James Shield's Sheffield United Column: The wisdom of letting Leon be Leon
First a declaration of interest: I'm a fan of Leon Clarke.
The fact he is not your average footballer amuses me. Likewise the knowledge that, despite his sullen demeanour, the Sheffield United centre-forward has a self-deprecating sense of humour and can laugh at himself.
“It’s to be expected really,” one journalist, enquiring about his knack of scoring against former clubs, was told during a recent press conference. “Have you seen how many I’ve played for?”
Seventeen is less than 15 seasons is the answer. A statistic which, probably more than any other, confirms Clarke has failed to achieve his full potential since graduating from Wolverhampton Wanderers’ youth system nearly a decade-and-a-half ago. Which begs the question why, despite his physical gifts and technical prowess, has the 32-year-old spent so long meandering through the lower leagues? One manager, who for the purposes of this column shall remain nameless, confided a while back that “Leon has all the attributes required” to become an established Premier League talent “except for the bit that goes on between the ears.” It was an unfair assessment but, being brutally honest, exactly what many of the managers he has worked under would say. Nevertheless, it is a point worth emphasising. If only because, albeit inadvertently, the coach in question highlighted why Clarke and United go together so well. It is a shame then that, as I discovered in 2013, the South Yorkshire club had the chance to acquire his services long before Chris Wilder brought him to Bramall Lane at the beginning of last term.
“Thanks for that mate,” Danny Wilson, the then United manager said, after noticing Clarke was eavesdropping on his post-match press conference. “I told you to sign me gaffer,” came the response. “You should have taken me when you had the chance.” Clarke, for the record, had just netted twice for Coventry City in a deserved 2-1 win.
Plenty of folk, Paolo Di Canio and Brian Laws included, have tried to get the best out of Clarke during his itinerant career. Most have failed. When Neil Warnock, the master of getting the best out of supposedly unmanageable individuals, struggled to get him firing for Queens Park Rangers a few seasons back, I honestly feared the worst.
But Wilder, who described Clarke as being in the “form of his life” following last week’s victory over Leeds, has embraced rather than attempted to change his personality. The rest of United’s squad have followed suit; accepting him warts, worry lines and all.
Simply letting Leon be Leon is the secret of this successful sporting marriage. When players are happy, when they feel valued for who they are rather than the subject of some well-meaning pseudo-psychological experiment, they tend to perform.