Leon Clarke spent so long in the treatment room earlier this season that, by his own admission, staff feared he might take up permanent residence.
Worries were shared, new friendships were formed and, in the case of fitness coach Lee McMahon, a relationship blossomed which has made them the butt of some light-hearted jokes.
“I get on really well with Macca,” Clarke, reflecting on his recent injury issues, says. “We’ve worked together a lot, albeit probably more than either of us would have liked. After the Northampton game, the two of us had a couple of beers on the bus back home. But he’s not a very good drinker so we won’t be going on Mr and Mrs, despite what other people might reckon, no.”
Clarke’s strike at Sixfields, which helped Sheffield United win promotion from League One at the sixth time of asking, was a pivotal moment in both his own season and also the club’s. Signed from Bury in July, the centre-forward’s campaign threatened to be wrecked by a persistent ankle problem which, until being cured last month, had defied diagnosis. But, two matches and three more goals later, he enters tomorrow’s match at MK Dons as a title-winner and Chris Wilder’s ‘go-to’ man in attack. A remarkable achievement given that, less than six months ago, he was being written-off as a busted flush.
“The last four games have gone well for me,” Clarke, gazing across Bramall Lane, continues. “It’s just a shame that I haven’t been able to play as many games as I would have liked. I said when I signed that, if I was fit and available, I can score a lot of goals in this league. It would have been nice to have a few more at the start but they’re coming now.”
Clarke is a complex character but, as he reveals the depth of his frustration at missing large chunks of the campaign, often misunderstood. Despite appearing somewhat detached at times, beneath the 32-year-old’s lackadaisical demeanour off the pitch, a fearsome competitor and loyal team mate lurks.
Asked about his burgeoning partnership with Billy Sharp - the two men, according to some mischief-makers, do not get along - Clarke grins as he remembers the latter’s decision to pass the ball for him to score his second goal during Monday’s victory over Bradford City rather than shoot himself.
“I wasn’t surprised that Bill squared it. I spoke to Duff (Mark Duffy) after the game and he said he thought Billy meant it for him. I’m not so sure. I definitely thought it was for me.
“Bill has been magnificent this season. He’s lead this team magnificently well and I can’t applaud him enough, being a fellow striker. He’s led by example with his goals and I can’t thank him or admire him enough.”
“We linked up well, me and Billy,” Clarke adds. “Building a partnership with Bill or anybody has been difficult because I’ve been in and out. But it was nice when we did work well together and he gave me an assist which was good.
It just comes from playing games. You can work on a lot of things on the training ground. You can spend hours and hours figuring out each others runs. But where you really learn is from matches. That’s where the understanding comes from.”
Clarke, aware of how Wilder stood-by him earlier this term, is also unwavering in his admiration for United manager whose side travels to Buckinghamshire 14 points clear at the top of the League One table and unbeaten since January 24.
“It shows, the unbeaten run, the character we have among the group of players. It shows the character of the manager too. He didn’t change his philosophy, even though we had a bad start to the season, and that really helped. At others clubs, things could have got a lot worse. But he stuck to his guns, the philosophy he had and just tweaked a few things. We’ve got a ruthless bunch of players.”
Clarke, aged 32, scored 18 goals in only 37 appearances at Gigg Lane last term before United became his 17th professional club. Born in Birmingham, he progressed through Wolverhampton Wanderers’ youth system before joining Sheffield Wednesday in 2007. Having represented the likes of Queens Park Rangers and Swindon after leaving Hillsborough seven years ago, Clarke admits his previous association with United’s arch-rivals made him even more determined to succeed after returning to the city. Which, consequentially, increased his frustration when injury struck.
“There was obviously always going to be the Sheffield Wednesday thing and people maybe thinking I wasn’t the signing we needed. But I always backed myself and was confident in my ability. I knew, if I was fit and healthy, I could score goals. That’s all I want to do, score goals and help the team, which is why I’m delighted to be contributing now.”