Leon Clarke: A Tribute

Leon-Clarke-647396.jpg

Leon Clarke

A Sheffield United Tribute

This article originally appeared in the Dem Blades fanzine, which is now a quarterly fanzine which you should totally subscribe to. I’ve reproduced it as it was in the summer of 2018 with a couple of minor edits.

In 2017/18, Leon Clarke scored 19 goals in the English Football League Championship for Sheffield United. Say it with me: Leon Clarke, 19 goals.

He finished joint-third in the scorers list, tied with Bristol City’s Bobby Reid, one behind Lewis Grabban (Sunderland and Villa) and two short of Derby’s Matej Vydra. Unlike those three above him, Clarke didn’t take a single penalty – Vydra scored six, Grabban four, and Reid three. Take pens out of the equation and Leon Clarke was the best striker in the Championship last season.

How did we get here?

August. United are beating Barnsley 1-0, but he hasn’t had the start to the season that he’d hoped for – three games, no goals. With half-time approaching, he chases a long ball and tangles with a Barnsley defender. Each player is in the other’s face, and the referee decides to show them both a red card. The Blades go on to win the match but he knows he’ll now miss the next two games. The club bring in Clayton Donaldson, who scores twice on debut, and suddenly the pecking order has changed.

It’s tempting to wonder how things might have worked out for Clarke this season if Donaldson hadn’t got injured immediately after scoring twice against Sunderland. By late September, Leon still hadn’t hit the back of the net and was left out of the squad altogether for the home defeat to Norwich. A striker who had been dogged by injury during the previous season, at 33 he had never scored more than 8 goals at Championship level in a single campaign, and it was beginning to look like this level was a step too far at this stage of his career.

September 24th. A long pass comes sailing over the defence into his path and he realises that one of the opposition defenders has been slow to get up the pitch, playing him onside. Before anyone else can react he’s controlled the ball onto his left foot and slipped it beyond the keeper and into the net. He runs towards the Hillsborough Kop as three and a half stands stare back in anger and disbelief while the Leppings Lane upper tier is going crazy. It’s his first goal of the season and it puts United 2-0 ahead in a derby that many expected them to lose.

Clarke v pigs 1.gif

Almost an hour later and the game has twisted and turned. Wednesday pulled level and the whole stadium is still shaking as he clips a pass over the top of the defence for Mark Duffy. He finds space in the box for a pull-back but Duffy has other ideas, bamboozling the defender before smashing into the net. The game has barely settled down again before Basham wins a header in midfield, and Brooks flicks it forward for the striker to chase. He does just that, two Wednesday defenders bouncing off him as he gets to the ball first and flicks it goalwards. There’s a moment’s silence as it looks like the shot might creep wide, but it touches the far post and nestles into the net. This time he can celebrate in front of his own fans, having scored twice against his old club. At the end of the game his name rings out around Hillsborough.

Wednesday fans duly took to Twitter to express their amazement that Clarke – a former player of theirs, of course – had scored twice in a single Championship game. One went so far as to predict that “that will never happen again”. Three days later – with a certain song still bouncing around our heads – Leon hit the net twice more against future champions Wolves in another impressive win for the Blades.

November. United are losing 1-0 at home to Hull and he should have scored at least one already, heading straight at the keeper from close range. But then the ball is played out wide, and he gets in front of his man to divert the cross neatly into the far corner. Minutes later, Duffy plays a through ball and it’s 2-1. Then Sharp puts one on a plate for his strike partner to head in at the back post for his hat-trick, before he slides in his fourth to seal a 4-1 win.

Clarke v Hull.gif

This was the first time a Blade had scored four times at Bramall Lane since Keith Edwards in 1983, and the first league hat-trick at the Lane for almost ten years. All four goals showed a little bit of class: the positioning and deft finish for the first, a burst of speed for the second, movement for the third and a great touch to bring down a long Simon Moore kick for the fourth.

The Hull game became a microcosm of Clarke’s season, although there was more still to come as he hit another hat-trick a few weeks later in the 5-4 defeat to Fulham. After no goals in October 2017, he scored an absurd nine times in November – technically, nine goals in three-and-a-half games. After the last of those, an equaliser against Birmingham City, he was given the captain’s armband.

The goals subsequently dried up for both Clarke and the rest of the team, with United scoring just eight times in eleven matches to kick off 2018. But the effort never dropped, with Clarke finishing the season with 3,332 minutes played, the fifth-most in the squad behind Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham, Enda Stevens and John Fleck. Apart from injuries, he was substituted only twice during the entire season, meaning that he was frequently the one player pressing and moving for the whole 90+ minutes, harrying defenders and running the channels to get United up the pitch. He won far more aerial duels per 90 minutes than any of our other strikers (3.8, compared to Donaldson’s 2.4 or Sharp’s 0.7), underlining his work ethic and effectiveness.

Clarke v Bristol 1.gif

He was (and is) far more than just a blunt instrument who wins headers and scores occasionally. Clarke finished fifth on the team for Key Passes, which are passes that lead to a shot for a teammate. He averaged 1.0 Key Passes per 90 minutes, which may not sound like a lot, but put him him ahead of Paul Coutts (0.9), Lee Evans (0.7), John Lundstram (0.5) and level with David Brooks. For comparison, Fleck and Duffy led the way with 1.8 Key Passes per 90. Arguably even more impressive was how rarely Clarke lost the ball – he ranked way down the list of Dispossessions per 90, behind players like Duffy, Fleck, Stevens, Sharp, Brooks, Coutts and George Baldock.

