Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder reveals why Leon Clarke was captain for the FA Cup win over AFC Fylde
Football can sometimes be a cold and calculating business governed by money and self-interest.
But, as Sheffield United demonstrated during this FA Cup third round tie, there is still room for sentiment. Even though Chris Wilder, speaking after their win over AFC Fylde, denied emotion had played a part in his decision to name Leon Clarke as captain.
Still it was fitting, given his service to the club over the past three-and-a-half seasons and part its rise through the divisions, that Clarke was not only handed the armband but also claimed what proved the game’s decisive goal on what could be his final appearance in red and white stripes.
“You should know me better than that,” Wilder said, when asked if he had wanted to reward the veteran striker. “It was the right thing to do because Leon is a leader. He’s a leader of men in that dressing room and he always sets the right example. His attitude, despite not having much exposure this season, has been absolutely superb.”
With the transfer window now open and United looking to establish themselves in the upper reaches of the Premier League, Clarke was among eleven changes Wilder made to their starting line-up against the lowest ranked team left in the competition.
Signed for £150,000 from Bury at the beginning of the 52-year-old’s reign, Clarke has successfully transformed his reputation since returning to South Yorkshire; helping United blaze a trail out of League One and then also the Championship in the space of 33 short months. There should be no shortage of interest if, as expected, the former Sheffield Wednesday centre-forward is now allowed to move on.
“Whether or not his future is with us or elsewhere, as might probably be the case, Leon has been brilliant,” Wilder said. “He led the line out there excellently for us, as I knew he would.
“He never dipped a toe in. He gave everything he had. And that’s exactly what I expected to get.”
Clarke’s effort - his 33rd in United colours - should have ended AFC Fylde’s interest in the tie following Callum Robinson’s early opener. It was to the visitors’ credit that, after Jordan Williams had reduced the deficit, Wilder’s third and final change saw him introduce defender Richard Stearman and withdraw Clarke’s fellow goalscorer.
“It was an uncomfortable afternoon,” Wilder acknowledged. “The attitude of the team was good. When you make the changes we did, of course the flow gets interrupted a little bit. It was a great finish from their boy but I thought, until then, we were in control. Getting through is key.”
Despite the demands of the Premier League schedule, Wilder, who also singled out Luke Freeman and Mo Besic for praise, insisted there was “no downside” to reaching the later stages of the tournament. But United’s progress did come at a price, with goalkeeper Michael Verrips suffered a head injury midway through their game against opponents 104 places below them on the footballing pyramid.
Robinson swivelled to beat Sam Hornby after meeting Freeman’s cross before Clarke, who had earlier seen a header turned over, converted when the midfielder’s shot rebounded back off a post. Williams reduced the deficit after profiting from Dan Bradley’s superb pass but AFC Fylde could not force an equaliser.
“When you make the changes we did, of course the flow gets interrupted a little bit,” Wilder said. “It was a great finish from their boy but I thought, until then, we were in control. Getting through is key.”
Sheffield United: Verrips (Henderson 40), L Freeman, Robinson (Stearman 88), Morrison, Jagielka, K Freeman, Bryan, Osborn, Clarke, Rodwell (Basham 57), Besic. Not used: Fleck, O’Connell, McBurnie, Sharp.
AFC Fylde: Hornby, Byrne, Jameson, Whitmore, Croasdale, Rowe (Willoughby 65), Philliskirk, Williams, Burke, Bradley (Craigen 85), Haughton (Yeates 65). Not used: Montrose, Taylor, Yeates, Lavercombe, Kellet.
Referee: Jarred Gillett (Gold Coast, Australia).