IT HAS been a while since David Clarkson last felt so at home. Not only is he banging in the goals, just like he used to at Motherwell, he is prompting talk of a return to the Scotland squad, which he was part of in 2008, and appreciating the opportunity to do it all in front of the family that has missed him these last five years.
His recent move to Dundee, together with his long-awaited return to form, has been enjoyed by his friends and relatives. After all, they have been through so much with Clarkson, not in England perhaps, where his career stalled with Bristol City and Bristol Rovers, but certainly before then, when the innocence of those early free-scoring days at Fir Park was ended by tragedy.
Clarkson was playing for Motherwell on 29 December 2007, when his uncle, team-mate and captain, Phil O’Donnell, collapsed on the pitch and died.
“I think about him a lot,” says Clarkson. “I’ve got a lot of good memories, outside of football and in. Every year, I get people texting me or tweeting me, telling me they’re thinking about me. And Motherwell, as a club, are good with remembering him. With the career he had, you’re going to get that, especially at this time of year, with his anniversary coming up.”
Clarkson’s kin, including O’Donnell’s wife and four children, are seeing more of him now that he has ended a frustrating spell south of the Border.
“It’s good to be back up seeing the family. You do miss it. I was glad I went away, but you miss out on a lot of stuff so it’s good to be back, seeing them grow up. And especially with me doing well, it’s good that the family have the chance to see me. They haven’t had that for a while.”
Clarkson’s re-emergence is quite a story. Without a club in the summer, the 29-year-old striker joined Dundee in September, scored on his debut and in each of his next seven matches, breaking all sorts of records in the process. It is no surprise that he has been voted the SPFL player of the month for November.
If he continues at anything like the same rate, he will have to be considered for Scotland’s next Euro 2016 qualifying match, against Gibraltar in March. His two previous caps came under George Burley six years ago. One appearance was against the Czech Republic, when he scored a debut goal, the other against Argentina.
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It has not escaped Clarkson’s notice that Scotland’s assistant manager is Mark McGhee, a man with whom he goes way back. McGhee got the best out of him at Motherwell, signed him for Bristol Rovers and, after he was sacked by the English club in December 2012, made a point of keeping in touch with the Bellshill-born striker.
Of course, it will be up to Gordon Strachan, not McGhee, who merits a call-up next year. And the national side has younger options up front, many of whom are playing at a higher level. But who knows? If they need an alternative at short notice, at least there is someone on the backroom staff who has Clarkson’s number.
“I haven’t heard from him for a while, right enough. He did text me when I scored for Bristol Rovers saying, ‘about time’. If you have a relationship like that with somebody it’s good that you can keep in touch and throw them a wee text now and again. You never know when you might need them.”
McGhee is one of Clarkson’s biggest influences, not so much a manager as a mentor. At Motherwell, he helped him to become one of Scotland’s brightest young prospects, while also helping him through the traumatic loss of his uncle. “The thing was, with Phil’s passing, he helped me a lot,” says Clarkson. “I had a lot of dealings with him through that, and not just in terms of a football relationship. He understood what I was looking for, whether it was a few days off training or just needing cheered up. I remember he told me to take a long weekend and get myself away with the missus. He told me to go and book a flight and get some sun about me.
“That’s what I did. I got away from the football for a wee bit and came back and tried to get myself back into it. Small things like that helped me to get away from the club and the football. Not that I needed to, but maybe I needed to recharge the batteries.”
Clarkson and McGhee both left Motherwell in the summer of 2009, the manager for Aberdeen, the striker for Bristol City in a deal reputed to be worth £800,000. It worked out for neither of them. McGhee lasted a year-and-a-half at Pittodrie, Clarkson twice as long at Ashton Gate, although illness and injury contributed to his haul of just 11 goals in 63 appearances. Derek McInnes, their manager, released him in 2012.
McGhee then signed him for Bristol Rovers, only to be shown the door that December. Clarkson missed the last three months of that season with an ankle injury, and the following campaign ended in relegation from the Football League. He was one of 12 players released in May.
Those were tough times for Clarkson, whose career had gone into freefall. “When you’re not in good form or not playing every week, it’s a bad game to be involved in. You can get down about it. It can be hard for players sometimes when they’re not playing every week, but I’m the type of person that just keeps going.”
It hasn’t been easy. At the start of this season, he trained with St Johnstone, Kilmarnock, even Motherwell, but all decided to drop their interest, which meant that Clarkson was without a club when the transfer window closed. Only when Paul Hartley, the Dundee manager, persuaded his board to push the boat out was the player given a lifeline.
Hartley played alongside Clarkson at Bristol City, so they both knew what they were getting into. “It was a big part of me coming here,” says the player. “I didn’t know what he was like as a manager, but as a player, the qualities he had were magnificent. His standards were always high as a player, especially having been at Celtic where they expect to win every game. So far he’s carried that into being a manager. He wants things done to the highest standard.”
So far, Clarkson has obliged. His debut was delayed so that he could work on his fitness, but since that first game, when he scored against Ross County, he has netted against Aberdeen (twice), Motherwell, Hamilton, Kilmarnock, St Johnstone and Celtic. Before yesterday’s visit of Inverness Caledonian Thistle to Dens Park, there had not been a single match in which he had failed to score.
Hartley is already talking about extending his star striker’s contract beyond the end of this season.
Clarkson says he is a better player now, and even a better person, than the lad who left Scotland five years ago to try his luck in the promised land of English football.
For the first time in a long while, he is playing through the middle – his best position – and, at long last, he feels wanted, so much so that he is bursting with the confidence every striker craves.
“I’m thinking, ‘if I get a chance, I’ll score it’. When you’re in that frame of mind, it seems to fall to you. The ball seems to break to you. Everything you hit seems to go in. The Celtic game was probably the biggest one. It’s had about three ricochets and then fallen to me. If you’re not in a bit of form, it goes somewhere else.
“Hopefully, I can keep doing it. It’s not even Christmas yet. It’s great that I got eight in eight, but there’s no point in having eight in eight and then not scoring for the rest of the season. I’ve got to keep working hard.”
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