able to train at Ipswich in the early part of the week before linking up with his new team-mates as matchday approached.

He made a breakneck start for the Cobblers, scoring after two minutes of his debut and notching a hat-trick in the 5-1 demolition of Crewe. "I seem to settle in and adapt quite well, which is obviously a good thing," he said.

His final stop this season was Brentford, joining in late March to help ease a striker crisis at the club after injuries to Jordan Rhodes and Nathan Elders. Charlie MacDonald, a key player at Griffin Park over the previous months, also suffered a season-ending injury shortly after Clarke's arrival.

Billy Clarke celebrates scoring for Brentford

As with Northampton, Clarke has trained with Ipswich on Monday and Tuesday before motoring down to London to train with the Bees on Thursday and Friday. He is staying in a hotel just a couple of minutes walk from the ground and seems to be genuinely enjoying his time with the club.

If the pressure was on Clarke when he arrived he has definitely responded, with three crucial goals in five games so far. All of his goals have come in different games and Brentford are now all but promoted. A win against Dagenham on Tuesday will ensure Andy Scott's team move into the (relatively) fast lane of League One football next season.

Should that happen, Clarke will once again end the season celebrating promotion. It was the same back in 2006, when he played the last six games for Colchester. The Essex club secured a place in the Championship and Clarke even got a medal. But talking to him about the experience, I got the impression that he felt a little like a gatecrasher at someone else's party. It may well be the same again this season.

"It is good to be part of something every footballer wants and it is good to see all the lads getting the rewards for the hard work they have put in," said Clarke.

More than anything, I got the feeling Clarke would like to celebrate a promotion having spent an entire season with a club, having been through the highs and the lows and done all the hard yards.

As it turns out, he will be released by Ipswich at the end of the season, which means his future is up in the air.

The Irishman says he has enjoyed his time at Brentford and would seriously consider an offer from them. He hopes his form has done enough to get him noticed, to earn him a permanent deal somewhere.

In the meantime, he will become a dad in July and, after spending a season on the road, living out of suitcases and continually meeting new team-mates, he is ready to settle down.

"I want to play for a good club that has a chance of doing well whatever league they are in," he said. "Fingers crossed, I'll have a baby by next season and I don't want to be moving around, leaving the missus to look after him all the time."

It is time for the lower league wanderer to find a permanent place to park.


  • Comment number 1.

    city need a decent striker :)

  • Comment number 2.

    Good to see him working so hard to get a club: he deserves some luck.

    We had big hopes for him at the tail end of Royle's reign. Shame it hasn't worked out.

  • Comment number 3.

    A very good article. Whilst 'hardships' are relative it does hit home the point that football is not all fast cars and Cheshire mansions. I wonder how many players who go on a loan spell "to gain match experience/fitness" end up on this perpetual merry-go-round? With a baby on the way I am sure stability would be high on Billy's agenda, so perhaps he should be contacting every manger in Division 2 if necessary just to establish himself. Good luck to him anyway.

  • Comment number 4.

    There's always Scotland.

  • Comment number 5.

    #4 A single goal in eight games for Falkirk...

  • Comment number 6.

    Very happy all is going well for B.Clarke. I built my FIFA Darlington team around him and he hasn't disappointed. succesive promotions and 3 Premier league titles in a row, as well as 2 European Cup finals and Clarke as top scorer every year managing 30-40+. I wish him all the best for the coming season, although I'm sure he will be fine, it's clear he's got some ability.

  • Comment number 7.

    I dont know what makes the difference between those who make it and those who don't. He seems to able to knock them in no matter who he plays for. I would love to see him get stable and keep knocking them in and rise up through the divisions. Heres hoping he has his head screwed on unlike another Irish player I know who wont even turn out for his country!

  • Comment number 8.

    Alternatively, there's always Germany...

    The two best loan deals this season were Andriy Voronin's from Liverpool to Hertha BSC, and Claudio Pizarro's from Chelsea to Werder Bremen (at least from a German perspective!) Hertha, in whom I have a modest emotional investment, are going for the Bundesliga title, and Werder can still win the UEFA Cup and German Cup.(They play Hamburg in 'Hansa' derbies in the semi of both these competitions).

