Sheffield United: Far from being an awkward character, Leon Clarke’s contribution at Bramall Lane makes him an example for young players to follow
As Leon Clarke edged closer to the exit door, less than nine months after rivalling Matej Vydra and Lewis Grabban in the battle to become the Championship's leading goalscorer, there was inevitably speculation about the motivation behind Sheffield United's decision to part company with the centre-forward.
But rather than being a reaction to a fall-out behind the scenes or an issue with a team mate, which have both been mooted as reasons on social media, The Star understands Chris Wilder and his coaching staff view Clarke's imminent departure as a gesture of good will following the player's contribution to the club since completing a £150,000 transfer from Bury three years ago.
With Scott Hogan set to join a frontline already boosted by the arrival of Gary Madine, there is an acknowledgment that opportunities for Clarke are likely to diminish further between now and the end of a season which has seen him start less than a third of their league outings since August. Given the fact he has entered the autumn of his career, United also concede the 33-year-old deserves to feature on a more regular basis rather than spend long periods on the bench.
With Bolton Wanderers reportedly joining Wigan Athletic in the race to sign Clarke, there was a possibility he could have actually faced United this weekend, when Phil Parkinson's side are scheduled to visit Bramall Lane.
Although it seemed unlikely Wilder would grant him permission to play if Wanderers rather than the DW Stadium had proved his next destination, Clarke will leave "with everyone's best wishes" according to one source close to the negotiation process. A loan agreement, not a permanent deal, was sealed with Athletic this evening.
Despite arriving with a reputation for being an awkward character, the high regard in which Clarke is held at Bramall Lane should serve as a lesson to all young footballers about the importance of hard-work and attitude.
Previously of Sheffield Wednesday, he won the respect of United supporters after overcoming injury to help the club gain promotion from League One in 2017 before scoring 19 goals in 39 appearances as it challenged for the Championship play-offs last term. With two of those goals coming during a 4-2 win over his former club Sheffield Wednesday, Clarke is unlikely to ever have to buy a drink if he finds himself in a bar with a United supporter again.
Having already impressed Wilder by making himself available for selection despite another fitness issue, Clarke was rewarded with a new and improved contract. It was following that announcement, in December 2017, when he revealed another side to his personality, outlining a desire to help mentor aspiring professionals in academy systems.
"I think it was important to get it done," Wilder said at the time. "I know what players in this division earn, especially strikers who put the ball in the back of the net like he does, so I know he could probably have been offered more elsewhere.
"But he’s happy, we’re happy and so everyone wanted to get this done."
United will enter Saturday's meeting with Wanderers ranked third, three points behind second-placed Norwich City who face leaders Leeds at Elland Road before Ipswich Town travel to Norfolk for next month's East Anglian derby.
Wilder has revamped his attacking options as United chase promotion to the Premier League, with Madine joining on loan from Cardiff City and Hogan set to follow on a similar basis after being told he can leave Aston Villa.
Clarke headed for Athletic this afternoon to undergo a medical, with Paul Cook's side expected to officially unveil him later tomorrow.