By Jason McKeown
The moment remains etched in the memory. Wembley Stadium, May 2017. Josh Cullen picks up possession and works the ball to Mark Marshall. He spots the run, and plays a perfect through ball. It’s Billy Clarke racing clear of the Millwall defence. Preparing to put Bradford City in front. About to push the Bantams towards the Championship. About to achieve hero status.
The collective pause for breath. And then the groan.
It was a great save by Jordan Archer. But Clarke probably should have scored. It was on his wrong foot, but he had time to pick his angle. He went high and with power, when he probably should have gone low. Bradford City wouldn’t create a better chance all afternoon. They’d end it beaten 1-0. Millwall promoted.
Almost the hero.
When last week it was announced Billy Clarke had signed for Bradford City for a third time, manager Stuart McCall cited unfinished business for the player. Smiling for photographs at the back of the Kop, Clarke referred to the 2016/17 season that had ended in Wembley heartache as “the most enjoyable season of my career”, adding he was “determined to right the wrongs”.
It is a signing that has divided opinion amongst supporters. Many are happy that a player associated with some of the club’s better modern times is back. Others are dismayed by the lack of originality. McCall was quickly at pains to argue the footballing reasons behind him choosing to re-sign Clarke, “It’s what he did when he went to Grimsby that showed me when I watched all his games that he’s still got the fitness, the hunger and desire and the quality.”
Time will tell, but it’s an arrival that hasn’t set pulses racing. It’s not a signing that will inspire long queues at the ticket office when season tickets eventually go back on sale. And – with four strikers already on the books – it is curious what part Clarke will play in the season ahead.
Clarke’s miss/save at Wembley in 2017 is a neat illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of the Irish forward. A player of real trickery, who likes to drop deep and link up with midfield. At Crawley, manager John Gregory once described Clarke as his “little Lionel Messi”. An excellent passer whose statistics show he creates a lot of good chances, both from set pieces and open play. But he is not a great goalscorer. His finishing ability isn’t brilliant. Physically, he is not the strongest.
Ultimately, Clarke is a forward who has only twice achieved double figures in a season.
He is not a player who gives the ball away often. Or, on the occasions he does, is unlikely to allow his head to drop. There is a bravery about the way he operates, which had an attractive quality to the manager who first brought him to City, Phil Parkinson.
Given the emphasis on character that Parkinson deployed with great success, a player who doesn’t wilt under the pressure of a grumbling crowd was an appealing prospect. And that courage made Clarke a regular – with Parkinson using him 82 times over his final two seasons at the helm. In WOAP contributor Alex Scott’s words, Clarke was “A Waitrose Alan Connell”.
Clarke’s influence on and off the field under Parkinson at Valley Parade was illustrated when Alan Sheehan was loaned out at Luton. Unhappy with his lack of opportunities, Sheehan derided against a Parkinson ‘inner circle’ that he could not breach. Sheehan named a handful of players part of the so-called ‘inner circle’. They included the obvious suspects like Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle, but also interestingly Clarke.
Parkinson was a manager who valued a strong dressing room and who would discard or overlook potential signings whose character he didn’t rate. That Clarke became a Parkinson favourite spoke volumes of the way the Irishman went about doing things.
But it also meant that some of Clarke’s failings were tolerated when other managers might have left him out. His debut season at Valley Parade – 2014/15 – saw 15 goals for Clarke, as City memorably reached the FA Cup Quarter Finals. But 2015/16 was another matter. In his final season at the helm, Parkinson became even more pragmatic in style. Clarke managed just four goals, yet still featured 36 times. The defensive, long-ball, nick a 1-0 win football did not suit Clarke’s run-between-the-lines style of play. Yet Parkinson still largely stuck with him. He did a job for the team, but what was asked of him didn’t allow him to sparkle.
2016/17 – the one Clarke speaks so fondly of – saw McCall take over from Parkinson. Clarke thrived in a more fluid, attack-minded system. His performances were much better, as he was able to express himself more and revel in linking up with the likes of Josh Cullen and Mark Marshall. He was played deeper a lot of the time, which suits his style.
In terms of chance creation, he made the second highest number of key passes in the whole division that season. But the familiar failings were still there. Just seven goals (and a decent seven assists) from 40 appearances. Just one goal after November.
And then of course, his big moment at Wembley.
In the summer after the promotion disappointment, Clarke was one of a number of players who left. Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp had not prepared adequately for the fact a number of high-performers were out of contract, and the squad that had done so well was torn up.
Clarke’s situation was different. He had a contract but Rahic opted to sell him to Karl Robinson’s Charlton, who revealed, “I’ve always been an admirer of Billy, I’ve tried to get him three times.” McCall, on holiday and under the impression that he himself was being sacked, was not consulted about the move. “I was, kind of, no longer wanted there,” Clarke told the South London press of his departure from Valley Parade.
