Out of all the players in the world that I didn’t think I’d ever see pull on the red and white stripes of Sheffield United, Leon Clarke was up there at the top of that list. An ex Wednesday player and a man that had a certain reputation about being pretty languid both on and off the pitch (just take a look at the incident he shared on the pitch with Paulo Di Canio during his stint at Swindon) so when Clarke signed for United in the summer of 2016 it came as a bit of a shock to many that Chris Wilder would be interested in taking on a then 31 year old striker on a three year contract who had had problems at previous clubs. How wrong we would be though as for the next two seasons at least and most definitely during the first season in the Championship, Clarke would go on to be one of the most important players in the initial rise of The Blades under Wilder.
Clarke scored his first goal for United in the EFL Cup clash at home against Crewe back in August. Unfortunately for Clarke, much of his first season in a Blades was hampered by a foot injury and, aside from a goal against Chesterfield in November, Clarke didn’t get a chance at a proper run in the team until the end of the season but when he did, bloody hell Clarke went on an absolute tear. Starting from the 5th of April against Coventry, Clarke went on to score 6 goals in 5 games including the equaliser against Northampton that set us on our way to promotion and a double against Bradford in our first home game since being declared champions. Throw that in with a stunning goal away at Port Vale and you do begin to see the seeds being sown for the form that would eventually follow during the next season in the Championship.
After getting a brilliant assist against Brentford on the opening day of the season, Clarke went on to have a pretty poor start to the league season after getting sent off after an altercation with Barnsley’s Angus MacDonald however, he was back for the first Steel City derby of the season and with an injury crisis hitting United’s frontline it would be Leon Clarke and David Brooks who would be leading the line that day for the Blades and it would go on to be a very fruitful day for both men. After being mocked for not being Championship standard by the standard bearers of the division in Wednesday fans (ha) Clarke went on to shove all of that criticism back into the faces of Wednesday fans and went on to score a double against our dear neighbours in a result that still resonates to this day with it perhaps being the beginning of the end for the short period where Wednesday were play off contenders. The destruction of that ideal is down in a small part to Leon Clarke. After taming the Owls, Clarke would begin to go on a tear again. Three days after conquering one former club, Clarke was up against other former employers in the shape of Wolverhampton Wanderers and he did the exact same to Wolves as what he did to Wednesday. Clarke got another brace against a team that would go on to comfortably win the division. After another quiet patch towards the end of September and not scoring during the whole of October, November was upon us and this was the month when Leon Clarke went on another absolute tear and became one of the most dangerous strikers in England even if it was just for a month.
November started with the visit of Hull City to The Lane and after going into the break 1-0 down thanks to a Kamil Grosicki wonderstrike. United and Clarke turned on the style and in a 35 minute spell starting on the 53rd minute, Clarke went out and decimated Hull. Scoring a hat trick in 23 minutes was mad enough but then having the skill to go out and get a fourth? Incredible. It was brilliant. Clarke showed that not only did he belong in this division with this decimation of The Tigers but that he could thrive and he followed that up with another goal in the following match against Burton Albion. Another home game, another hat trick and Clarke was really beginning to hit his stride. Clarke would end the month with the equaliser in home game against Birmingham and thus ended perhaps the most fruitful month that a United striker has ever had and perhaps ever will have. 4 Games. 9 Goals. They are unreal numbers that only players like Ronaldo and Messi could conjure up but for one month in 2017, Leon Clarke was up there with players of that calibre.
Although the goals wouldn’t come as fruitfully as they did during that month, Clarke would end the season with a very respectable 19 goals in 39 games and a spot in the PFA Team Of The Year. It was an incredible season for a player who’s previous highest total for goals in the Championship was 8 during the 2008-09 season. It proved to the doubters that Clarke could in fact cut it in the second tier of English football. The goals did dry up the next season but despite only scoring three goals for United, they were all pretty crucial with his goals against Stoke, Brentford and Derby all going a long way in deciding the outcome of those fixtures. Clarke made 24 appearances for United last season before going out on loan to Wigan during January. Despite not being a United player during that 4 month period, Clarke still had a helping hand in getting us promoted getting an assist as Wigan went to Leeds and won 2-1 despite being down to 10 men for much of the match. Watching Leon celebrate his teammates goal against Leeds makes you think that he wasn’t just celebrating for his teammate but also for his parent club.
Despite being put on the transfer list in the summer and constant rumours of him leaving the club Leon is still here. He actually came on against Liverpool to make his Premier League debut back in September at the age of 34 and almost scored. His sliding effort going miles over the bar when it looked harder to miss than score. There wasn’t much anger at that missed opportunity though because even though I don’t think many people were too happy about Leon being at the club originally, Clarke has busted all the myths that surrounded him when he came to the club and gone on to be a cult hero for the club during a period of success that the club perhaps hasn’t seen since the late 60’s – early 70’s. He actually has scored for United this season, a lovely finish against AFC Fylde in the FA Cup third round in front of an empty Kop and around 11,000 fans. If that is in fact Clarke’s last contribution to the Blades then I suppose it’s good that he got to score a goal in what could be his final appearance for the club but imagine if it was in front of a full Kop. The roar would have been incredible, rather than just a small ‘get in’. After being divisive in his early Blades career, I’d like to think that that isn’t the case anymore. Leon Clarke is a modern day Sheffield United legend and no matter whatever else happens during his career, he’ll always have 2017-18 and November when, even though it was just for a month, Leon Clarke became one of the best strikers in the world.