Former full-back crossed swords with Roy Keane and ‘fell out’ with Brian Kerr, but believes his experience will help the next generation
The day job now for former Ireland international Clive Clarke is to mentor the young players on the books of his player agency in England.
There is one example of green shoots that’s very encouraging, as one of the clients is Middlesbrough and Ireland youths forward Calum Kavanagh, the 17-year-old son of ex-international Graham Kavanagh, Clarke’s former team-mate at Stoke City who is now his partner in the agency.
“Calum has huge potential and has everything needed to go on and have a good career, he has a good mindset as well as his footballing attributes. He has a really good chance if he keeps his feet on the ground and keeps developing,” says Clarke.
While dad Graham can of course offer advice, Clarke’s own story leaves him well-placed to advise any footballer about the rewards which the game can offer (Clarke reached the heights of Premier League and international football) but also warn them about how it can be taken away, very cruelly.
At 25, Clarke had the world at his feet. At 27 he was finished, the consequence of a heart attack he suffered during a game, playing on loan for Leicester City. Unable to play the game for health reasons and with no qualifications beyond being a footballer he had to start again.
There were a few detours along the way – a plan to train as a solicitor, a move back to Ireland at one stage and there was also a very public spat with his former manager Roy Keane – but at 41, Clarke enjoys the stability of a good family life and has carved out a living as an agent, away from the club scene.
“I have no aspirations to be a coach. When you do agency work, you see the horrible side of the game, the business side and with some of the stuff that goes on within clubs, I am happy to be not involved,” he says.
His own story, especially having to retire at 27, which makes him in to a figure that young players, like the teenager Kavanagh, will want to listen to. “The way my career panned out really helps me now in speaking to young players. I try and tell all the lads that it is a short career, a lot of them don’t realise that, how quickly it can go by and I am there to tell them,” Clarke says.
“I try and teach them about what can happen as my career ended overnight. Through no fault of your own, your career can be over in an instant.”
Lessons came his way quickly when he was forced into retirement.
“The one thing you learn when you finish is that, as a player, you are surrounded by loads of people who want to know you, want you to get them tickets or whatever, but when your career stops, they all vanish, so you find out how your friends are,” he says.
Clarke’s career ended suddenly in August 2007, but it had started brightly. Scouted from St Joseph’s Boys by Stoke City, he broke into the first team at 19, at the end of the 1998/’99 season, named man of the match on his home debut.
Premier League clubs were interested but he opted to stay on with Stoke. “I wasn’t driven by money, I just wanted games. Even when I moved to England first I chose Stoke over the likes of Arsenal as I saw a career path to the first team,” says Clarke.
Appointed team captain by Tony Pulis at 22, Clarke clocked up 229 league games in a seven-season spell with Stoke but by 2005, the lure of the Premier League, via an offer from West Ham, was irresistible.
Injury marred his time as a Hammer from the start as he suffered an injury in his first pre-season match and he would play only two Premier League games. He could have stayed on but Sunderland were very keen, his wife had not settled in London, and in the summer of 2006, Clarke was off, to the north east. “I should have stayed at West Ham,” he admits. “Sam Allardyce was supposed to be going in as Sunderland manager, and I liked Sam, but he turned Niall down last minute and they went down a different route.”
That different route was Roy Keane. And Clarke and Keane began a fraught relationship. “Roy came in and he had his own opinions about how he wanted to do things. We just clashed as individuals, I don’t agree when people talk down to me and that’s what I felt at the time there,” Clarke says.
“I was injured when Roy came in, I had a recurring groin injury from West Ham, I got back fit and he put me into the team for a few games, but we had words. We were both at fault, he had a go at me and I bit back, which I shouldn’t have done. Sometimes biting back at Roy is the worst thing you can do.”
In his second season at Sunderland, Clarke was loaned out to Leicester City. In his third game for them in what was shaping up to be a good spell, he collapsed while leaving the pitch at half-time in a League Cup tie against Nottingham Forest. He’d had a heart attack. And his career was over. At 27.
“You’re waking up to people explaining that you had a cardiac arrest and the chances of living were five per cent.
“You have to deal with that but also cope with the fact that you’ll probably never play football again, it was a very difficult and emotional time, a relief to be alive, especially as we’d just had a child, my daughter was only nine months at the time, but then you lose your livelihood, at 27,” he says.
“After a frustrating couple of years I was really looking forward to kicking on at Leicester, and it was such a kick in the teeth to know your career is over, while you’re also relieved to be alive. But you’re worried as I wasn’t on stupid money and I didn’t have enough in the bank to live off for the rest of my life.”
The fallout would cause greater strain. Clarke was unhappy with how the club handled his exit.
“People from the club came to the hospital and said, ‘don’t worry, we’ll look after you’. But within three months they wanted me out the door with only paying me a fraction of what my contract’s value was,” he says.
“I could have come out about that at the time but I tried to be respectful of the club. But they just wanted me out as cheap as they could, they didn’t give a monkey’s, they paid up what the rules were. They did what was within the law, but they’d told me not to worry about my contract and I had to worry about it pretty quickly.”
Keane showed his studs when he said of the incident “I’m shocked they found one (Clarke’s heart), you could never tell by the way he plays.”
“I took Roy’s comment with a pinch of salt, it was just Roy trying to sell books. My name’s not big enough to be worth mentioning so I don’t know why he did mention me,” says Clarke now.
“I don’t need to defend myself, I’d had top managers, like Tony Pulis, who knew I’d run through a brick wall for them.
“One of the reasons I started to get injuries at Stoke was when I’d play when I was only 70 per cent fit.”
Forced into retirement, he sought a new path in life. He planned to train as a solicitor but a five-year spell of training would have tested his patience and finances, and instead he worked in the arm of that company which looked after footballers’ contracts. After spells with some of the bigger agencies, Clarke was happy to step back and set up his own firm, with Kavanagh.
If his playing career was short, so was his time with Ireland, just two senior caps, both in friendlies, under Brian Kerr in 2004.
“At the start I had all these great full-backs like Irwin, Staunton, Kelly and Carr ahead of me and some of them were utter class so I can’t complain.
“But then I was unlucky with some of the appointments, and me and Brian Kerr fell out, I’m not afraid to speak my mind if I feel things are not being done right.
“Any time I played underage for Brian I did well, but I don’t know did he not like me as a player or as an individual.
“I should have had more caps than I did, I saw lads playing at a lower level than me in the Brian Kerr/Steve Staunton era who were getting caps. But I am happy to have done it, two caps is better than none.”