It would be fair to say that in his time with Newcastle, Lee Clark has just about seen it all; near relegation to the old 3rd division, promotion to the Premiership, the throwing away of a 12 point lead at the top of the premiership, and the turbulent Graeme Souness reign to name but a few.
He encapsulates everything supporters crave in a player; passion, commitment, drive, ambition and perhaps most importantly, ability.
And speaking of quality midfield players, it is perhaps most appropriate that Clark shares a birthday with a master of the position, Spurs and England legend Glenn Hoddle.
In two spells with his hometown club, Clark has made 264 appearances, scoring 27 times. He has spent time on the banks of the Thames with Fulham, most of which was as club captain. He also had a spell with Sunderland, cut short by the infamous donning of that t-shirt.
Yet it is a measure of how little the bright lights and stardom of professional football have changed him that he rather apprehensively introduces himself as “Lee Clark, nice to meet you”.
The Early days
Clark played his football as a boy at Wallsend Boys Club, famous for producing many a fine player, and looks back on his time there with fond memories and a sense of gratitude to those who helped him progress.
|"Without doubt, the goal is to be a manager; and the ultimate goal is to be manager of this club one day."|
“I remember the first thing the coaches installed into us was discipline to respect our team mates, respect the players we were playing against and to be a team player,” Clark recalls. “Even though there were a lot of players in the team who had fantastic individual ability, it was all about the team.”
It was back in the dark days of Ossie Ardilles’ tenure that Newcastle fans caught their first glimpse of Lee Clark, coming on as a substitute in a 1-0 defeat at Bristol City in September 1990, aged just 17.
“It was fantastic. For a Geordie lad it was a dream come true to be playing in the first team at Newcastle United,” he said “For something like that to happen was a superb honour and achievement for me.
“I’ve always had a love for this club, I’ve been a supporter for many years and for me to have that opportunity to play out there in the first team was very, very special.”
While it was unclear back then the crucial role he would play in the immediate future of the club, what was evident was the dedication and enthusiasm he had for the game he loved.
“When I came in as a young player before I broke into the first team, I believed I was quite a dedicated person. Everyone knew I loved my football and I myself knew what was needed to help me achieve what I wanted to achieve and that was, once I’d got there, to stay in the first team”. He tells me.
“It’s fair to say I had good discipline in doing what I needed to do to become a footballer”.
The recent emergence of Steven Taylor, Peter Ramage and Matty Pattison, evokes memories of the time Clark made his first team bow. It was around that point when a whole batch of Geordie youngsters still wet behind the ears were thrust into the first team picture.
However Clark acknowledges that the spotlight and riches of the Premier League awaiting the current upcoming stars at the club is a world away from the boot-cleaning days of he and his contemporaries.
|Clark in action at Man City last season|
“Obviously when I first broke in there wasn’t the Premiership, it was still the old set up so it wasn’t as high profile as it is now and while there wasn’t the influx of foreign players as such, there was the odd foreigner, so in a way it could possibly have been a bit easier”. He admits rather coyly.
“But also a couple of years down the line when Kevin Keegan came to the club he spent a vast amount of money so I think it was still a good achievement on myself to be around in the team after he left and spent all the money he spent, bringing in all the players he did”.
After being released by Fulham manager Chris Coleman last summer, Clark, now 33, returned home to St James’ Park - eight years after first departing, in what was for many a surprise move.
And with the recent retirement of Alan Shearer coupled with the departures of Michael Chopra to Cardiff City and Robbie Elliott to, of all places, Sunderland, Clark is now one of only a handful of Geordies currently at the club.
Being in a time where motives of those coming from afar into football clubs are continually questioned, Wallsend born Clark maintains that it is vital for the club not to ignore the importance of having a Geordie core to the playing squad.
“Newcastle’s quite a unique club,” he says “Very similar to the two clubs on Merseyside, Liverpool and Everton, that it needs at least two or three players who understand what’s expected and understand what’s needed to play for this club and understand the expectation of the supporters and the love they have for the club.
“We need two or three Geordies but we’d love to have a lot more. The notion of having 11 Geordies was a dream of Sir John Hall but although it would be fantastic to have had that it was something that was a little bit too far I think”.
In the last few years United spent big money on improving their training and academy facilities, relocating to Darsley Park in Longbenton in the process.
Glenn Roeder was appointed Academy director last summer and following his promotion to the first team, former PFA head of coaching Joe Joyce has taken up the reigns as head of the clubs youth development.
Despite this, the club are often criticised for spending big and failing to both spot and nurture the local talent that they have available to them. Something Clark is very mindful of and keen to remedy, particularly as rivals Middlesbrough are leading the way in producing young stars.
