Clark at pains to keep Fulham on even keel

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The Independent Football

There is a bond between Lee Clark and Chris Coleman. An irreducible bond forged by two sportsmen in the hard, unforgiving hours of rehab. An Achilles injury meant almost two years were rubbed from Clark's career - a car accident simply ended Coleman's. "He worked like a beast to try to get back playing," says Clark of the man, just two years his senior, who is now his manager at Fulham.

The midfielder, 31 next month, witnessed at first hand the effort, the brutal determination, put in by his former team-mate and captain. "I think the chairman [Mohamed Al Fayed] looked at that and thought, we have a winner, a battler - someone who can come through something that threatened his life, never mind his career," says Clark.

The synergy was completed in Coleman's first game in charge near the end of last season. He brought back Clark from the wilderness of being overlooked by the enigma of Jean Tigana, the wilderness of false dawns and serial comebacks. The opponents that day were Newcastle United - Clark's home-town team, the team he loves, played for and openly supports. The Geordie got the winning goal. Coleman got the job.

It means much to a player who craves a togetherness, a bond, that was lacking at the west London club but will be in evidence today against Birmingham City. "Working hard for each other, fighting for each other," Clark says. "We have a bit of a laugh in training but work hard. It has been terrific since he's taken over - the foreign lads have come out of their shell and joined in. There are certain players who were very quiet and within themselves, both on and off the pitch."

Indeed, laughter wasn't much in evidence last season at Motspur Park, Fulham's training ground, as Tigana's influence waned and his relationship with chairman Fayed soured. Clark's frustration with Tigana is also clear. "Well, his first season I played every game when we got promoted, but then I picked up the injury and he went out and spent a lot of money," he says. "A lot of the players he brought in were in the midfield, so when I did come back I found it hard to force my way in.

"I don't know if it was that he didn't believe in me any more - it's just he had spent the money and felt he had to give those players a chance. Towards the end I was getting frustrated and felt I wasn't getting a fair crack of the whip. But that was his choice. I had had a long-term injury and needed time to get my confidence back, and he wasn't prepared to give me that."

Coleman was. "It's good to have a manager who believes in me and wants me," says Clark, who was signed by Tigana's predecessor, Paul Bracewell, his former team-mate at Newcastle and assistant manager at Sunderland, for £3 million in 1999.

Few outside the club have had much belief in Fulham, however. "A lot of pundits have said we are going to be one of the three teams who go down, and we can use that as a motivational thing," Clark says. It has created a type of siege mentality. Coleman has likened them to Wimbledon, and the players have responded with two wins in three games. It's their best Premiership start.

Clark balks at the critics. "I get frustrated sometimes when people take a swipe at the club - they put it as 'this crisis club', but the club nearly went out of business before the chairman took over," he says. "Second from bottom of the Third Division - he came in and gave them a dream, and he delivered that dream. But he cannot go on spending millions of pounds."

Injury has given him a new perspective, as has captaincy. "Up until then my career had been full of highs, with minor hiccups here and there," Clark says. "It had been about winning, winning promotions, the First Division with three different clubs. A couple of big moves, playing for my hometown club, winning Champions' League slots. Everything had been positive. Then the injury came along; that was a massive blow. I've now experienced both sides of the coin and can use that experience."

He still believes he has "six or seven years" left as a player - "I've never relied on pace. I've played at the top level through intelligence, not because I can run the 100 metres in 11 seconds" - and wants to stay at Fulham for as long as he can, even though he admits that he and his family struggled to settle in London at first. Indeed, the transition was initially so hard that his wife moved back to the North-east for a year.

The Geordie connection will be there again today against Birmingham - a club managed by Steve Bruce, who went to the same school as Clark, Benfield, in Newcastle. "He has brought in very good players, terrific players who work hard and have a good team spirit, a good work ethic," says Clark.

It is something that even the most sceptical of pundits may also start saying about Fulham.