Not exactly a returning hero
#11: LEON CLARKE
Signed: January 2014 from Coventry, £500,000 rising to £750,000
Left: June 2015, contract expired
He was: Being re-gifted a Makita cordless power drill, minus the power pack
Back in the third tier of English football for the first time in a quarter of a century, we started the 2013/14 season with an unlikely strike partnership consisting of two players it had been thought unlikely to be at the club; Leigh Griffiths, who to this point hadn’t made a league appearance for Wolves since his arrival from Hibernian in January 2011 and had behaved less than professionally in his loan spells back in Scotland in the meantime, and Kevin Doyle, who most believed would attract some form of interest from higher up the pyramid and was surely on too prohibitive a wage to retain him in League One – in the event, no bids transpired and having sufficiently impressed Kenny Jackett with his attitude to the cause, was included in the first team squad. Those two were backed up Björn Sigurdarson and Jake Cassidy and the season started, as you might expect for a club with our resources relative to the rest of the division, with us powering along in the top three; following our home victory over Tranmere in late November, we were top of the table on 43 points from 18 games.
However that progress was slowed by a run of one win in seven games through the end of November to early January and there were issues with our forward department; with his family still settled north of the border, the otherwise impressive Griffiths was making frequent trips back and forth and evidently had his head turned by interest from Celtic – he would end up making a £1,000,000 move there in January. Doyle had won the respect of many by putting in the effort levels required which many a big name wouldn’t have lowered themselves to in the division, but basically his decline that we had seen from around 2011 onwards was continuing; he was exactly the same player whichever division you put him in. Ran a lot, tried to win free kicks in an increasingly desperate manner, offered little by way of tangible goal threat and didn’t really set goals up either. He was still playing the exact same way whether his opponent was John Terry or Ian Goodison. Sigurdarson was increasingly out of favour with Jackett, making just two starts after September while Cassidy was handed three starts over Christmas and New Year but was yet to break his duck for the club – indeed, he never would – and looked short of what we required. Doyle and Sigurdarson subsequently left in January to join QPR and Molde respectively on loan and so we were looking at a revamp up front for the second half of the season.
2012/13 loanee Nouha Dicko was brought back to the club on a permanent basis from Wigan having impressed on loan at Rotherham, scoring five goals in as many games including a brace against us in December at the New York Stadium. Jackett obviously wanted another forward in to further compensate for the departure of three senior players in that area and under the normal run of things, it would make a fair deal of sense to have a look at the current top scorers in League One and see what we could pick off; after all, with our resources and standing, we could financially outgun pretty much any club in the division at will. Under the normal run of things, this would have been fine. Given that the man with 15 goals in 23 games so far was Leon Clarke, we should have ran a mile.
For we knew all about Leon, he was our own youth product. Breaking into the team in 2004/5, he was extremely raw, a bit on the paunchy side, not exactly blessed with an amazing amount of skill or pace, having a propensity to produce some baffling misses from less than eight yards out, but initially eager, hard-working and showed some signs of being able to play some part in the Championship, scoring three goals in our final four games of the season and finishing with seven league goals in all. His two goal performance against Reading at home in December 2004 summed up the very early Leon Clarke; his goals weren’t a thing of beauty but they were caused by mistakes forced by his will and strength. Come the following season, that moderate success had gone to his head and he returned looking out of shape, having a terrible attitude whereby all that harrying of defenders and willingness to give everything for the cause had been replaced by a moon-faced blob who did at least have perfect balance, having a chip on both shoulders. When your general technique is as poor as Leon Clarke’s always has been, you can’t get away with not trying very hard. Admittedly, Glenn Hoddle didn’t exactly help matters by playing him on the left wing at points, but Hod’s gonna Hod.
Having scored one goal in 23 appearances by the turn of the year, discontent at Clarke’s performances was understandably growing, yet this hadn’t really translated itself to much by way of open barracking at games; Leon appeared to be hearing things by this stage as he saw fit to celebrate a tap-in during an FA Cup tie at home to Plymouth by giving a “shush” gesture to the crowd. Very good, Leon. It reminds me of when Stewart Downing did similar to Liverpool fans having notched a mighty 0 goals and 0 assists in his first season there. He made one further appearance for us that season, a week after that incident at home to Luton, where this time he was jeered and rightly so, before being packed off on loan to QPR (one game and swiftly sent back) and Plymouth (where I believe he picked up the not exactly affectionate nickname of “The Fridge”) for the remainder of the season.
