The first indication that Lee Clark is striving to be his own man and his own manager comes with his preference for the time of our chat – 11am. Isn’t that when footballers are normally halfway through their training? Having just about broken the back of the session, aren’t they at that stage thinking about a relaxing afternoon of shopping, a bit of X-box and by three o’clock being ready to fall asleep in front of the telly?
Anyway, 11 it is, and here I am at Rugby Park next to Clark in the dugout, a small ambition fulfilled in that I’m sat in one of those airplane seats – and I suppose that being this close to the Kilmarnock boss I’m playing the part of Lee McCulloch which is maybe not a role I ever envisaged for myself.
Perhaps Clark and I could conduct the interview whispering behind our hands, which is how managers and No 2s like to communicate on matchdays – or maybe I should send him up to the directors’ box, where he was banished last weekend, and we could talk by phone.
He laughs at this idea, but it’s been a testing start to the season for Killie with iffy results in the Betfred Cup, rumours Clark was on the brink of quitting, that ban for a bust-up with referee Craig Thomson in the opening day defeat in the Premiership – before some welcome relief in the shape of three points at Hamilton Accies.
We’ll discuss his ambitions for Scotland’s oldest professional club. We’ll get round to his unusual training regime in just a minute. But first, Lee, didn’t you once meet Sophia Loren naked?
“I was naked, not her,” he stresses in that wonderfully cloggy Geordie accent of his. “I’d just signed for Fulham and was doing my medical, only this was happening at Harrods.” Such were the eccentricities of playing for a club owned by Mohamed al-Fayed, the grand emporium’s supremo. “It was the big sale and Sophia was officially opening it. Mr al-Fayed was walking her through the sixth floor when he spotted me and said to her: ‘Look, there’s an athlete! Come and meet him.’ I was completely starkers and she was completely gorgeous. I was on the scales having my fat percentage checked. Hopefully that wasn’t too chubby a day for me.” Tragically they never had a conversation. Her look of beautiful bemusement when he opened his mouth would have been priceless.
As football folk like to tell us, you never know what’s going to happen in this daft game. Killie fans never knew, or expected, that 42-year-old Clark was going to turn up as their manager the day after Valentine’s Day – no one did. But he saved the club from relegation and, amid memorable scenes of joy and relief, sprinted along the touchline like it was a dad’s race at school sports day and threw a blue-and-white scarf round the neck of a policewoman.
Such a reaction spoke of Clark’s footballing passion. Did I think I was going to be meeting that demented fellow today? Perhaps, but I must try not to be too disappointed that this performance is more thoughtful. I wonder if he’s the Geordiest Geordie we currently know; he says there are plenty more where he came from. So, as the old joke goes, are Geordies just Scots with their brains bashed in? “Well, we think of you Scots as wannabe Geordies.”
Those suggestions he might just as quickly breeze out of Rugby Park were strenuously denied and, although you never truly know in this game, it seems like he might be hanging around for a while at least. Emphasising he’s not a commuting manager, he spends most of his time in his Kilmarnock flat. Wife Lorraine and sons Jak and Bobby may be staying in Geordieland but daughter Claudia is hoping for the GCSEs allowing her to join her old man on this side of the border and take up a place at Edinburgh University.
Clark has quickly become a fan of Scottish football and, though he wouldn’t make this connection himself, the qualities he admires most are ones he paraded throughout his own playing career. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the game here,” he says. “I love the honesty of the players and their never-say-die attitude.” Just as surprised, he reckons, were some of his new recruits to Killie. “When we were having our struggles in the Betfred Cup I had to stress to the lads who’ve come up from England that in every game in Scotland everyone gives everything and gives up on nothing. They didn’t realise Scottish football was so tenacious. Maybe there are some better players in England but that’s down to the finances. There’s no difference at all in attitude and application and I compliment all the Scottish clubs on that.”
At Rugby Park Clark is leaving his imprint. The corridors under the old main stand are covered in inspirational slogans. Some are clunky, all are unattributed but I like: “Play for the name on the front of the shirt and they will remember the name on the back.” Then there’s training: the pitch is quiet mid-morning for a reason.
Preparing for today’s 3pm kick-off at Ross County, the players have been at peak performance at exactly this time all week. Next week, building up to the Friday night game against Rangers, they’ll be hammering away every evening, reaching their optimum at 7:45pm.
“Think about this logically,” he says. “If you train to be in absolute best condition, with your mind at its sharpest, at 11 in the morning, then all of a sudden when it’s three in the afternoon and you’re usually sleeping but the game’s kicking off your body will be like: ‘Whoa, what’s happening here?’”
Clark wouldn’t be so bold as to term it a philosophy and says that chronological training, as it’s called, is widely used on the continent. Jurgen Klopp is a high-profile adherent currently and our man learned about it at Fulham under Jean Tigana. In the fine margins of football for a club with little wiggle room, he thinks it could work at Kilmarnock.
But hang on, I say, didn’t he baulk at the concept at Craven Cottage? I dig out an old quote of his from ten years ago: “He [Tigana] didn’t respect the other side of us. We’re all family men and that went out the window.” Clark smiles. “It was a shock to the experienced British players in the team but we bought into it and we all agreed it made us the fittest we’d ever been.” The Fulham model also involved 6am jogging which Clark used pre-season at Killie but hints it could be reintroduced. “It keeps the players lean which is where we want them to be but it’s also about character. I have to say, though, that this group have just got on with what’s been asked of them so far. That tells me I’ve got good players here.”
