Interview: Bobby Clark, king of the clean sheet

Bobby Clark in his role as coach of the university team at Notre Dame. Picture: AP
Bobby Clark in his role as coach of the university team at Notre Dame. Picture: AP
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But Clark says he’s happy his Aberdeen shutout record is under threat today

As the song goes, Indiana wants Bobby Clark, and has done since 2001 when the Aberdeen goalkeeping great became coach of the university team at Notre Dame. But every so often a call wings its way the 3,700 miles from the old country asking him how he feels about one of his records being under threat and today is such a day.

Twelve and a bit games, or more precisely 1,155 minutes, without conceding a goal – which Clark achieved back in 1970-71 before Hibernian’s Pat Stanton finally whacked a shot past him – briefly stood as a world record until being beaten by Stoyan Yordanov of CSKA Sofia. It remained a British record until Edwin van der Sar went for longer with Manchester United in 2009. It remained a Scottish record until last February when Celtic’s Fraser Forster established the new standard. Now Scott Brown, the current No 1 at Clark’s beloved Pittodrie, is threatening to take the latter’s club record from him.

“I really hope he does, and I really hope Aberdeen can do what we did and win the league,” says Clark, with just the merest trace of an American accent in his 70th year. He gets news from Aberdeen via email from ex-team-mates Martin Buchan, Ian Taylor – “and the odd funny one from Joey” [Harper]. He gets visits to his home in South Bend, St Joseph County, from Sir Alex Ferguson and has been promised another one soon, with the old goalie joking that Fergie never forgets anyone he used to roar at.

Just pulling up short in his shutout season under Eddie Turnbull, Clark finally won the league with Ferguson and despite all the years and all the travelling in his coaching career – from Zimbabwe to New Zealand and then round various US colleges – he has tack-sharp recall of his 400-odd games for the Dons and even further back.

He says: “The last guy to beat me before I went on that run of clean-sheets was Ronnie Hamilton of St Mirren. We’d encountered each other before: as 16-year-olds in the final of the Wilson Trophy when I played for Glasgow East and so did Alex Willoughby, my future Aberdeen team-mate. How about that?”

Here’s another story, this one from the glory season of 1979-80: “To be honest, there’s a chunk of the run-in to the title that’s a blur. My wife’s father died just after we beat Dundee United and two weeks later my father died. The families insisted the funerals were not to get in the way of the football because that’s the way the dads would have wanted it. So that’s what happened. My old man’s came between a midweek game at Kilmarnock and the Saturday when we were due at Parkhead for the big one. We won it 2-1 after I managed to save a penalty from Bobby Lennox, which must have broken a lot of Celtic hearts. Afterwards – and I’ve never forgotten this because it was pure class and the act of a gentleman – Bobby came up, put his arm round me and said: ‘Well done today, and I was really sorry to hear about your dad.’”

Clark shrugs at the prospect of his last record going. This is a reaction he learned from his great managers, Fergie and before him Eddie Turnbull, whose attitude was always to get right on with the next thing. But it’s not quite true to say that the top club shutout is his last distinction. For Clark did what few if any goalies have ever done: when he lost his place in the first team he played outfield.

Debut as an emergency centre-half? Rangers at Ibrox. Beat that, all you custodians in the news this week for feats above and beyond the call of duty – Manuel Neuer, Germany’s sweeper-keeper, who was third in the Ballon d’Or, and the Spaniard Adrian who scored the winning penalty for West Ham in an FA Cup shootout. You pair never had to combat the rampaging, crazy-eyed Govan force-of-nature that was Colin Stein.

This is incredible. I’d a vague memory of a seriously wandering goalie from boyhood but didn’t trust myself. Had I merely imagined Clark as a comic-strip character capable of such heroics because of his clean-cut, square-jawed look which seemed to come straight from cartoons? Still not completely convinced, I mentioned the antics to younger colleagues on the sportsdesk who were sceptical. I was going to have to hear the story from the man himself.

“I can’t really believe it now,” he says. “Aberdeen were going through a sticky patch and then Hibs put six past me at Pittodrie.” This was ’68-’69 and, ironically, the Hibees’ star man had been Peter Cormack who would occasionally head in the opposite direction to Clark for a turn between the sticks. “Straight after that game I went away with Scotland to Cyprus, sat on the bench for a World Cup qualifier, reported back to the club and was plonked in the reserves. I think Eddie’s plan had been to give me a couple of weeks’ rest but Ernie McGarr came in and he was superb.

“I couldn’t complain. Ernie was a smashing keeper and he ended up getting into the Scotland team. In all I had a year out and I think it was good for me: I grew up a lot. But then at the start of the next season, ’69-’70, the club had a crisis: there were hardly any fit defenders. It was Teddy Scott, our great old trainer, who suggested I play centre-half for the reserves because we had cover in goals. My very first tryout was against Clyde at Shawfield. I had to remember to head the ball and not catch it.

“I had a few games for the second XI, quite enjoying my new life, and then Martin Buchan got hurt in a car accident. Suddenly I was on the bench at Ibrox. Suddenly I was out there in front of 40,000. I think [Scotland manager] Bobby Brown was there that day. Goodness knows what he made of me. He certainly never called me up for the national team as a centre-half.

“We lost to Rangers and then I got to start a game, against St Johnstone, but we lost that one too.” Hang on, though, this was the same ’69-’70 which would end in glory and the Scottish Cup? “Yes, and when Ernie was playing for Scotland against Austria, Aberdeen had a match at St Mirren the same day and I was put back in goals where I think I did okay.” Indeed Turnbull’s summation went like this: “Hey you! You’re a f****n’ goalie. That’s it.”