Mick McCarthy showed some early faith in him during the first half of 2006/7, Leon making 22 appearances up to the turn of the year and scoring five goals, including a brace in consecutive home games against Sheffield Wednesday and Southend. However, despite initially appearing to believe in his ability, Mick lost faith rapidly and despite having started four straight games over the Christmas period, Clarke was placed on the transfer list in early January 2007. Wednesday had obviously been impressed by the goals he had notched against them in October and signed him on 15 January 2007 for a fee of around £250,000. His early Wednesday career was largely spent out on loan at Oldham and Southend where his goal return was decent – 11 goals in 21 games across the spells at the two clubs – and this would establish a pattern for the rest of his career. Leon Clarke is a reasonably proficient goalscorer in Leagues One and Two. If you give him enough chances, he’ll probably get you goals at that level. He is not, and never has been, a Championship standard striker – indeed, only once has he ever bettered that debut tally of seven goals from 2004/5 (and even then, only by one goal, in 2008/9). Having left Wednesday in 2010 – the end of his spell there being notable for him breaking his own foot after kicking an advertising hoarding, good work again Leon – he did extremely well for Chesterfield, Scunthorpe and later Coventry in the third tier; he failed to score a single goal for QPR and notched just one for Preston when playing in the Championship.
So not only did we know all about Leon Clarke the man, we had ample evidence that he was only ever going to be of use to us while in League One, where we had no intention of staying for any longer than one season. And by now, he was a couple of weeks shy of turning 29, there wasn’t much prospect of any of that changing. Nevertheless, we pressed ahead with the deal and after a minor stand-off where Clarke reportedly refused to play for Coventry while the negotiations were ongoing, he rejoined the club on 30 January 2014 for a fee of £500,000 with a further £250,000 payable upon our promotion back to the Championship. Oddly for a signing commanding that kind of fee, he was only handed an 18 month contract which seemed to speak volumes about the club’s feelings regarding his long term prospects.
By this time Dicko had already made an extremely favourable impression in his early games and would finish the season with 13 goals in just 16 starts for us; we had also switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation which coupled with Dicko’s form, meant opportunities for Leon to break into the team were limited. He made just four starts and nine substitute appearances for the remainder of that season, scoring once off the bench in a win at Swindon in March. We romped to the title with a tally of 103 points – an achievement worthy of respect even allowing for the fact that we should never have been playing at that level, and we all know which Welsh dunderhead I point the finger at for that state of affairs – and so we had signed a player in Clarke to help us get promotion from League One, only for us to not require his help at all in the event. As insurance policies go, this one seemed a remarkable expensive example.
Ken’s attempts to sign Chris Wood from Leicester in August 2014 fell flat and so we were left for the first half of the 2014/15 season with Leon as our only real backup to Dicko, as Doyle was sent out on loan again to Crystal Palace and Sigurdarson was reunited with Stale Solbakken in a season-long loan to FC Copenhagen. Dicko adapted well to the higher division, continuing to play the lone frontman role with distinction, his pace and ability to stretch and single-handedly occupy central defenders being a key feature of our play. With the best will in the world, Clarke was never going to be able to do this. Not only did we know that his record in this league was poor, he’s as approximate a direct replacement for Dicko’s style as Danny Dyer would be for Benicio del Toro. When he started games, we had no ability to press from the front, to hold the ball up, to knock the ball into the channels and his basic footballing ability has always been on the rustic side. His work ethic was, I suppose, marginally better than it had been back in the glory days of 2005, but still wasn’t anything like up to scratch – if you were to compare him with say, Clayton Donaldson at Birmingham, the difference is night and day. Goals from the bench in wins at Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday (from a combined distance of about three yards) were very welcome but he failed to start a game for us after the 5-0 demolition job at Derby in November 2014 – Danny Graham arriving on loan shortly afterwards – and the arrival of Benik Afobe in January 2015 coupled with the return of Doyle from his loan spell spelt the end for Leon’s second spell at the club. He was loaned out to struggling Wigan in February for the remainder of the campaign – a spell they unilaterally terminated a month prior to their eventual relegation, such was his impact – and we released him at the end of his contract. 2015/16 saw a familiar tale where Clarke dropped down to League One to play for Bury and scored 15 goals in 32 games for a middling team, before making the move to Sheffield United where with one goal in 13 league appearances to date he er….splits opinion among their fans. In as much as half think he’s hopeless and half think he’s useless.
A common theme through the series has been poorly-thought out signings which appeared to make little sense and went against everything that we, as observers, could make out from all the evidence available. Leon’s return here is one of the very worst of them. Having long since drifted into the realm of a lower league journeyman, we were signing him at a point whereby he’d conclusively proven where his limit was and where there was no real prospect of him improving. We were buying him for a level where we always knew the likelihood was that we’d be leaving within a matter of months and barely used him for that purpose anyway. This might have been ok for a quick, convenient loan signing or a cheap punt on a veteran, but we were spending (by League One standards) a hefty enough sum on him. In an era where we made many of our signings with a view to their future value, banging £750,000 on a 29 year old striker who ran like he was wearing carpet slippers a size too big just sticks out like a sore thumb. His failure to have any impact for us in the Championship was entirely predictable and there were enough people still at the club from his first spell here that should have been forewarning the manager that this was not a good idea. Who knows, maybe they did and Ken ignored them. There aren’t many sure things in football, but it always looked a safe bet that we’d signed an absolute pup from day one here. Because we’d already had a sneak two and a half year preview of the product.