by Luke Irelan-Hill

Britain’s Brainiest Footballer

Brainy. Now that is a word that is not often associated with footballers. But Northampton central-defender (on loan from Carlisle United) has the title of “Britain’s Brainiest Footballer” and along with this he has won two episodes of Channel 4’s Countdown as well as appearing on BBC Question Time.

However, no doubt surprising to many, Clarke is not the brainiest in the football world.

No, you say? Well next time you hear footballers branded ‘brainless’ or ‘stupid’, remember they may not be. “Plenty of player’s have a-levels or degrees. It’s just a sweeping generalisation that footballers are uneducated.”

Education is vital

Talking of qualifications Clarke has ten GCSEs of his own, 5A* and 5As. Not a bad achievement for anyone, especially these media-branded ‘stupid’ footballers.

But as we all know, it is not his qualifications that Clarke has made his life from, it is that game we all love and follow, football.

Football is the dream

For Clarke football was always the dream. But what would ‘Britain’s Brainiest Footballer’ have done if he didn’t make it in football? He would have chosen to study Law whilst playing Rugby Union. You could say that some of today’s footballers could have done with an education in law, but we shall not go into injunctions, or super-injunctions for that matter.

Away from education and concentrating on the football, Clarke has made 493 appearances and scored 35 goals, not bad for a central defender. His career has seen him play at Blackpool, where he started his career, QPR and Leeds United, so you could say he’s made it, and he has battled it out with the ‘big boys’.

Over before it began?

We have seen some careers last forever, like Ryan Giggs, and some careers cut short long before they should have been, like Just Fontaine. Clarke nearly found out what it would be like to lose football without having a say in the matter.

The surgeon thought I would need to walk with a stick.”

When Clarke was playing for QPR between 2000 and 2004, he suffered a cruciate ligament damage which kept him out of the game for a prolonged period of time. The curtain was nearly drawn on a flourishing career.

I did fear for my career. It’s very hard to silence this fear when you’re bed-ridden or house bound.” Clarke could have easily given up, but he didn’t, he appreciated that football is a dream for millions, and he was determined to make it back to the big time.

Successful Recovery

The road (to recovery) is long and progress is very slow.”

What kept him going?

“It is the dream that keeps you sane. There is no other job like professional football. I love it, but less than 1% of wannabes actually get to live it. You keep pushing yourself to be that 1%.”

People often question the professionalism of footballers. Whether they should be paid as much as they are for what they do. Whether their behaviour is good enough to grant the life that they are given. These questions are often only posed about Premier League footballers, but often about players in the football league as well. However, for me, it is the comebacks like these that make me believe footballer’s do value what they have and realise what a fantastic life they live. Many players have had their careers cut short through injury, and many people in different career paths have their career cut short. But Clarke realised the dream, he realised how many people want to make it as a footballer. He recognises his achievement in making the cut and has always tried his hardest to make the most of it.

Let’s face it, if someone offered you a lot of money to play football for a living, you would take it.

Racism – ‘Kick It Out’ Scheme

Besides playing football Clarke is an ambassador for the ‘Kick It Out’ scheme, which campaigns for inclusion and equality in football. The brand name of the campaign – ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football’ – was established in 1993 and ‘Kick It Out’ established as a body in 1997. But Clarke does not feel the campaign was set-up because the issue of racism had increased, but more to show the power of football and embrace a message.

“It is no surprise these dates tie in with the inception of the Premier League and its subsequent phenomenal growth.”

Clarke hopes that as football continues to grow world-wide it can be utilised as a tool of social responsibility, that year-on-year the minority that hold these prejudicial views will lessen and eventually football will be rid of racism entirely.

We feel the campaign is over-stretched at present.”

Clarke admits that the current scheme is stretched beyond its limits. The discrimination banner has opened its arms to include Sexism, Ageism, Homophobia, Anti-Semitism and all guises of exclusion and this has led to a strain on the work force and resources. But it is hoped that direct and complete coverage of each area will be established and this will restore the intensity in the campaign.

Equal Opportunities

There is always the debate of why are there not more black managers in the game at the top level. Clarke does not believe racism is as much of an issue behind this anymore.

“I believe that the ‘rage against the machine’ issue of institutional racism is far less an issue than it used to be.”

He feels this is due to the fact that clubs now have far more metropolitan people in the decision making people.

Albeit Abramovic, Sheik Mansour, Venkys or such like.”

You can draw your own conclusions from this.

The individual role Clarke holds is being an Ambassador for the campaign. This includes attending as many functions and seminars as possible and he has to ensure: “My behaviour reflects the message promoted!” We see many footballers wearing the ‘Kick It Out’ badges and t-shirts before games; some of them could do with remembering the message, not just at the top level of the game, but at lower levels as well! Clarke does have an opinion on this though: “That’s because they’re part of the furniture now, they’ve lost their impact.” A fresh start is needed.

Another campaign: ‘Respect’

Alongside the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign Clarke also offered his views on the Football Association’s new Respect campaign. When asked if he would ever referee a game of football. “Not ever, and I have zero intention to!”  This could easily be seen as the general attitude towards football referees. However he goes on to say: “It’s getting much easier (to talk to referees.) Referees now have similar attitudes to addressing the player/referee relationship, and have become far more approachable.” The issue is definitely being addressed and football is tackling the issue and is winning. He is also happy with the way the problem is being taken on and wants to see zero tolerance on abuse towards officials. “It would result in a few weeks or months of madness, but once the players and clubs had to deal with bans and fines, attitudes and behaviours would rapidly change.”

The FA need to be brave and back referees for the problem to ever be tackled successfully and for football to return to how it once was.

Personal Life

Clarke was born in England but his paternal grandparents are from Dominica and Antigua, and he feels that he owes a lot to his parents and family.

(My parents) were very inspirational and supportive. And I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for my wife. Without her I wouldn’t have had the support to get over certain hurdles in my life.”

When the playing days are over…

I would like to go into media. I enjoy punditry and commentary. The options for players are limitless as long as they put in the work to educate and qualify themselves for an alternative career.”

Footballers, like Clarke who are nearing the last years of their careers, are helped by the Players Football Association, for which he is the chairman, as they fund 50% of any and all further education and training in order to support a player’s transition into retirement.

Fun and Games

Some memories stay with footballers forever and some they forget quickly. For Clarke it is his time at Burnley that he will remember the most.

“Any successful period is remembered fondly, but winning a Wembley Play-Off Final, with MOM, and beating the Premier League champions in your home PL debut is something else!”

As for relaxing and killing spare time, Clarke settles for football management games like many a football fan, including myself do. His favourite is Championship Manager 01/02.

I’m always QPR in League 1 and we always win the Champions League within 4 years! To Madeira is the best player on that game.”

Has anyone ever achieved it in 3 years?

On a closing note, his favourite manager to have played under is Owen Coyle who he believes is the master of man-management and enjoyment.

Jose Mourinho

And if he could pick to work under one manager for just a day it would be Jose Mourinho.

A legend of management.”

Clarke’s words not mine. I feel many people think he is a legend in something else, but we will not go there.