After crossing the Atlantic in his father’s fishing boat at the age of only 15, John Clark clearly developed a taste for adventure. But nobody, not even he, could have imagined the tales in which he would star thereafter.
Unusually for the fisherman he once was, he’s not inclined to boast. So those he encounters while working in his current day job fitting air conditioning need to tease these stories out of him.
He’s the last Scotsman to score for a Scottish club in a European final for a start, thirty years ago tomorrow. But that’s not even the best of it, since he also struck a goal at the Nou Camp and appeared in a European Cup semi-final, one of half-a-dozen Dundee United players who bestrode these two great peaks.
But it is likely he was the only one who’d already crossed an ocean on a trawler. While helping put hairs on his chest, it still didn’t completely prepare him for life at Tannadice. “It was the late 1970s, my father got a contract with the Canadian government to trial a certain type of fishing,” Clark, now 52, explains. “So we sailed over. It was the school holidays. We went over from Stornoway to St John’s, in Newfoundland. It was 11 nights in an 85-foot boat. Not good!”
No wonder he sometimes found it hard to get motivated for those more humdrum assignments as a player. “That was my problem,” he says. “I took things for granted and could not get excited, no disrespect, about going to places like Motherwell and St Mirren on a rainy Tuesday night. It was probably why I did better in those less ordinary games.”
By less ordinary he means ultra-glamorous. Unlike the majority of us were we in the same position, he doesn’t seek opportunities to talk about holding off Mark Hughes to head in Ian Redford’s free-kick in a 2-1 win over Barcelona in the quarter-final of the Uefa Cup. Nor does he recount providing United with hope with an equaliser a few weeks later in the second leg of the final against IFK Gothenburg in everyday conversation.
“I am not that kind of person,” he says. “I shy away from it. If I am away on a job and then go out socially at night it might come up in the conversation. They call it up on YouTube and say they can’t recognise me!”
There are few former players with better tales to tell than Clark. There’s the time, to paraphrase a song from the late 1980s, when he wished he was a fisherman. It’s one of those stories that always seemed slightly too good to be true.
But fear not. There’s confirmation from the man himself. He really did walk out of Tannadice to be a prawn fisherman.
“I went to see wee Jim [McLean],” recalls Clark.
“He would frequently sit in his office with just a towel round him and his big hairy chest on full show. He lifted his eyes up over the paper. I said: ‘Boss, I cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel, I have decided to go and get a job with my dad’.
“I was probably looking for an argument or a discussion and to find some common ground. He lifted his head over the paper and said: ‘OK’. He then went back to reading the paper. I turned round rather sheepishly and joined my dad on his boat at Eyemouth.
“I was on £130 a week at Tannadice then. I worked a September weekend. My dad gave me £130 the next Friday, as if to say: ‘get back up the road’.”
Clark was no callow youth guilty of making an impulsive decision. He was in his mid-twenties, married and had already made his mark in a Uefa Cup final, as well as come on for the last ten minutes of a European Cup semi-final tie against AS Roma with the instruction from McLean of ‘get us a goal!’
“I phoned wee Jim on the Friday and said I have decided to come back,” continues Clark. “It’s the only time I got some sympathy from him. He said: ‘you silly bugger, get yourself back up’.”
The first thing McLean said to him when he returned? “How’s your weight?”
Clark was told to hop on a set of scales. Paul Hegarty was struggling to be fit for that weekend’s game against Rangers. “I was a kilo and a half up from what I should have been,” recalls Clark. “Heggy passed a fitness test and I went to play for the reserves at Rangers.”
Instead of earning a £1,000 win bonus for the 2-1 victory over Rangers in 1990, he picked up a tenner playing for the stiffs.
“That was the day Terry Butcher scored an OG in the wind at Tannadice,” recalls Clark.
Aside from the aforementioned brief break when he was “up to my balls in prawns”, he remained at United from 1981 to 1994. While a great era to be part of, it still yielded only loser’s medals; five cup finals that got away.
“They won the League Cup the year before I joined and the Scottish Cup the year I left,” he notes. “I played in five finals and lost them all. I played one game in the league-winning season, as an 18 year-old. I played in Rome in a European Cup semi-final. Anyone who has done that recently isn’t fitting air conditioning!
“I was there long enough to be part of several great teams, playing with people like Hamish McAlpine, a gentleman, moving on to Billy McKinlay and Duncan Ferguson. It was a long time, right in between two great periods. I joined in ’81 and nine rookies started pre-season that year, including myself. A year later there was none of them left apart from me.”
McLean clearly saw something in Clark. Just not as a striker. Much to Clark’s disgruntlement he was switched to centre-half, as McLean had done with Paul Hegarty to great effect. “I scored 53 goals for the reserves in my first season there,” he says. “Walter Smith still talks about it.
“Wee Jim just thought I was lazy. I was probably the most unfit player at every club I was at. I had asthma but I could not blame that.
“Wee Jim wanted me chasing full-backs if I was playing up front. I thought I was a goalscorer. ‘If you were Charlie Nicholas you can play up front, but you’re not’.”
It was tough love – if it ever even approached love. But it was Ivan Golac rather than McLean who called time on Clark’s Tannadice career, jettisoning him midway through his first season as manager, at the end of which United won the Scottish Cup. Clark departed for an ill-starred spell at Stoke City.
“I left with a black bin bag with my boots and shin guards in it,” he recalls. “It was a bit of a sour ending.”
He did, though, depart with the promise of a testimonial, duly granted when Stoke City visited Tannadice near the start of the following season. But McLean threatened to withhold the receipts after Clark, who joined Falkirk shortly afterwards, began describing his Brockville days, where he played with the likes of Mo Johnston and John Hughes, as the happiest of his career.
“A lot of old heads, probably over the hill. But yes, it was probably my most enjoyable time.”
That brings us neatly to tonight’s Championship play-off second leg between two of his (many) former clubs. “I think my allegiance will still be with United to be honest,” he says. “Ray McKinnon is there, my old team-mate, though Peter Houston is a good guy too.”
Clark might have listed Aberdeen among his former teams had he not noted the strikers blocking his route to the first-team, the likes of Eric Black and John Hewitt, and decided against joining their youth ranks. Alex Ferguson later passed him on the stairs after a game at Tannadice.
“He looked at me. ‘You’ve signed here son? You need certified!’” Sometimes it must have felt like he did. But what a voyage it was in the city of Discovery.
l Tannadice 87, produced by purpleTV, will air on BBC ALBA and BBC iPlayer, 9pm tomorrow.