    Nice blog, Paul. I am the Germanophile historian, with the obsession for sending you up tallest medieval structures in Europe, who almost killed you (through exhaustion/lack of oxygen) during World Cup 2006. (Just a final comment - if Hertha by some miracle do win the Bundesliga, it will be worth popping over to Berlin just for the ensuing celebrations!)

  • Comment number 9.

    well_spoken - I can only assume you are talking about Ulm cathedral. An experience I am ever unlikely to forget.

    As for Hertha...I'll never forget the first time I turned up at the stadium in Berlin, this was some years ago and I was very much into the idea of doing the stadium tour. A bunch of Hertha fans had turned up a day early for a match and really did not see the funny side. They weren't happy when I asked to take a photo of them.

    As for Billy Clarke, he very much gave me the impression of somebody who has put the work in to try to keep himself in the proverbial shop window. I genuinely hope it all works out for him.

  • Comment number 10.

    We need a striker down at the Valley, so i wouldn't be surprised if we're looking at him.

  • Comment number 11.

    Mike Newell, get involved!

  • Comment number 12.

    i think billy clarke has a very bright future ahead of him........he wouldn't be the first Irish player to not make it with his apprentice club.....Daryll Murphy never settled with Luton and ended up playing 3 seasons for Waterford United(Eircom League) before being spotted by Mick Macarthey for Sunderland, i would love to see him offered a contract for Brentford me being a Irish Brentford fan I love seeing Irish guys like Bennet and O'Connor getting games for wasn't today or yesterday that a young Irish Sly Stallone look-a-like was released by Crystal Palace and Signed by Brentford....look at him now integral part of Reading Team and a bag of caps for Ireland......this is just the start of what I hope is a great long and winding road for Billy Clarke, he is just pulling into his second service stop for his next top up of success

  • Comment number 13.

    Billys always been a player with massive potential, and hasnt always been given a fair crack of thw whip at Ipswich. Hopefully if we install a new manager sooner rather than later we may be able to keep him, as he would be a steal for someone snapping him up on a free.

  • Comment number 14.

    Would very much welcome him down at Griffin park next season from what I have seen, he has a good attitude and seems a bit of a flair player with an eye for goal. He has the potential to become a real fans favourite.

    Andy Scott seems to have built a happy squad who all get on and maybe that will help attract him to the Bees.

  • Comment number 15.

    i don't know the guy but he does sound like he can finish and score goals.

    From the look of his picture i would say that he needs to invest some of his own time in improving his physique! He looks a bit lightweight and at the top level speed and strength are major factors!

    One of the things that helped reading was when Steve Coppell gave every player their own personal trainer to work specifically with them!

  • Comment number 16.

    As an Ipswich Town fan, I am confident that I was not alone in feeling rather disappointed by the news that Billy Clarke was going to be released this summer. It has been a frustrating 2008/09 campaign for Ipswich with far too many matches (particularly at home) finishing up as draws having lacked that one killer goalscoring touch when we needed it.

    I am not suggesting that retaining Clarke would necessarily have changed Town's fortunes - he started 2006/07 brilliantly for Town, but faded significantly soon afterwards, and has possibly found his most comfortable level in League One and Two. With Town possessing a large collection of strikers and seeking more talent from higher up the football pyramid, Clarke was undoubtedly becoming sidelined at Portman Road. However, having seen his undoubted potential flourishing in the lower leagues this season, one finds it an unfortunate decision that the club chooses this moment to allow this promising young player to leave. I have forever been keeping my fingers crossed that Town would change their minds, but it seems highly unlikely.

    To Clarke, I say best of luck in his future endeavours at whatever club or level he finds himself scoring the goals at. To whoever he signs up for, I can safely say they will be taking on an exciting young player who could make a big difference in any promotion or survival campaign.

  • Comment number 17.

    Great blog
    Hopefully Peter Taylor at my beloved Wycombe Wanderers has had a decent look at him. Clarkes successful loan spell reminds me of a certain Akinde at wycombe who is also banging in the goals. With these two players, both clubs seem sure to clinch promotion this season.

  • Comment number 18.

    As a Gillingham fan I'm hoping Clarke is on the radar of our manager because from reading this article it seems as though he can definitely do a job in L1 and L2.

    Whether we would be able to win a bidding war (in terms of wages) for him if one was to start is highly debateable.

  • Comment number 19.