“I don’t know how well I really played outfield. I was certainly confident enough at Cappielow once to try and take a few touches. Alex Smith, a lovely quiet guy who came from Dunfermline, sidled up to me and whispered: ‘Bobby, you’re doing great, but just win the ball and gie it to the guys who can play.’ That was a reality check and Eddie was right: I was a keeper.” By the time of the cup final Clark was back as No 1.

He would have two fantastic days at the national stadium, also winning the 1976 League Cup, and Hampden had been where he’d begun his career as an amateur with Queen’s Park. Turnbull, who’d managed the Spiders, persuaded the promising young keeper to follow him to the north-east, although not before some rigorous questioning from Clark’s parents.

“Eddie came to the house. My father, who worked for a beer bottling firm, was concerned about the professional footballer’s lifestyle. ‘They train in the mornings,’ said Eddie. ‘But what do they do in the afternoons?’ said Dad. ‘Nothing,’ said Eddie. ‘Right,’ said my mother, ‘Bobby is about to become a qualified PE teacher. You won’t mind if he teaches in the afternoons. Can we get that written into his contract?’”

Clark met his wife Betty on Jordanhill College’s training courses and the couple’s passion for education – and football – has been passed onto their children. Jamie and Jennifer are both college soccer coaches while their other son, Tommy, founded Grassroots Soccer which is trying to mobilise the global football community in the fight against HIV. Clark explains: “When I coached in Zimbabwe the kids were with us. Tommy went back later to do some teaching and was shocked at the deaths from Aids. He was moved to come back and study medicine and set up this charity which seeks to tap into the power of soccer to help those at risk.”

Clark the shot-saver knows a bit about how football can save lost souls.

In 2000 when Andrew Shue was named as one of the ten most outstanding young Americans, the actor revealed how he owed it all to our man. The star of TV drama Melrose Place, who’d received the honour for his work helping underprivileged children, Shue’s first ambition had been to become a soccer-playing high school teacher under Clark’s tutelage but his life fell apart when he witnessed his brother’s death, the young man falling from a rope swing and impaling himself on a tree.

Clark helped him recover. “Bobby told me: ‘You can’t stop, you can’t crumble, – you just have to keep on living,’” Shue said at the time. “He told me he’d lost his father on the eve of a big game. He didn’t know if he could face it, but he found the strength of character to carry on because it was the right thing to do. Bobby was an amazing coach – in soccer and in life. He taught me the way to play and live was by example and always stressed the importance of treating people well and giving something back.”

Clark whose Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish, have had more players picked for Major League Soccer than any other uni, plays down his part in Shue’s rehabilitation. He says: “The nice thing about my job is you get young guys at an age, 18-21, when they really feel deeply about stuff and you can influence their lives, hopefully in a positive way.”

Clark got this from Fergie, although now he’s chuckling because he’s remembering his mentor as a sharp-elbowed centre-forward. “I needed 14 stitches round an ear after one encounter with him. And further back I recall him decking our centre-half at Queen’s Park, Max Dougan. Fergie was a handful for sure. But as a manager he was absolutely inspirational. In that league-winning season, going to Celtic Park as the current Aberdeen will have to do soon, he’d say: ‘We need people who can handle this. We need to be brave here.’ He’d look straight at you and make you believe: ‘I can be the guy.’” And Fergie is still watching over Clark. When Notre Dame were about to play the 2013 final of the NCAA, American’s inter-college soccer championship, he sent a good luck message for Clark to read to his players.

History shows that in the league-winning season Aberdeen won both games away to Celtic, also a League Cup tie there. “Of course it’s crucial,” says Clark of next month’s visit for Derek McInnes’ team. “But while you and I can look ahead to it, the players can’t. It’s the old cliche but one game at a time. The good thing now is the team have the winning habit and habits of any kind can be hard to break.”

Nine seasons before, the shutout one, another clash with Celtic was pivotal. This was at Pittodrie, the penultimate match, and a win for Aberdeen followed by victory in the final game against Ol’ Jaggy Elbows’ Falkirk would have given Turnbull’s team the title. But the Dons could only draw against Celtic – “I can still see Billy McNeill knocking Arthur Graham’s shot off the line,” says Clark – before going down at Brockville.

A fire at Pittodrie back in the February, blowing a great hole in the main stand, hadn’t help the cause. “The wind howling through it dried out the park. Eddie even got the fire brigade to turn their hoses on it, to try to revive the grass. That definitely affected us.” Joe Harper had scored 19 goals before the blaze but wouldn’t net another.

Turnbull’s Aberdeen may be less celebrated than Fergie’s but they have equal prominence in Clark’s affections. “We were the best team in ’70-’71. Eddie was a fantastic manager, way ahead of his time, and Jimmy Bonthrone as his assistant, a really nice man, removed a bit of his edge. Eddie didn’t trust many people but he did Jimmy.

“We were known as an offside team but that was Eddie playing a hard-pressing game before the world knew about it. I had a terrific defence in front of me, Martin Buchan who was so smart and Tommy McMillan as the mainstays along with Henning Boel and Jim Hermiston, and they’re the real reason I had so many shutouts. Did I feel the pressure not to concede with every passing week? No one knew I was heading for a record; stats like that weren’t available back then. Oh and if you see Pat Stanton, who broke the sequence, tell him I said hello because he’s a special friend.”

He hasn’t seen his great pals in that Dons team for ages. “But I’m sure if we were all to meet tomorrow we’d just carry on where we left off. I really believe that and would love it to be tomorrow.”

Or maybe the end of the season when there might really be something to celebrate.