Football / FA Cup Final: Chelsea prepare to cheer Clarke's forward march: Trevor Haylett on the Scottish defender who has the task of stopping Ryan Giggs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ASK Steve Clarke how he is going to stop Ryan Giggs this afternoon, and the question is likely to come back at you with feeling: 'How is he going to stop me?' An adventurous full-back who likes nothing better than to force his winger to do the defending arrives at Wembley this afternoon, full of pride that at long last he is competing for a big prize with Chelsea and wanted again by his country.

It has always been a mystery to his many admirers how Chelsea could afford to ignore a performer who brings class and creativity to his work on the right. Injuries have undermined his cause, but too often have been those occasions when he has found himself second choice behind those of modest skill.

As a result Clarke had forgotten what it was like to complete a full campaign. This time around he has missed only three games and a season, which was heading for ruin, when Chelsea sank to the bottom, promises to bring him a glorious finale, the FA Cup final followed by his inclusion in the Scotland squad to face the Netherlands on 27 May.

'Without a doubt this has been my most consistent season,' the 30-year-old said. 'When you are given a long run in the side it instills confidence.' Not that Clarke has ever doubted himself. 'When you start to do that it is easy to drift out of the game.

'I never considered myself a bad player even when I was left out, and this season I think I've proved a few people wrong. The Scotland call-up is marvellous and came completely out of the blue. I thought their season had finished and they had no more games left.'

In the first revolutionary weeks of the Glenn Hoddle regime, Clarke had more freedom to advance, knowing there was the insurance of a sweeper behind him. With Hoddle out of the side he has to take more defensive responsibility. Ask which he prefers, and the reply gives a hint of the frustrations he has endured.

'I'm happiest to be playing. When I joined Chelsea seven years ago I had the reputation of something of a cavalier defender who liked to get forward, but some managers here have tried to curtail that. I knew I had the ability to be one of the top players at the club, but others did not seem to share that view.'

His mood now is in fierce contrast to that of three seasons ago, when disillusionment was so deep he asked for a transfer. 'Immediately I knew it was a mistake, because I didn't really want to leave. I was relieved that nothing came of it and now I have been here so long I cannot envisage life without Chelsea.

'The interest in our Cup run has made me appreciate exactly what the club means to the supporters. They have been made to wait too long for days like this, and I have never seen them so happy.'

They are happy when he bombs forward, knowing that, with his technical ability, something is always likely to happen. He has had a hand in many goals and Peter Schmeichel will recall that it was his fierce shot at Stamford Bridge which the Manchester United goalkeeper was forced to spill at Gavin Peacock's feet to set up the first leg of Chelsea's Premiership double over today's opponents.

With five sisters and two brothers, Clarke will not be short of family support for his confrontation with Giggs. His elder brother Paul played professional football for Kilmarnock and an uncle was with Celtic, and he prepared at an early age for the time he would be a famous face.

A favourite family story has it that the day he signed forms for St Mirren as a youngster was the day he began practising his autograph.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments