Clark's meteoric rise a Boys' own story
Huddersfield manager eyes promotion today – and don't bet against him landing Newcastle job down the line
Sunday 29 May 2011
Lee Clark described it as his "best night in football" and anyone fortunate enough to have attended Hudders-field Town's League One play-off semi-final second leg against Bournemouth will understand why. Amid the unfolding drama of a 3-3 draw and penalty shoot-out, it became apparent this was one of those special occasions when it is possible to feel a football club – players, staff, supporters – united in pursuit of a dream.
At 38, Clark is at the end of only his second full season as a manager but his ability to galvanise his club is already clear. Last season he led Huddersfield to the play-offs, where they lost to Millwall in the semi-finals; they have bounced back this term by finishing third and enter today's Old Trafford showdown against Peterborough unbeaten in 27 League matches in 2011. Yet his "bright young thing" status comes as no surprise to Brian Clark (no relation), his one-time mentor at Wallsend Boys' Club, who saw him as a manager in the making when he was just a teenager.
Clark, whose first find as a scout for Newcastle United was a certain Paul Gascoigne, encountered his namesake playing for his primary school at the age of seven. The sight of him "bossing the game" persuaded him to take the young terrier to Wallsend Boys' Club, the famed breeding ground of North-east talent from which Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer and Michael Carrick, among others, emerged.
So far, so usual, but it is what happened next that singles Lee Clark out. In 1988, the year he turned 16, he and Brian set up a football club in Walker, his deprived home district in Newcastle's East End. "He said, 'I want a team to have of my own. I want one in Walker'," Brian Clark remembers. "He said that his friends in Pottery Bank, where he lived, didn't have anyone to take them on. He wanted it and I got it for him. The local council gave us the money – about £350 – and we started a team off called Walker Central. That was 1988 and he was with us till 1992."
Clark was then making his way as a talented midfield prospect at St James' Park but every Thursday night he would lead coaching sessions, then oversee their Sunday fixtures. "He wasn't just a coach who got them kicking a ball around in a gym and then came to the game. He would sit down and talk with the kids and tell them their faults. For those four years Walker Central couldn't get beaten. As a coach, he won cups, leagues, everything. He had a knack."
One of the youngsters under his wing was the current Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi; another, David Beharall, made six league appearances for the club in the late Nineties. Walker Central has grown subsequently and two recent alumni, Sam Ameobi and Michael Richardson, are on the fringes of Newcastle's first team.
Today Clark is a touchline jack in the box, his manner underlining Brian Clark's observation that "he is always in a hurry, he wants things to happen now". Even in his Walker days, he was a perfectionist. Brian recalls the teenager devising a plan to stop Paul Brayson, now with Blyth Spartans, scoring against them for another boys' team, Montagu & North Fenham – even though Walker were winning their meetings handsomely. "He said, 'He's back again, that little kid there – he scored twice last time and the time before three times. I don't want him to score against us any more'."
When Clark took the Huddersfield job in December 2008, after assisting Glenn Roeder at Newcastle and Norwich, he declared that he had wanted to manage from 16. He took his first coaching badge at 23 and throughout his playing days took notes of what his managers were doing.
Listening to Brian, it is possible to see that key pieces were slotting into place at an early age. "When he signed for Newcastle, other lads like Steve Watson looked up at Lee. People wanted to play for him, people wanted to be with him, older lads respected him." Watson himself – who, like Paul Stephenson, is another Wallsend Boys graduate and Newcastle old boy in Huddersfield's boot room – says Clark was the player team-mates always turned to with questions about football trivia, such was his knowledge.
On the field, Clark, though never the quickest, had the priceless ability to read the game. "I remember saying to him, 'To make up for your lack of pace you have to read the game, you have to stand and see the game, see where the weaknesses and strengths are of the other teams'," says Brian. He could also pick a pass. "When Kevin Keegan was at Newcastle, he didn't like him at first because he thought he couldn't run, but Keegan fell in love with him because of his passing," he adds, citing Clark's role in the goals scored by team-mates Andy Cole, Kevin Phillips and Louis Saha. Perhaps inevitably, Clark has Huddersfield playing passing football with the sweet left foot of winger Gary Roberts a prominent feature.
If Old Trafford seems the perfect stage for Darren Ferguson, son of you know who, to repeat the promotion which he won in his first spell with Peterborough, Clark himself has known success there – scoring for Fulham in a 3-1 win over Manchester United in 2003.
That was among the highlights of a playing career that included promotion with Newcastle, Sunderland and Fulham. Whether or not he achieves another today to end Huddersfield's 10-year exile from the second tier, Brian Clark is confident that a bright future beckons.
Before Huddersfield faced Newcastle in the Carling Cup last August, their chairman Dean Hoyle admitted that Clark regarded the manager's job at St James' Park as "his Holy Grail". Brian does not doubt that he will one day attain it.
"He wants the big job, he wants the Newcastle job at some time in his life. He is determined to be a top manager and he will be. I will have a bet with anybody."
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