Leon Clarke opens up on Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday spells with derby comparison

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Clarke one of few players in history to have crossed bitter Steel City divide

Leon Clarke has admitted he was “hesitant” about the chance to join Sheffield United in 2016, given his previous association with their Steel City rivals Wednesday. The striker spent three and a half years with the Owls earlier in his career before returning to Sheffield, helping the Blades out of League One before scoring a memorable derby-day brace at Hillsborough the following season.

Now 38, Clarke is still playing after signing with seventh-tier Kettering Town last month and spoke to our sister paper the Yorkshire Post about his memories of his time on both sides of the Steel City divide. Clarke was in the midst of a purple patch of goals for Bury when Chris Wilder, the then-Blades chief, brought him to Bramall Lane. “It [his Wednesday time] was spoken about,” Clarke admitted.

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“There was a little hesitancy from myself to join. I knew there was going to be a backlash from Sheffield United fans and from Sheffield Wednesday fans. I spoke to Chris and Alan Knill about it. Chris was really good with me, he was just really honest. He said: ‘If you try your hardest, these fans will back you, win lose or draw, scoring goals or not’. He said if I show them 110 per cent then they’d be on my side and back me. Once he said that, I knew what I had to do.”

Clarke’s best season in front of goal came in 2017/18, when he scored 19 times as the Blades attacked the Championship following promotion from League One - including those two goals at Hillsborough. “I played in one derby at Sheffield United and I played in one at Sheffield Wednesday,” Clarke added. “The Sheffield Wednesday one, I don’t remember the atmosphere being that electric.

“When I’d made the move to Sheffield United, we played Sheffield Wednesday and it kind of dawned on me how big the game actually was. It was when we arrived at the stadium. I think it was me and Ched [Evans], we spoke to each other and said: ‘Shall we get off the coach together?’

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“We knew we were both going to be in the firing line. I don’t really wear AirPods or anything like that on my way to a game but I had mine in and I was listening to music. I could hear people giving me abuse, giving Ched abuse. It dawned on me, the magnitude of how big the game actually was.”

The Clarke that Owls fans saw that day was a far cry from the younger striker who moved to Hillsborough in 2007, his first permanent switch away from his boyhood club Wolves. A total of 18 goals in 43 starts is not to be sniffed at but Clarke looks back on his Wednesday career with mixed emotions. “I probably didn’t help myself at the beginning,” he admitted.

“Probably being young and naive, not giving myself the best opportunity to play regularly by not being in the best physical shape I could have been in. There were spells during the period where I did well and scored some goals. It looked like I could kick on and have some momentum then I’d get an injury. It kind of put me back.

“I just think I didn’t help myself by not being in best physical shape I could have possibly been in, not understanding how I should live my livelihood and how I should go about my work everyday.”

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