Points and positions
First Team Squad
U19, U18 & U17
first appeared in the Observer Sunday 25.11.00
With seven of the last 16 coming from
outside the Premiership - six from the First Division - the scent of a major
final willgrow stronger for those who prevail in this week's fourth round.
But, with his side about to face struggling Derby County, Clark's focus
remains fixed on the league.
'Promotion is what this season is all
about,' he said. 'Give everyone at Fulham the choice between three points at
Preston next weekend or making progress against Derby and we'll take the
'Nevertheless, we also know that the
Worthington Cup means a direct route into Europe for the winners. That's a
If all the above sounds like stock
diplomacy from a disciplined, focused professional, it's perhaps
understandable. Clark has sailed close to controversy in the past and while
he has the air of a young, carefree player, it's a good mask.
At 28 he finds himself locked once again
into a promotion campaign, having helped Newcastle reach the fledgling
Premiership in 1993 and prompted and probed in Sunderland's midfield as they
won the league by a record margin in 1999. On the day he left Newcastle for
Wearside in 1997 he was named in an England squad by Glenn Hoddle. He is a
player of genuine class and Premiership quality yet here he is again,
scrapping to join the elite.
His last move two summers ago was coloured
with controversy. Having enjoyed the celebrations following Sunderland's
promotion he found himself in the middle of a furore after the revelation
that he had joined Newcastle-supporting pals at the FA Cup final against
Manchester United ... wearing a T-shirt mocking the Wearside fans he then
played for: 'Sad Mackem Bastards' screamed the logo and Clark, a lifelong
Gallowgate fan, had to go.
His account of that departure from the
North-East is compellingly honest.
'The T-shirt incident is a massive
regret in my career,' he says. 'But although we'd won promotion, I
had already told Peter Reid, the manager, that I was thinking of moving. In
hindsight, joining Sunderland was a mistake.
'A mistake because of my background.
Everyone knows I'm Newcastle through and through. When I left Newcastle, the
prospect of staying in the North-East, close to my family, was the big pull
in going to Sunderland. But when we won promotion it dawned on me what that
really meant. I would have to go to Newcastle the following season as a
'I couldn't do that. Not to go there and
give 100 per cent for Sunderland against the club I love and played for. And
if I couldn't do that I'd have been cheating on Peter Reid, his assistant
Bobby Saxton, the fans and all my team-mates. It was best that I went and
Peter Reid knew how I felt before what happened at Wembley.'
If that sounds 'unprofessional' Clark is
unfazed and brutally frank. 'I'm just being honest. It's how I feel. It
won't be a problem if Fulham are lucky enough to win promotion. It's not a
problem at all in my going to Newcastle as a Fulham player and giving
everything - that would be a very different situation. To understand you
have to know the feeling in the North-East between the two clubs.'
Clark tempers this confession by
accentuating the upside of his two years on Wearside. He was accepted by the
fans: 'They knew where my heart lay but were happy so long as I did the
business for Sunderland on the pitch. And they knew I did that - always.
'We got to the play-off final in my
first year and won the title in the second. It was the right manager - Peter
was great for me - the right people but ultimately the wrong move.'
Although there were other options, almost
certainly including Premiership clubs, Clark went to Fulham to be reunited
with Paul Bracewell, his old team-mate at Newcastle.
'This club felt right for me,' he
says. '"Brace" had been my team-mate at Newcastle and then my
assistant manager at Sunderland and he's been a big influence on my career.
The club had big ambitions and I wanted to be part of that.'
When Bracewell was sacked last season it
left Clark a little bewildered in the big city at a club now stripped of the
North-East influence that had formed part of the attraction when he joined.
'It hit me quite hard,' he admits.
'He [Bracewell] was certainly a major influence in my coming here. But he
was adamant that I should stick around with Fulham.'
And stick he did, finding a the new manager
with even better international midfield credentials than Bracewell - Jean
Tigana. So far, the move has been wonderful for Tigana, Fulham and also
A blip following an unbeaten start to the
campaign followed defeat in October at home to Preston but that is now
forgotten. Fulham went into the weekend five points clear and the talk is
often not if Fulham go up - but when.
Clark, a veteran of those successful
Tyne-Wear campaigns in the Nineties, is perfectly placed to assess their
chances and their capability. 'I'd say right away that we're not taking
anything for granted. I know only too well that it can go wrong if you take
your eyes off the target.
'It's getting harder all the time to get
out of this division. But we are well-placed and there are plenty of players
here at Fulham, not only me, who have played Premiership football and want
to get back there.'
If Fulham make the top flight for
the first time since the Sixties, what will Clark's advice to his colleagues
be, especially those without Premiership experience? His answer is swift and
characteristically frank: 'Keep the ball for as long as possible, as long
as you can,' he says.
'Because once the opposition have got
it, they'll give it to strikers who are world class and will punish you. One
chance and it's in the back of your net.'
Last weekend, as he was scoring and helping
Fulham to a convincing win against Portsmouth, his old clubs were meeting on
Tyneside, where Sunderland won 2-1 before more than 52,000 fans.
'I was so pleased to beat Pompey and
then I was instantly gutted when I heard the derby score,' Clark
admitted. But now he has the prospect - without counting chickens - of
facing both clubs if Fulham go up.