April. Cardiff at home. It’s now almost four months to the day since he last hit the net, although not for lack of trying. At this point he’ll take one deflecting in off his backside, and that’s not far from what happens: Lundstram fires a ball into feet, and he swings a left boot at it. Everyone seems to stop and watch – including the Cardiff goalkeeper – as the shot trickles gently into the far corner. Goal number 16.

One of the weird things about Leon’s season was how the goals came in bunches: four in two games in September, ten in six in November and December – and then, finally, four in six to end the season. With the playoffs slipping away from United after that draw with Cardiff in early April, the hope was that Leon’s goal would put him back on a roll, and so it proved as he scored one and made another against Barnsley in the next game.

Rather than using those goalless stretches as a stick, I prefer to focus on those ridiculous periods where it felt like everything he hit went in. The simple truth is that those bursts were unsustainable – not even Cristiano Ronaldo scores at a rate of 2.5 goals per game for an entire season – and so Clarke’s goal return was always likely to regress to mean (over a long enough timespan, unlikely things become less likely to happen). Even if he perhaps regressed a little too far so that the goals dried up for longer spells, I don’t buy into the idea that the fact he scored two (or three, or four) in single games somehow diminishes the quality of that achievement. Those goals still count!

Two weeks later. It’s not quite last-chance-saloon for United’s playoff hopes, but it’s not far off. Time is running out in a tight game with Millwall when a cross swings in to the back post, and O’Connell stretches to head it back across for him to bundle it into the net. 1-0, and the roar at the Lane is possibly the loudest it’s been all season. Goal number 18.

Clarke’s underlying stats stack up against the rest of the division’s leading scorers – players who cost up to £15m, in the case of Boro’s Britt Assombalonga. Looking at those who scored 15+ goals last season, Clarke led all players in terms of shot accuracy (61%), and needed significantly fewer shots to score than Wolves’ Diego Jota (4.7 shots per goal vs Jota’s 7.1) or Assombalonga (6.2).

He outperformed his Expected Goals tally for the season by five full goals: simply put, even if you account for the big chances that he missed (and there were a few), he was still scoring goals from positions where hitting the net was unlikely. Think about the tight-angle finishes in the home games against Fulham, Birmingham or Bristol City – there were a couple of tap-ins along the way but many of Leon’s goals were superb finishes from what analysts would term low-percentage chances. To this day, I couldn’t tell you whether he’s left– or right-footed.

May. Last day of the season – the sun is shining and it brings back memories of his goal at Northampton one year before to set United on their way to the Championship. There’s nothing at stake now, but that doesn’t stop him picking up the ball thirty yards from goal, turning and arrowing a right-footer from outside the box and into the top corner.

Clarke v Bristol 2.gif

That made it nineteen goals for the season, accounting for 31% of United’s goals in 2017/18 – no other Championship player can top that. At the time of writing, Clarke has scored 131 league goals in his career, and almost 15% of them have now come in his time at the Blades – in fact, we’re now the club at which he’s scored the most goals.

It’s been a nomadic career for Clarke – 444 games for 16 different clubs, from Crawley Town to Wolverhampton Wanderers. He had a rocky start to his United career, having to overcome persistent injuries and the kind of fan suspicion that usually comes with having played for Wednesday. But once he got fit, the goals flowed and have never really stopped. On top of that, he’s also shown himself – at age 33 – to be a physical, powerful striker with a deft touch and intelligent movement. You can understand the scepticism among our derisive neighbours in S6 at the prospect of going into the season with Clarke and Sharp as our front two, but that was swiftly put to bed.

The only question is whether Leon can keep it going into 2018/19 and beyond. There’s a lot of miles in those legs now, across fifteen years of professional football, and he’s only reached double figures for league goals four times in his career. Last season was also the first time he’d played 36 or more league games since 2009/10 – so you can certainly make a case that last season was a bit of an anomaly.

However, anyone who watched the Blades more than a handful of times last season will know that Clarke’s goal tally wasn’t the result of some freakish run of finishes. Nor was it padded by penalties. United’s recent style under Wilder has been all about creating high-quality chances, rather than lots of lower-quality ones in the way that some other teams do. Assuming that style remains the same, and that Leon stays fit, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he’ll continue to bang them in.

It’s unlikely we’ll see another 9-goals-in-4-games run, purely because that kind of thing rarely happens, ever, unless your name is Messi or Ronaldo. But whatever happens, I’ll never forget the time he destroyed Wednesday at Hillsborough, or countless other brilliant finishes this season. I’ll remember the amount of times – even late in the season – when he was the one player still sprinting to close down opponents and force the ball all the way back to their goalkeeper. I’ll remember the way he celebrated when Duffy’s bounce-killing shot hit the net. I’ll remember that a 33-year-old ex-Pig genuinely looked like one of the best strikers in the Championship – and I hope other United fans will too.

Just don’t say he’s lazy. Please.

Cheers, Leon.

Cheers, Leon.

Ben MeakinComment