Wednesday 21 March 2018

Clark hoping to bring club form to international stage

Newcastle defender primed for crucial World Cup challenge against Georgia, writes Liam Kelly

Ciaran Clark believes he is in the best form of his career. Photo: PA
Ciaran Clark believes he is in the best form of his career. Photo: PA
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Ciaran Clark's celebrations after scoring a vital goal for newly-promoted Newcastle United were a joy to behold after he headed home a goal in the Magpies' 3-0 home win against West Ham last Saturday.

The centre-back gave a man of the match performance, including clearing a goal-bound West Ham attempt off the line when the score was just 1-0.

He later nodded in the second goal, and Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic got the third shortly before the end of a pulsating match.

The result helped steady the nerves of Toon fans after losing their two previous matches and showed manager Rafa Benitez his players could respond to a changed situation.

tipped Last season, during which Clark nailed down a regular starting place, Newcastle were the hunters in the Championship.

Before a ball was kicked, they were tipped for a return to the Premier League after suffering relegation in the previous campaign.

Now the Geordies are the hunted, and for Ciaran Clark and his clubmates, the gauntlet has been thrown down: can they rise up the table to make an impact on the toughest league in the world game? Clark's response is the essence of realism.

"Going off the back of last season coming into the Premier League, we want to do our best to make sure we're in the Premier League next season for a start.

"Everyone would love to have a Cup run, especially for the fans, but the most important thing is to survive in the Premier League," Clarke (right) said.

The international break for the big games away to Georgia on Saturday and Serbia at the Aviva next Tuesday brings a new but welcome pressure as the Irish chase World Cup qualification.

All the indications are that Clark and Burnley's Shane Duffy will once again be paired together at the centre of defence - but don't say that to the Newcastle player.

He does not want to tempt fate, and despite starting three of the World Cup games alongside Duffy, Clark would not dare to presume his place is secure.

"Obviously there is a big squad and a real competition for places now.

"No one is guaranteed a place in the team and even at this morning's session, everyone was 100 per cent at it today, everyone was really trying to put their best foot forward to earn a place in the team.

"You just take things day by day and do what you can to try and impress Martin," added Clark.

The revised squad has just five centre-backs: Clark and Duffy, Richard Keogh, John O'Shea, and Burnley's Kevin Long, but complacency is not appropriate given assistant manager Roy Keane's take on the central defensive slot in the Republic's team. From his point of view, Clark and Duffy cannot rest on their laurels.

"There is plenty of growing to be done. They are learning all the time. In an ideal world you would like some partnerships, but it's not as simple as that because of the lads who turn up, lads pick up injuries.

"But Duffy and Clark, yeah, they're not bad. It's not having a go at them, but I'm not one for throwing out toffee unless players really deserve it.

"I've took that quote from Seamus McDonagh by the way, he has one about giving lads 'toffee'," said Keane with a smile.

On a more serious note, Kevin Long, veteran O'Shea, and Keogh are all capable of slotting into the heart of the Irish back line if required.

Long, 27, a strapping 6ft 3ins gritty defender from Ballyphehane in Cork, played against Austria in June when Clark was injured, winning his third cap.

He would have no fears about stepping onto the pitch at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo stadium in Tbilisi, and can only hope that a shortage of outings at club level does not count against him when the manager picks his starting team.

"As I said, there is a good number of players here and everyone wants to play.

"I played in the Cup last week so if it comes down to match-fitness, I feel I am ready.

"I don't think that will go against me. I'm ready, it's just up to the manager, who he wants to pick and what he thinks is the best team.

intense "At Burnley, we've got quite a competitive squad and our training is always intense.

"The manager likes us to train how we play. Once you train all the time at a good level and at good intensity, when match day comes around I think you are ready.

"You just take it all in your stride," he said.

The atmosphere in the stadium on Saturday night is sure to be intense but that would not concern Long.

Long recently signed a three-year contract with Burnley, so clearly manager Sean Dyche has plenty of confidence in him.

"I love it at Burnley, it's all about getting game-time now. That's the main focus for me - to get games and play lots of games," he said.

Irish Independent

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