Football: Clark tuned in to City's revival mood Clark rules Maine Road with respect

Manchester City's fifth manager of the season has brought stability and the possibility of a play-off place. Glenn Moore talked to him about punctuality, his love of music and his disdain for `Charlie Big Potatoes'
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If you frequent the Rhythmic Club, in Islington, you may remember him. Hangdog face, drooping moustache, sitting on his own in the corner. Yep, that was Frank Clark, manager of Manchester City.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, Clark was not scouting for talent, he was watching a maestro: Bo Diddley. Some managers play golf or tend the garden, some drink. Attending concerts, on his tod, is Clark's release from the pressures of the job.

"I get to all the best places - the Rhythmic's very salubrious," he said with a touch of irony. "I love it, I go on my own and sit in a corner out of the way. The manager recognised me that night, so did the rock critic of the Evening Standard - he even mentioned me in his critique of the show. My wife was well pleased, she said `you were there then', because she wasn't too sure."

Frank Clark is an untypical manager. He does not leap up and down on the touchline, he rarely curses referees and avoids media punditry. He does not appear comfortable in any of the accepted uniforms, the track- suit, sheepskin or Armani. But while he may look and behave more like the laboratory technician he once was, he is one of the most respected managers in the game. The feeling in Manchester is that, more by accident than design, City have finally appointed someone who really could restore the glory days.

Clark, 53, took over in late December a few weeks after leaving Nottingham Forest, worn down by the takeover battle and poor results. In the 11 games before he arrived City had won twice; in the next nine League games they won five and drew four, raising expectations of a play-off place. Even Alex Ferguson, the United manager, put a bet on City.

Wednesday's defeat at Birmingham has quietened the mood but a victory today, at Grimsby, will spark the dreams again. "People change from game to game," Clark said. "If we win we're `back on track', if we don't we're `out of it'. It is not like that. Promotion was never more than a possibility, and it is still a possibility. I didn't for a minute think we'd win every game."

We are talking at City's Platt Lane training ground, just under a mile from Maine Road. At first sight this partnership between the local council and the club appears to be the community link every club should have. However, sharing the playing and social facilities with the public does have its problems. City, like Sunday morning park players, have to contend with stray balls flying across the pitch as they practice. They also have fans passing judgement on the touchline (as well, perhaps, as other clubs' spies).

"It is too accessible for a professional football club," Clark said. "It must have been very difficult for the players when they were having a bad time. At the moment, people want to come and say `well done' but it is not always like that.

"You don't want to be in an ivory tower, separated from the supporters, but there has to be a line somewhere where the players can work in privacy. Even Newcastle closed their training ground when they had problems."

This accessibility is one reason why the manager's office door has a security-coded lock on it, rather than the revolving door City's turnover of managers would suggest. The office, noted Clark, "is austere" but that is partly because it is almost new - being just a couple of years old it has only had five or six occupants so far.

"The club needed stability," City's fifth manager of the season said. "Players had been underperforming. I looked at the teams and we were putting out sides with eight internationals. People at any organisation don't perform to their best when there is instability, they like security. I found that at Forest, not so much with players, but the staff. The longer the takeover went on, the more you could see the insecurity spreading."

In the circumstances Clark's first act at City, a code of conduct, was probably welcomed by his players as an sign of order replacing chaos.

"I'm not into sitting people down and giving them long lectures. It was a case of laying down a few rules and standards. They are not oppressive, just basics like turning up on time. It might seem a little thing, but I hate going into a dressing-room to start training and finding half of them are not ready. When I say we start at 10.30, I mean 10.30.

"The fines are only tenners. It means nothing financially but it is the principle. It is about discipline and laughter, you can have one without the other but you won't have a good football club if you do.

"One or two players have stepped out of line in small ways and been dealt with. They all get treated the same. Shortly after I arrived I read a piece by someone who had spoken to Georgi [Kinkladze]. He had said I was the `hardest' manager he had ever played for and he thought it was right that he did not get any special treatment." Clark looks half-puzzled, half-pleased. "I don't think I'm particularly hard."

This brings us on to the Georgian playmaker, Kinkladze, who had been injured during City's good run. Is he staying?

"People have a fixation about him. The first question in the press conference is nearly always: `When is he going to be fit?' In that respect it was nice that the players showed they can win without him. There was no sense in the dressing-room of `let's show we can win without Georgi' but it won't do them any harm.

"I don't know him well yet but he seems very well balanced. There is no `Charlie Big Potatoes' about him. I like star players, special players, but I don't like that star attitude and I don't see any of that from him.

"We will try desperately hard to keep him - there is no sense of cashing in on him. We would like to think we can build a team which will allow him to show his special talents for the benefit of the team. If he wants to leave, it is down to him. The club have made promises to him and we would keep them."

There is no "Charlie Big Potatoes" about Clark, either. Along with an ability to delegate, he cites a lack of ego as one of his strengths (and not in the way of someone saying his only fault is modesty). One of the memories of last season is watching Clark after Forest had beaten Lyons in the Uefa Cup in France. Throughout a pitchside interview, Forest fans had been calling his name. When it finished, he slowly walked towards them and, with great reluctance, raised an arm.

"It is important to acknowledge supporters but I find the populist thing difficult. I'm happy to take the responsibility but also want to share the praise. I had all my ego trips as a player. Egos get in the way, they cause more problems than anything in football."

A year ago this week Clark was preparing Forest for their Uefa Cup quarter- final home leg with Bayern Munich. Now he is preparing City to meet Grimsby Town. It has, he agreed with a wry smile, been an odd year.

When dealing with such contrasts, a lack of ego and sense of perspective are vital. Clark's long experience, as a non-League player with Crook Town, a European Cup winner with Forest, and a decade holding Orient together, are now invaluable.

So, too, is family life. He is living in a hotel but will move properly to Manchester when his younger daughter finishes her A levels in May. "Moving is an occupational hazard. I've been relatively lucky but I'll never forget the first few days taking my eldest daughter to a new primary school in London. I felt the biggest heel on two legs. She was crying non-stop - she was about eight - and it was the first time we had moved since she was a baby."

These days Clark's daughters are more likely to be asking him for concert tickets. Referring to Britain's biggest band, and City's most famous fans, Clark said: "I guess I'll have to watch Oasis now, my daughters are into them but they are a bit too modern for me. Anything after 1961 is a bit modern for me."

In music, maybe, but fortunately for City fans his teams play thoroughly modern football.