Leon Clarke: Swindon’s new number 9

Having failed to impress at his many previous clubs, Alex Cooke asks if Leon Clarke can lead the Di Canio revolution at Swindon Town?

Sunday taught us all many things: marking the opposition centre forward is a good idea, arguing with the referee is pointless, and no one looks good in yellow. But what we didn’t learn was how new striker Leon Clarke will do for Swindon because while the former QPR sometimes looked unplayable, he also sometimes looked like he hadn’t played before.

If you ask the internet what his former fans think of him the picture is certainly clearer: ‘A waste of a substitution’, ‘utter tripe’ and ‘this season’s Eric Sabin’. And those are the ones who didn’t resort to obscenity, invective or a four letter summary of the 26-year-old’s record.

Within a few further clicks you can find a Wolves fan raging against their former youth team product for never delivering on the promise of his first start with a goal against Preston, a Sheffield Wednesday tweeter comparing him to ‘Bambi’ and a QPR blogger who rates his signing last season by the Super Hoops as a ‘one out of ten’.

This level of vehemence won’t surprise anyone who has ever dared to peek into the world of football forums as even the most sensible supporter tend to turn their cogent opinions into binary bile. For them every player instantly becomes the either new Messi or, worse than well… Eric Sabin.

But venture beyond this keyboard criticism and a different picture of Leon Clarke emerges, not one tainted by certain Championship fan’s vastly raised expectations, but of a player who seems to rely on feeling loved by fans and managers, but has rarely been given the chance or support to show what he can really do.

Clarke began his career at Wolverhampton Wanderers as a trainee before a loan spell at Kidderminster. Blooded in the Championship at just 18, this already imposing but mobile young striker scored on his first start and notched another seven that season in 12 starts and 19 appearances from the bench.

As Wolves tried to buy promotion a series of loans followed, first at QPR where a change of management saw him return after just one game, then to Plymouth where another five games passed without scoring. The limited opportunities at Molineux brought about Wolves’ big signings meant that by the time Sheffield Wednesday came calling in 2007, Clarke had made just 74 league appearances for Wolves, scoring 13 goals.

Punctuating his starting 45 games for Wednesday and coming off the bench another 40 times and scoring 18 goals, Leon was loaned out from Hillsborough to Oldham and then Southend. And it was at Roots Hall that Clarke, along with meeting Alan McCormack, finally became one of the first names on the teamsheet, scoring eight times in 16 starts.

After returning to South Yorkshire, Clarke move on to QPR and finally went on loan again, this time to struggling Preston at the tail end of last season, which yielded a singled tapped-in goal in five matches for Phil Brown’s struggling team.

Clarke’s overall return of 0.20 league goals per game doesn’t look superb – but start to look at the breakdown of when and where he played and a different picture quickly forms. At only three clubs has he made more than ten league starts and at each one of these his scoring rate is actually fairly solid, especially in Division One. Too many short-term loans and cameos coming from the bench have given Clarke barely enough time to learn the names of his new team mates, let alone to predict where they will be for his flick ons or to latch onto their through balls.

Despite being 6”2’, physical strong, and often tidy in possession, his pace has often seen him used out wide, first by Glenn Hoddle and Dave Jones at Wolves but also more recently by both QPR and Preston too. Again this has denied Clarke the main striker’s role, and the number 9 shirt, an honour that Paolo Di Canio has immediately given him.

His former manager at Sheffield Wednesday believes that there is another reason for Clarke’s inconsistency in front of goal: “He’s a confidence player” said his Brian Laws in 2007. “We knew Leon had to play game after game to get his match sharpness. The fact that supporters haven’t really taken to him sapped his confidence and he had to score to stay in the side.’

Neil Warnock, who recently signed Clarke for QPR, has echoed Laws’ comments: “He’s got a lot of ability, but I think he’s underachieved. I rate him very highly though. He’s strong and quick and will upset defences.”

So, knowing Di Canio’s obsession with fitness, is Clarke physically and mentally ready for the battle ahead? On Sunday he clearly faded as the second half ground on despite already having a full pre-season under his belt with QPR. So it shouldn’t be a surprise if he is short of match fitness even though even though he scored four times in three matches with the Hoops’ reserves on their tour of Devon.

Paolo Di Canio has also clearly delivered the ‘arm around the shoulder’ that Leon needs: “There were a few clubs after me but Swindon made a real effort to get me and it’s where I want to be playing my football”.

This might be the first time that Leon Clarke has played in the lowest tier of English football, so can he cut it in division 4? Once again the fans on the internet are certain: ‘At any league under the Championship he can do a job’,’ If he’s in the right frame of mind, Clarke will tear this division a new one’.

Follow @AlexJamesCooke

Header photo from jusnews

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