“We’ve got a fantastic academy, second to none, we are a big club and we should be attracting the best players in the local area. But at this moment in time, if truth be known I think Middlesbrough are doing that when you look at the situation they have down there”. Clark says.
|Matthew Raisbeck and Lee Clark|
“They are getting a lot more of their young players through into the first team squad and in fact in the last game of last season in the Premier League, the 16 players they had on duty were all products of the academy and lived within 20 miles of the club, so that was some achievement by them.
“We’ve got to be looking to change that back to Newcastle United as the club who was producing the young players on a regular basis.
“We’ve got Steven Taylor and Peter Ramage as regular squad members, and Mattty Pattison now pushing that, but we need to have a lot more than that, because we want to challenge Middlesbrough to be the top club for nurturing young players in the region but also be challenging the other clubs around the country to attract the best young players”.
Upon his return to the club last summer, Clark initially signed month to month contracts. But in a season ravaged by injuries, he went on to make 10 starts and a further 12 appearances from the bench. His one goal came in the dying embers of the 2-2 home draw with Middlesbrough in January.
And Glenn Roeder will be able to call upon the midfielder as a player this year, but Clark himself is quick to play that down, adamant that turning out for the first team will only happen in the event of a severe outbreak of injuries at the club.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m only registered as a player in a real emergency”, he insists. “I haven’t really done too much training as a player, because I’ve been working on the coaching side. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll feature for the first team this season at all”.
As part of Glenn Roeders overhaul of his coaching staff, Clark was appointed to the position of First Team Coach in June of this year.
The former Fulham Captain is now relishing the challenge of working with players from Under 18 level through to the first team and admits it’s always been his intention to make the transition from player to coaching, even from as far back as his early days as a YTS at the club.
“At a young age I helped coaching at Walker Central Boys Club when I was 18 or 19 as a young player at Newcastle; in fact I had a young Shola Ameobi as one of the players there at the time!
“Going into coaching has always been something in my mind. I’ve always, after training sessions, gone home and thought about the session and what we’ve done and put the session down on paper”.
|Clark in the black and white of Fulham|
Ask Clark who has played a major part in helping him sustain his interest in coaching, and the names roll off the tongue.
“I’ve got a lot of things I can take from some superb managers that I’ve had. All the way from Willie McFaul who originally signed me, Ossie Ardilles, Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Paul Bracewell, Jean Tigana and Chris Coleman and obviously coming back and working under Glenn now as a young coach.
“He’s given me a fantastic opportunity to take that to another level. I’ve been very lucky with the managers I’ve had, they’ve all been of a high standard and had different qualities and if one day I am lucky enough to become a manager I can tap into some of those things”.
It was initially thought that Clark would take up a role assisting former reserve team coach Tommy Craig with the club’s second string, but on completion of his UEFA ‘A Licence’ in June of this year, Glenn Roeder made it clear he wanted Clark to have a greater input into the club’s fortunes this year.
“At the start of this season, Glenn said to me to look at the club as a whole and work with the first team, reserves and academy and take individual players and do some one-on-one work and also sometimes I’ll work with players in a small group. So I’m coaching right across the board”. He tells me.
“We’ve got Kevin Bond and Terry McDermott at the club and we all do different sections, obviously Kevin is Assistant Manager and deals with most of the first team stuff but he’s fine when it comes to letting me have some sort of input. So I’m basically just getting the experience of working with every aspect of the club”.
And while Clark is happy to stay in the background for now and work his way up the coaching ladder, he makes it very clear what his supreme desire is.
“Without doubt, the goal is to be a manager; and the ultimate goal is to be manager of this club one day, so that’s the reason I’m going through the coaching setup and getting the qualifications to help me grasp the opportunity if it ever arose”.
Looks like Mr Shearer might well have some competition after all.
As for ambitions, Clark is clear as to what he wants from the future.
|Clark in his early days at Newcastle|
“What I’m hoping for is not for Lee Clark”, he maintains “It’s for to be involved in a successful Newcastle united squad, one that goes on to bring a trophy to the club, something which hasn’t happened domestically for over 50 years and its something I would love to be part of being on the staff.
“So it’s not about Lee Clark the individual, it’s about the whole group and that’s the only way we can bring a trophy back, if we work as a group.” Here’s hoping.
When Alan Shearer retired he famously said that he’d “lived the dream”, well Lee Clark can’t have been too far off that, can he?
“Oh Lee Clark’s more than lived the dream. I’ve spent a long, long time at the club, a fantastic football club, one that I love, and I’ve had the opportunity towards the end of my career to come back and play again.
"But now to go to the next stage of my career and to be given this opportunity to start off in a new direction and a new chapter in my life - it’s more than living the dream”.