It speaks volumes about Leon Clarke’s performances for Sheffield United that going three games without a goal constitutes a drought.
The centre-forward, who has scored 14 times in only 21 appearances this season, enters tomorrow’s game against Bolton Wanderers as the Championship’s most prolific marksman but having failed to hit the target since December 8.
People have put forward all sorts of theories about why, after flattering to deceive at many of his previous clubs, Clarke is realising his potential at Bramall Lane.
George Baldock, dismissing some of the more outlandish, believes he knows why.
“I’m good mates with Leon,” the United wing-back says. “I see him every day and we spend a lot of time together away from the pitch so I know where is mindset is. Really, there’s no amazing secret as to why he’s doing so well. It’s just a combination of everything really. He’s a very good player, he’s got the backing of a manager who trusts him and a dressing room where he knows he’s a big character, a big influence. If you put it all together, you’ve got the perfect football player.”
There are, as Baldock suggests, probably a number of factors behind Clarke’s remarkable form since recovering from the injury which blighted the first part of his United career. Chris Wilder’s tactics and team shape clearly suit him while responsibility - he wears the captain’s armband in Billy Sharp’s absence - has focused his mind too. But, given the 33-year-old’s qualities, persistence is almost certainly another determinant. Talent is impossible to suppress. Where Wilder has succeeded where others have failed is creating the right environment for Clarke’s to thrive.
“It comes from the manager,” Baldock admits. “He demands respect for one another, respect for the staff too. That’s a big difference as well, the staff are all great here. They’re all friendly, they’re down in the dressing room when the music is on. But they are in charge, there’s no doubt about that. It’s all just a really good fit.”
“Leon can be unplayable at times,” Baldock, who joined United from MK Dons during the close season, continues. People try to negate his strengths but his aggression is one of them and so that makes it difficult if you’re an opponent.”
United enter tomorrow’s game against Bolton Wanderers sixth in the table after beating Sunderland 3-0 on Tuesday. That result ended a run of six matches without a win for Wilder’s side who, Baldock insists, are the most welcoming he has encountered in the game.
“I think the biggest difference is that everyone wants to come in every day,” Baldock says.. “If there’s a bit of tension between lads or there’s a divide in the dressing room, the training ground isn’t a great place to be. Here, we’re all mates. “Normally, if you every had to leave a club, you’d keep in touch with one or two. Here, honestly, I’d keep in touch with everybody. That’s the spirit we’ve got.”
Earlier this month, Baldock provided pictorial evidence to support his claim by publishing a photograph of United’s players in fancy dress during their Christmas party in Dublin.
“It was funny because, when we all met up before going out, him and Stearsy had missed meeting down in reception,” Baldock, remembering the moment Clarke and Richard Stearman arrived as Beyonce and Goldmember, laughs. “So you can imagine it when we were waiting for them, this taxi pulled-up, and they got out like that. It was really funny to be fair.”