It’s possible, I think, to predict the sudden turn of events which would cause Clark to leave Killie: Newcastle United’s indifferent start getting worse, Rafa Benitez quitting and the SOS going out to one of the Magpies’ favourite sons from Kevin Keegan’s “Entertainers”. Possible, too, to contend that Clark as a youngster would have been out pounding the streets of his hard-bitten estate at 3am if he thought it might get him into those black-and-white stripes.
“But I didn’t ever think a lad from the east end of Newcastle could become a footballer and get to play at St James’ Park,” he says. “Where I grew up was a tough area. Dad worked on a building site, Mum had numerous jobs. There were five of us with a Dalmatian and not a lot of money to go round. But I was the boy who got to live the dream.”
First as an eight-year-old he witnessed “boring 0-0 draws, Bill McGarry’s era, not an especially good team” although you imagine this lad still found them quite thrilling. “Then we hit the jackpot. Kevin Keegan, one of the biggest names in Europe, was suddenly playing for Newcastle. There was a full house – 32,000 – for his debut against Queens Park Rangers. He scored the winner and said afterwards that the Gallowgate End had sucked the ball right into the net.
“When he left – by helicopter, no less – I was in tears. After that the club lost their way until Kevin came back as manager.” By then Clark was in the team, a steely but skilful midfielder. He would be joined by David Ginola, Philippe Albert, Les Ferdinand. “Kevin told us: ‘Get on the rollercoaster, there are going to be ups and there are going to be downs, just make sure you stay on.’” The Entertainers of the mid-1990s challenged Manchester United’s supremacy and Keegan declared he would “absolutely love it” if Newcastle were to become champions. “We blew a 13-point lead. Guys like [Eric] Cantona and [Peter] Schmeichel were magnificent for them. We didn’t have enough players with experience of going for titles.”
Then suddenly Clark was playing in the red and white of Sunderland. No longer the boy on the terraces, he made the professional’s pragmatic choice, enjoyed two “terrific” years on Wearside and helped his team achieve promotion back to the top flight. Newcastle had reached the FA Cup final and Clark wanted to be at Wembley. “Whatever you do,” said Black Cats manager Peter Reid, “don’t wear any f****** colours.”
What happened? Clark was photographed in a T-shirt saying “Sad Mackem B******”. His explanation is that some jovial Geordies whipped the garment over his head before he knew what was happening. But he says now: “That’s a big regret. I’ve no one to blame but myself. I decided I had to leave Sunderland because I wasn’t going to be able to play for them against Newcastle. People think the T-shirt was to force my departure but it wasn’t. It was sad because I’d disrespected the Sunderland fans – they were upset at this guy whose wages they paid and rightly so.” Did he dread a Denis Law backheeled goal like for Manchester City against United? “I didn’t think about it that deep. I always took great pride in my performances as a player and I couldn’t have been out there for Sunderland knowing I could short-change everyone.”
Fulham were next for Clark where his captain was Chris Coleman. “Chris was a great player and our leader but I never thought of him becoming a manager. He took to it really well, though, and when he became boss at Fulham he showed himself to be a superb man-manager. He had some sticky moments after that but his story shows that guys can get over setbacks and during the Euros I was so proud of being a friend of Chris and watching what he achieved with Wales. I know he’d love to get back to the Premier League one day but I hope he takes Wales to the World Cup.”
Wales’ thrilling ride to the semi-finals in the summer was consolation for another England disaster for Clark who is optimistic of better times ahead for his country under Sam Allardyce. When Clark, who always fancied management, returned to Newcastle and after hanging up his boots took charge of the reserves Allardyce was the manager, albeit that he was quickly dismissed.
“Unbelievably thorough, another great man-manager, modern techniques mixed with old-school ones and now he’s in his dream job,” reckons Clark. An aesthete of the long-ball? Clark is not having that.
“Not once at Newcastle did I hear him advocate it. He played winning football. Yes, he worked on set-plays but everything from pub games to World Cup finals are won that way. Glenn Hoddle hit a wonderful long pass. The pass of the Euros, by Paul Pogba, must have been all of 70 yards. Long balls or quality? I’d say quality.”
Clark’s journey as a manager to Rugby Park has been a bumpy one. At Huddersfield Town he oversaw a record-breaking run of 43 unbeaten league games only to be sacked later. At Birmingham City he had to sell his talent when owner Carson Yeung was embroiled in a money-laundering case, placed under house arrest and had his assets frozen, eventually being jailed by a Hong Kong court. Then at Blackpool his striker went AWOL, his goalie had to play in a signed shirt intended for a raffle and a match was abandoned when fan anger at the owner boiled over into a mass pitch protest. “Ego got the better of me there,” he says. “I thought I was the man to rescue them. It was a valuable lesson.”
Clark, nothing if not candid, says all of these experiences good and bad feed into the manager he is now and hopefully make him a better one for Kilmarnock. He’s studied the club’s history, is knocked out by the fact it goes all the way back to 1869 and marvels at the European adventures of half a century ago. He’s also read up about the town’s travails, Johnnie Walker and other jobs blows, and with money being tight is all the more appreciative of the fans’ help in saving the team from relegation.
“I think the people want their football team to do well because in that play-off against Falkirk they came out in unbelievable numbers and played just as big a part in the success as the players. The players bounced off the crowd, the crowd bounced off the players and the combination was superb.”
Before he gets to work, at a time when other managers are winding down training for the day, he adds: “I look at what Ross County have achieved. I look at what St Johnstone with my big mate Tommy Wright have achieved. Can we emulate them? Can we improve to where there’s a possibility we could challenge for one of those European places? I’d love to do that for Kilmarnock.”