Sport Soccer

Tuesday 28 February 2017

Clark finds his true colours

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

When a small country like Ireland gets wind of a potential star, the patience is tested waiting for them to develop.

But with the sudden emergence of Ciaran Clark as an option over the past six months, Irish fans have experienced the closest thing possible, in international football, to the exhilaration that accompanies a major transfer window signing.

Generally, players that convert to the Irish cause relatively late in the day come with the suspicion that they are just that little bit short of making the top grade with the land of their birth. Rarely does one pop up who appears to have the potential to spend his career at the very highest level.

Clark fits that bill, however, a versatile defender-cum-midfielder, who has somehow managed to emerge from a chaotic season at Aston Villa with his reputation considerably enhanced.

The remarkable aspect of his transition to Ireland is that it took the powers that be so long to realise a link with a player with such obvious connections.

Both of Clark's parents grew up in these parts. His mother, Peggy, was born and raised in Drumshambo, Co Leitrim.

Dad Michael spent his early years in Scotland before moving to Ballyare in Donegal. They met in Ireland and emigrated to London, where Ciaran was brought into the world.

The FAI are normally on the ball in terms of identifying emerging talent with qualifications, but Clark slipped through the net, rising through the ranks at Aston Villa, while captaining England at underage level.

He led them to the European U-19 Championships in 2008 and was still on the general radar when Richard Dunne met his folks last August, copped the accent and set the wheels in motion. The rest is history.

"Even though I was born and raised in England, I have always felt an allegiance to Ireland, but I wasn't offered the chance to represent the country at junior levels. Maybe the Irish officials didn't realise I was available," said Clark in an interview last month.

"So, England was a second option. It never felt right to me because Ireland was always the country I wanted to represent."

After an impressive debut against Wales last month, he is in line to get his first taste of competitive action at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow night, even if the pendulum appears to have swung back in the favour of the experienced Kevin Kilbane as this week has progressed.

Perhaps this encounter might come too soon, but, all going to plan, Clark should be a crucial part of the spine of the team over the next decade. That is certainly what Dunne was thinking when he directed him across the Irish Sea.

Clark has sprung to prominence with both club and country this season, but observers in Birmingham

always reckoned that it would only be a matter of time before he burst through.

He was scouted by Villa at the age of 11, with Peggy and Michael driving their son from their home in Bedford to the academy at Bodymoor Heath three times a week.

A talented crop was assembled and those players have matured together and steadily filtered through into the first team.

Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan, Nathan Delfouneso and Jonathan Hogg are others to have emerged.

The last three named have been sent on loan to further their education, yet Clark and Albrighton were both considered ready to skip that part of the process.

Clark had captained the team at youth and reserve level at centre-half and twice lifted trophies; collecting the Premier Academy League championship in 2008 and the Premier Reserve League South title a year later.

That August, he made his first start with the big boys against Fulham, at a time when there was a dearth of defensive options at the club. The joint capture of Richard Dunne and James Collins, who struck up an initially successful partnership, consigned Clark to the background for another 12 months.

This season, he couldn't be held back any longer. Central defensive absences gave him the window of opportunity; from there, the aforementioned versatility has kept him in the heart of the action.

Clark has subsequently operated at left-back and in a holding midfield role and has even managed to chip in with four goals, including a last-minute equaliser at Stamford Bridge which was nicely timed to coincide with a rare visit from club owner, Randy Lerner.

Villa coaches would have known about his predatory instinct as he actually spent his first two years at the club as a striker before he was moulded into something completely different.

He even tried his hand at goalkeeping at one point, conceding just the one goal when drafted in as an emergency option in an U-16 game against Bristol City.

"I think your overall game and understanding improves from playing different positions," said Clark of his ability to multi-task.

"Centre-back is where I learned my trade and that's where I see myself in the future, although I think I would be comfortable anywhere."

In a sport where newspapers love comparisons, the Birmingham press have indicated that Clark could be the next Gareth Barry, which is deemed to be high praise in their circles.

Certainly, despite the rancorous atmosphere that seems to be hovering over the English midlands club at the moment, discussion of Clark offers a rare beacon of positivity.

Villa cult hero Martin Laursen dropped in recently to tell local scribes that, in his opinion, the Irish recruit was the outstanding talent among the up and coming bunch.

Speculation even linked Clark with Manchester United as part of a double swoop involving Ashley Young.

The rumour was dismissed, but the prospect that the player could one day attract the interest of such a club wasn't considered outlandish.

Of course, the history of Irish football is littered with tales of youngsters saddled with substantial expectations before they even had their feet under the table, so the usual discretion is required.

The hope is that the level-headed personality that earmarked him as captaincy material from an early age survives the transition to stardom. If it does, then the world is at his feet.

Irish Independent

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