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Lee Clarke Interview 

First appeared in the Sunday Times on 04.02.01
Off the pitch, Fulham star Lee Clark's loyalties are clear:
it's a simple case of black and white

Home fire still burns for Clark  

Another tough day for Lee Clark. 

First, he'll supply his habitual high industry for 90 minutes for Fulham at the top of the First Division. Come 4pm the adrenalin rush begins all over again. Watching Newcastle United, whose match is televised this afternoon, stirs Clark almost as much as doing his day job, and as greatly as it did when he was a seven-year-old peering from the terraces at St James' Park.

Clark will wish he could be among the Toon Army, a soldier where he was a serving general. There are few footballers in whom the fan speaks so loud and proud as this one. Most famously, his Newcastle fanaticism caused him to sacrifice two seasons of Premiership football, when "the incident", as he calls it, meant he had to leave Sunderland just as they rejoined the top division 18 months ago. The move to Fulham has brought huge professional fulfilment, but Clark is still profoundly embarrassed about photographs which found their way into the public domain showing him wearing a T-shirt ridiculing Sunderland supporters when he went to watch Newcastle at the 1999 FA Cup final.

For all the genuine regret about that episode, his Newcastle roots and affections still tug on him daily, even as he orchestrates Fulham's march to the Premiership. Tomorrow, assuming he has the day off, Clark will be back in the northeast with his family. Were he not Fulham's most valued footballer, the fulcrum for much of their most effective passing and movement, his patent enthusiasm for his native Newcastle might be interpreted by Fulham followers as a little too promiscuous an affection. He says candidly that he still dreams of playing again for Newcastle, as he did for eight exhilarating years. He would expect Fulham supporters to understand that emotion because, as fans, they identify with the supporter within him.

He would also know that, week in, week out, they detect no evidence of compromise in his loyalties. No one works harder, covers more ground, creates more goalscoring opportunities for the leaders of Division One. Cut him, as the saying goes, and Clark really does bleed black and white; but only when he's off-duty do the colours run in stripes.

"Some people say to me that if you're a professional you can't really keep that supporter's side of your feelings," he says. "I don't see that. I'm a Geordie through and through and I love that football club.

"It was unbelievable fortune on my part that I was lucky enough to play for them, and possibly during their best times. Northeast people are all passionate about whatever team they support, no matter what job they're in. I'm enjoying my football at Fulham, but that doesn't mean I can't support Newcastle."

None the less, the clock ticks towards four significant dates. Assuming Fulham go up - and most bookmakers share the assumption - and they hold on to their most creative midfielder, Clark will return to St James' Park as a player for the first time next season. He will also go back to Sunderland.

At the Stadium of Light he would expect a "hot reception"; at Newcastle there would be a few hot flushes, doubtless, but no sentimental bias. Where the fan in Clark would have felt treacherous playing against Newcastle for their Wearside rivals, the fan in him also thinks that Newcastle supporters will appreciate Fulham's brand of football, and respond to some common strands in recent history. Many of those strands were woven together by Kevin Keegan, manager of both clubs during their phoenix years.

Keegan it was who provided Clark, 28, with the greatest adventures of a career which has touched, but not yet quite grasped, the summit.

Three-and-a-half years ago his energy, vision and outstanding distribution brought him into one of Glenn Hoddle's England squads. A year earlier he had been part of Keegan's Newcastle team that appeared to have galloped away with the Premiership title, only to watch the challenge fade in dramatic, emotional circumstances. Keegan's theatrical exit from St James' Park coincided with the first suggestions of Clark's move across the Tyne-Wear Rubicon.

The Keegan Years remain vivid in the memory. Clark recalls attending Keegan's 1982 debut as a player for the club. By then Clark had already been identified as a schoolboy prospect. He made his debut for the first team just before Newcastle dropped into the old Second Division in 1989, when he was 17, and was established by the time Keegan returned as manager, with an urgent commission to save the club from unprecedented relegation to the lower half of the professional ranks in 1992.