    You should put him in touch with on of your other bloggers.

    I'm sure Gavin could teach him how to earn another contract with a lower league club, he seems to have managed it almost on a yearly basis.

  • Comment number 20.

    I have spoken to a few people who have seen Billy play on numerous occasions. Most of them agree that Billy is a very good young player, though all seem to point out that he is very left footed.

  • Comment number 21.

    I wonder if diet and discipline come into it, driving around all the time you couldn't be eating right... If he had a dietician it could make all the difference

  • Comment number 22.

    Good to see you're still alive, Paul! I was worried about you, after that blog about Birmingham biting Wolves stayed up so, so far after its sell-by date... I don't suppose there's any chance of you responding to the 50+ responses there are on there?

    ...other than that, a good blog this time around, and a subject that needs more attention than it gets! I have a feeling there will be a lot more of this stuff as the financial climate bites more and more, and clubs can't afford to buy players but have to loan more and more...

  • Comment number 23.

    As an Ipswich supporter and having watched Billy Clarke in the past, he always seemed to be a bit too light weight for the championship. A striker in the championship who is well under 6 foot can not rely on pace alone. The two top scorers in the championship at the moment are not the tallest (ebanks blake and mccormack), but they are both strong, skillfull and quick. It is the same with Dean Bowditch, another Town academy player who just cant seem to cut it. But to be fair the strikers that town have signed lately (Stead, Lisbie, Counago) have not been too impressive so maybe the younger players should have been given more of chance.

  • Comment number 24.

    Ah, spiritualwolf, I was only thinking about you the other day after your team crossed the line. Let me offer you my congratulations and I do hope that when you are billy big time next season you still find a few minutes every now and again to pass the time of day with Football League matters.

  • Comment number 25.

    Owls will have him without doubt, gotta be better than someone with 1 leg!

  • Comment number 26.

    Thanks Paul - and of course I'll always look at the Football League stuff... not only is it the real lifeblood of the game, but any realistic Wolves fan knows very well that it's odds-on we'll be back there soon enough. Oh, we have hopes and dreams, but we also know how hard it will be to survive with all those Billy big-times...

  • Comment number 27.

    Cracking player and lovely bloke, I agree he is probably a bit lightweight for scrapping in the mid-table of the Championship, but he has scored goals at International level up to U21 and has a touch of class to him. If anything his loan spells will add to his character (a spell at Preston didn't hurt Beckham!)and he is still young. The Sunday papers were linking him with a £1m move to Liverpool a few years back so he can't be that bad! Snap him up!or get rid of Magilton and replace him with a manager who recognises genuine quality!

  • Comment number 28.

    We at Northampton thought he was going to be the new Messiah after his hat trick, maybe put to much pressure on himself but I wouldn't say no to se him back as a permanent fixture.

  • Comment number 29.

    Paul, I wouldn't miss spiritualwolf too much. He'll be back before Christmas! ;-)

  • Comment number 30.

    I agree with other Ipswich fans, he was a good lad who didn't get a fair crack of the whip. Many teams need a left sided player and he did the job for Ipswich but he was played on left midfield when really he is a striker or attacking midfielder.

    Best of luck Billy.

  • Comment number 31.

    I just wonder if the sacking of Jim Magilton today will give Billy Clarke another chance to impress a new manager of the Tractor Boys...?

  • Comment number 32.

    We had big hopes for him at the tail end of Royle's reign. Shame it hasn't worked out.

    Perhaps if royle stays with us beyond this season maybe we will get him if he is to be realased in the summer? We've already had supple and westlake this season since big joe came back in charge :)

  • Comment number 33.

    good to see Clarke's got a 2 year deal at Blackpool

  • Comment number 34.

    Billy never got a fair chance at Ipswich- even when playing left midfield he was the pick of some poor choices in that position at the time but was never persevered with or rewarded with opportunities in his 'first choice' position. It is a testement to his attitude that he has a two year deal at a championship club now. Blackpool have got in some decent players since Olly arrived and he may have a lot of hard work on his hands just to get a starting place but I know he won't give in... to have been through so much in terms of a football career by the age of 22 is mind boggling but I hope he has every success as a footballer and a family man. Perhaps a catch up interview later in the season may be in order as there is a lot of interest in his story? Good luck Billy x


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