Rotherham United: Unplayable or a talent unfulfilled? Which one is the real Millers striker Jonson Clarke-Harris?

Jonson Clarke-Harris scores against Leeds
Jonson Clarke-Harris scores against Leeds
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Everyone remembers that goal at home to Leeds United. They all recall how he literally burst the ball against the same side a few months later.

In front of the Sky Sports cameras one Friday night in October 2014, Rotherham United’s new young centre-forward announced himself to the football world in only his fifth match for the club.

Jonson Clarke-Harris latched on to the ball 45 yards from goal, broke forward and buried his 25-yard shot past Marco Silvestri to win the Yorkshire derby for the Millers 2-1.

At Elland Road, on the last day of that Championship season, he hit a free-kick so hard the matchball almost left the field on a stretcher. Like a spent player in the dying minutes, it was in such urgent need of air it had to be replaced. The ferocity of the shot was frightening.

What some people forget are the ineffective performances, the times when he has failed to work himself into games and an air of disinterest has followed.

There are reasons why the man who signed him, Steve Evans, twice sent him out on loan to a lower league, why last season’s survival saviour, Neil Warnock, hardly played him.

The relegated Millers last week gave their 22-year-old striker a new one-year deal - 12 months to prove himself in League One after nearly all of this season was written off by cruciate knee ligament surgery.

It’s time for the real Clarke-Harris to stand up.

Can the man with power and presence to burn prosper in the all-for-one, one-for-all world of new manager Paul Warne which will be about effort, fitness, application, desire?

He arrived as the club’s record signing from Oldham Athletic on transfer deadline day three years ago. He’d been Coventry City’s youngest ever player, aged 16 years and 21 days, before moving to Peterborough, where his career faltered, then to Bury and on to the Latics.

The boy can really hit a ball

The boy can really hit a ball

“Quicker than Usain Bolt over 10 metres,” said Evans. Not quite. He’s got a real burst of acceleration, there’s no doubting that. But the boss’s mouth was working faster than Clarke-Harris’s feet.

The youngster wasted little time making his mark with that Sky strike and followed up by scoring in the 3-3 draw with Fulham in his next game. The pattern was soon set. At his best, unplayable and thrillingly rampant. At his worse, uninvolved and sullenly frustrated.

After a debut season which brought three goals in 16 Millers appearances and saw him spend time at League One MK Dons and Doncaster Rovers, he followed up with six in 36 the next year.

There were stunning early-season goals against QPR and Bristol City: bristling menace, sharp movement and left-footed shots bent with perfect precision into the far corner.

Injured against Parkgate FC last pre-season

Injured against Parkgate FC last pre-season

He came on as a substitute in the famous 1-0 home victory over Middlesbrough in March, the game when supporters started to believe the Warnock miracle might just be on. Down in the left corner in front of the North Stand, he ‘monstered’ teenager Dael Fry - who would later play for the Millers on loan - before setting up Lee Frecklington’s winner.

But by then, Warnock, having seen neglible contributions in defeats at Burnley and Reading, had decided others deserved to start in front of him.

Like supporters, the people who have managed and coached him have marvelled at his gifts and despaired at the inconsistency of his form and attitude.

Evans told him to take some of the anger out of his approach and add more thinking. Neil Redfearn believed in his potential enough to turn down a significant bid from Charlton Athletic. Another member of staff no longer with the club described him as “uncoachable”.

Kevin Blackwell, Warnock’s right-hand man and part of Rotherham’s great escape, told the story of how he’d turned round Clarke-Harris during the player’s loan spell at Bury which helped him earn his move from Peterborough to Oldham.

Barry Fry, Posh’s director of football, had phoned him. “I’ve got a player I need you to do something with,” Fry said. “He’s got everything but he’s giving me nothing.”

This campaign was wrecked by his injury. He went down last July under an innocent challenge in the first pre-season friendly of Alan Stubbs’ reign, against non-league Parkgate FC. It looked innocuous but the squeal of pain as he lay on the turf told you otherwise.

Stubbs never got to see him in serious action. Neither did successor Kenny Jackett who found time in his 39-day stay to praise “a really good physique”.

Now he’s Warne’s weapon or worry, depending on how he rises to the challenge to show he is worth more than the extension he signed last week after ending the Millers’ Championship relegation year with five April substitute appearances and then starts in the final two matches.

The manager has already warned that he’ll be loaned out if he doesn’t report for pre-season training in the right condition.

“I spoke to him and told him what I expected from him on and off the training ground and the pitch,” Warne said.

“I wanted to keep him hungry and I wanted to say to him that if he comes back and is in great shape and playing every week, scoring goals, then his contract will increase and the length of his contract will be looked at again.

“The ball is in his court because a fit Clarke-Harris is a handful against anyone. I think he’s done well in a couple of games, but I think he has a lot more to give.

“I think he will give a lot more because, if he buys into what we’re doing in the summer, he’ll have to.”

Looking like he still has a bit of bulk to shed, Clarke-Harris was man of the match in the 1-1 draw at Preston North End, but less imposing in the last-day home clash with Derby County which ended in the same score.

The media have seen little of him since his injury. He’s a surprisingly good interviewee, though: disarmingly thoughtful, much more self-deprecating and introspective than you’d expect, quick to admit he has much to learn, far removed from the ‘gangsta lite’ persona he sometimes portrays on Twitter.

He can also walk past you a week later as if the pair of you have never spoken before.

Some in the Millers camp think the brashness and posturing hide a measure of insecurity.

Warne has joked in the past that the way to keep him happy in training is to just let him keep firing shots on goal. But that won’t happen as the boss looks to build a squad as fit as any in League One next season.

Pre-season is going to be brutal. Three sessions a day. Less shooting, more running.

This is Clarke-Harris’s last chance at Rotherham. As Warne says, the ball, burst or otherwise, is in his court.

After three years, he’s as much an enigma now as when he arrived, dividing fans’ opinion probably more than any other player.

It’s a measure of what he can do that many are delighted he’s staying.

It’s a measure of what he has yet to do that others would have been happy to see him go.

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