"Kevin Keegan was brilliant," says Clark. "People who aren't from Newcastle and don't support the club do not realise what he's done for us. We were 90 minutes from going into the old Third Division. Less than a year later we're top of the First Division, and a year after that we are classed as the most entertaining team in the country; the stadium's been redeveloped from all-standing at two ends to one that's second only to Old Trafford. None of that would have happened without Keegan. He got us to within a whisker of winning the Premiership - and we should have won it."

Keegan thought highly of Clark, too, although the relationship began inauspiciously. Almost as soon as the new manager had arrived, he recalls the lad swinging a punch at one of his teammates in training.

"Passion overflowed," Clark recalls. "We were in a terrible predicament at the time, and I'm a Geordie boy. I felt passionately about it. I think Kevin realised that, but wanted us to channel it in the right direction, which was the sensible thing to do."

And for the next five years, passion channelled Newcastle onwards and upwards. Clark was a central figure. He played almost 200 times for his favourite club and is not inclined to kid you about his contribution, which at its best was good enough for England. Bigger and bigger signings came in, and Clark served all of them with distinction. He rejects the suggestion once made by Keegan that a lack of pace has held him back: "I do get into the box and I create things for other people. I believe I can pass as well as anybody in the game.

"Look back through my career. Is it a coincidence that David Kelly scored 30-plus goals when I was playing just behind him at Newcastle? That Andy Cole smashed all sorts of records when he was at Newcastle? I played behind Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand and they were scoring 20-plus. I believe I created a fair few of them goals."

Clark continues to do so at Fulham, supplying the most prolific attack in English football, one based around the pace and finish of Louis Saha, Luis Boa Morte and a rejuvenated Barry Hayles. And at Sunderland he served an equally grateful little master: "Kevin Phillips was doing it the two years I was playing behind him at Sunderland, and of course he's carried it on, smashing all kinds of records."

Does Clark regret not staying with Sunderland, whom he helped in their ascent to the Premiership and who now challenge for a Champions League place? No, he insists, even if the circumstances surrounding his departure will forever feel "totally regrettable".

The fact is, he says, he wanted to leave Sunderland because once they had achieved promotion at the end of his second season there, he dreaded the trip to St James'. "It sank in that I may have to go back to Newcastle as a Sunderland player and I didn't feel sure what I could have done.

"You have to understand the rivalry between Newcastle and Sunderland. There's no problem going back to Newcastle as a player for any other club, including Fulham, but the idea of going back to St James' Park as a Sunderland player and trying to give my best . . . I'm just not sure. I've never, ever gone out on to a football pitch and not given my best, but that would have tested me, which was not right for anyone. I didn't divulge that to anyone at Sunderland, but my family knew the situation."

So, too, did the fans he travelled to Wembley with for the 1999 Cup final. On fellow Geordies the offending T-shirt would have been part of the uniform. On a Sunderland employee it represented as firm a transfer demand as Jean-Marc Bosman's writ. "I don't like the way it happened at all," Clark admits. "But I would have moved anyway. Sunderland are a great-sized club, have a passionate set of supporters, have an outstanding manager, Peter Reid, with tremendous staff behind him, and a great bunch of players, but just the wrong name for Lee Clark."

So how had he joined Sunderland at all, and played so well for them for two years? "I joined them because of Peter Reid; but also because it meant not having to move away from the northeast. I had a young son, Jak, at the time. That was a major factor for us."

It still is. Clark's family (five-year-old Jak now has a sister, three-year-old Claudia) have not joined him in London and the long commute home once a week brings its own strains. Hence the regular drip-drip of speculative stories linking him with clubs closer to home, and, naturally, to Newcastle.

Would he go back, leave the most upwardly mobile club in the league, the Mohamed al-Fayed fortunes, the admired regime of Jean Tigana, and the chance to build on a third promotion from the First Division with a third club? The response is nothing if not frank. "It's a dream to go back, and it's something I hang on to," he says.

"That's just the way I feel, and I always wear my heart on my sleeve. It might never happen and it would have to be right. I'm a professional as well. Here at Fulham I'm working with a manager who appreciates the good things I can do for his team. I'm enjoying it here, and Fulham supporters know that if we do ever play Newcastle, in the Cup or the Premiership or whatever, I'll be fighting the cause."

Ian Hawkey

Page last updated 24 June, 2009