Clarke’s fortunes were mixed at the Valley. He started very well at Charlton, but suffered a bad ACL injury during a December 2017 away game at Blackburn Rovers that kept him out for 11 months. Cruelly, it’s the second time in his career he’d endured this serious injury – the first time saw him miss out on playing in the Premier League for Blackpool. By the time he returned at Charlton, the Addicks had swapped managers and were heading to the Championship. A surplus to requirements Clarke was brought back to Valley Parade on a short-term deal.
It didn’t go well. Whether short of fitness or form, he was a bit-part player at the Bantams sunk to League Two, scoring only once and providing a couple of assists (all these contributions coming after City had been relegated and were playing out dead rubbers).
In truth, it was a strange piece of business re-signing him, given David Hopkin already had two number 10s in Jack Payne and David Ball, plus the impressive Lewis O’Brien. When Gary Bowyer replaced Hopkin and deployed a more pragmatic approach, it was even harder for Clarke to make an impact and there was no prospect of a longer contract last summer. “I was devastated to leave,” Clarke reflected last week.
Clarke turned down offers from other clubs in the expectation Parkinson was going to sign him for Bolton. But when Parkinson ended up leaving the Trotters, Clarke was left club-less before being offered a lifeline by Ryan Lowe at Plymouth.
“He came in and did fantastic for us but I don’t play with a number 10 and he has been a makeshift striker at times,” was Lowe’s verdict when, three months later, he allowed Clarke to take up an offer from Grimsby. “I am very proud of how he played for us,” was Ian Holloway’s assessment of Clarke’s contribution to a rejuvenated Grimsby side. His stats were decent at Blundell Park – in terms of chance creation, he had the best ratio in the whole of League Two – and McCall was evidently watching closely.
If Clarke had no previous connection with Bradford City, his arrival this summer would be greeted with some excitement. A player with a long list of admirers like Parkinson, Robinson, Gregory, Lowe and Holloway. A record of playing for a top end League One team for several seasons, of having a good few years in the Championship, and with decent stats for a number 10. 424 career appearances, 79 goals and 49 assists.
It is also, if nothing else, a full circle moment. When Clarke was sold in 2017, Rahic and Greg Abbott replaced him with Shay McCartan. The Accrington number 10 had a very mixed three years at Valley Parade. A very good player on his day, and a match winner several times, but ultimately very inconsistent. Not a player you would hang your hat on, when the chips are down. Clarke probably can’t hit the heights, anymore, that McCartan could on his day. But he can at least provide a greater consistency.
But Clarke’s past associations with City mean that his limitations are all too aware to us supporters. He is not going to miraculously score a hatful for the Bantams next season. He will miss chances. His clever link up will only work if he is the focal point of the side, and has players around him who can read his intentions.
It all seems a bit too familiar, like watching a decent film one too many times, when you’ve already noticed the plot holes and the action scenes no longer seem as intense. And as the club tries to move forward from the past, re-signing former players does not seem to be the best way to break those links.
But familiarity does offer some appeal to McCall. The reality for the manager is that this season is make of break. His contract, as it stands, expires at the end of the 2020/21 season. And if he doesn’t deliver upwards momentum, namely promotion, that’s probably it for his career as a manager. Add in the salary cap complications, and McCall is dealing with operating on a reduced budget. There’s a lot riding on this transfer window.
In such circumstances, you can understand if McCall wants to make sure he has players he knows he can rely on. Players proven to be mentally tough. And whilst he will know full well what Clarke can’t do, he will also know what he can. The experience Clarke offers – including knowing what it takes to play in a successful Bradford City team – could be invaluable to a team that folded so often last season. A statesman status could suit Clarke. To quote the legendary Billy Beane, at least from the Moneyball film adaption, “I’m not paying you for the player you used to be, I’m paying you for the player you are right now.”
That moment at Wembley three years ago is an unfortunate summary of his time as a Bradford City player. Almost. Almost a player who belongs at the top tier table of City heroes. Almost a Gary Jones, Stephen Darby or Andrew Davies. Almost earning a prominent place in the Bantams history book.
But if you’re a footballing romantic, maybe this is the time to believe Clarke can go beyond almost. His experience, mental toughness and creativity can play a valuable role over the coming months. He is not a player who will be the catalyst to promotion, but he can certainly play his part.
City will need to do a lot, lot better than this in the transfer market to convince a skeptical public. And there are a lot of good reasons to worry about how this signing could work out. But if a good squad of players can be built around him, Clarke just might thrive. Just might manage to right some of those wrongs.