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Football League

Rising star Clark sets sights on Huddersfield joining Premier elite

There exists on YouTube a Tyne Tees TV interview with Kevin Keegan and some of his 1993 Newcastle United players standing on the St James's Park terraces the day after securing promotion to the Premier League.

It is striking for the youthfulness of a 42-year-old Keegan and the state of a stadium on the verge of transformation. Sporting the classic scally look of shaven head and tracksuit, meanwhile, is a bubbly Lee Clark, then 20.

To the casual observer, this would be the same Geordie japester who six years later wore an anti-Sunderland t-shirt when supporting Newcastle at the FA Cup final while an employee of the Wearsiders – an offence for which he was sacked (and which he recalls with regret as "totally uncharacteristic and unprofessional").

Yet it is a perception that does a disservice to a man who has not become by chance one of English football's brightest young managers. Even as a promising teenage midfielder, Clark was planning a career in management, building for today when he hopes to take a step towards another promotion with a Huddersfield Town side facing Bournemouth in the League One play-off semi-finals.

When Clark, 38, says he wanted to become a manager "from 16", it is no exaggeration. In 1988, with the help of Brian Clark – a Newcastle United scout who had managed him at Wallsend Boys Club manager – he set up Walker Central, a football club named after the deprived area where he grew up.

Brian Clark says he was a natural. "He was the coach and I was the figurehead. He was with us 'till 1992 and for those four years Walker Central won everything. We had the gym for an hour and ten minutes on Thursday night and he'd be another hour in the changing room telling the kids what he wanted."

Clark was soon absorbing lessons from his own managers. "From an early age I used to take notes at training sessions – what we did, the tactics that were used and how managers would react to different scenarios."

With Keegan, he witnessed the alchemist's touch. "He made you feel the best. When you went out at five to three, you felt like the best player in the world." Clark also cites the man-management skills of Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Peter Reid, while Jean Tigana at Fulham opened his eyes to "fitness, nutrition, diet, training methods".

Clark, after assisting Glenn Roeder at Newcastle and Norwich, took the step up with Huddersfield in 2008. He steered them to sixth place last term before a play-off semi-final loss to Millwall. With the support of an equally ambitious chairman, Dean Hoyle, wealthy from the sale of his greetings-card business, Huddersfield bounced back this season, finishing third. Clark prefers a passing game but they can now "win matches in different manners. The second half of the season, 25 unbeaten, we've shown that," he says.

Huddersfield visit Bournemouth on the back of a club-record run of six straight away wins. They have benefited from Clark's tactical flexibility: dropping top scorer Jordan Rhodes for away games, with Benik Afobe, on loan from Arsenal, up front. Hull's Kevin Kilbane and Bolton's Danny Ward have also proved astute loan signings.

Steve Watson, now development coach at Huddersfield, is not surprised by the impact of his old Newcastle team-mate who was "always very vocal about his football". Watson worked under David Moyes at Everton and notes a similarity. "[Clark] is a hands-on coaching manager, he enjoys coaching and when he is coaching he has the same type of intensity as Moyes."

Clark's own matter-of-fact responses suggest a man in a hurry. "I want to work at the highest level I can and the highest level is the Premier League. That is where I want to be, as quickly as possible." And with Huddersfield? "Why not?" he says. "It's not easy [but] it is do-able."

Spoken like a Geordie Messiah.