The likeable big goalkeeper decided last summer to call time on an 11-year professional career with St Johnstone after two cup wins, 173 appearances and European campaigns. Seeking a new challenge, a fresh adventure, Clark took his time on his next move. He got married, went on honeymoon to the Maldives, celebrated his 30th birthday and despite moves falling through – he was linked with Dundee United and Stoke City – always kept the faith that the right club would come along. On September 2, he tied the knot with the Jambos, and has not looked back since.
"I'd made the decision that I wasn't going to renew my contract at St Johnstone,” Clark recalls. “Then it was just a case of playing the field and seeing what came in. There were a couple of things that fell through, which was unfortunate, but I was calm about it and I knew there was options there. It was a case of picking the best one. I back myself to find a club. I've never sort of worried about it. The missus will probably speak differently on that – I thought she was going to batter me! – but no, it was just one of those things, playing the long game and it was up to me to make sure I was keeping myself ticking over for when I did sign for a club.
Clark has always been a serene custodian between the sticks, so it comes as little surprise to learn that being in a state of career limbo did not faze him. He refutes the suggestion of gambling with his future. “Not for me,” he retorts. “There were always options, it was just a case of seeing what came of each one. Being a free agent it gave me that benefit that you could wait to the end of the transfer window. People were on Twitter and stuff, ‘how’s he not got this, how he not got that?’ Because stuff was not in the press it did not mean there was nothing there for me, there was always something.”
Hearts started negotiations with Clark in August as the Edinburgh club started to etch out a long-term succession plan for No 1 goalkeeper Craig Gordon. The Scotland internationalist’s horrific leg break on Christmas Eve has thrust the Glasgow-born shot-stopper into the first team earlier than perhaps anticipated but he is grasping his chance with both hands. Already popular with the Gorgie faithful, he is in good form heading into Sunday’s Scottish Cup Edinburgh derby against Hibs. England was deemed Clark’s most likely destination when deciding to leave McDiarmid Park but he freely admits being a Hearts player suits him and his wife Robyn down to the ground.
“It probably worked out better,” says Clark. “We didn’t need to up sticks and move and we’re settled where we are. It was good for the missus as well as she can still do her job and I can come along the road. She was all in, she’s a midwife so she can do her job anywhere. She was loving it. I say she was loving it, we got married in the summer and the first couple of weeks were brilliant away on the honeymoon, ‘what a life this is, I could get used to this’. Then come five, six weeks when she’s leaving for work and I’m still lying in my scratcher and she’s come back and I’m still there with no housework done. That started to grind a wee bit. It got to the stage where you start thinking, ‘when do you bite the bullet and get something done? I was delighted to come here.”
The biggest concern was whether Clark could stay sharp being away from a club for so long. He knew the dangers of not doing a traditional pre-season and made sure he put the right programmes in place. He knows he has a debt to two mates in particular.
"It's a special position, you can't just train with a team,” explains Clark. “I had one of my mates, big John Gibson, and Tony Curran – they've got their own goalkeeping academy. In the summer holidays they had camps with the kids so I was going in first thing in the morning and doing a session with them, an hour, an hour-and-a-half, just to keep the hand and eye in, which was brilliant for me. A lot of thanks go to them for that. And then I was trying to keep it like a normal week, like I was at a club, in terms of the training session, single session, double session, trying to keep the body in a routine of a usual training week. That gave me a good baseline for when I signed here and probably meant I didn't need to spend as long on the fitness side of it, it was more the sharpness side of it. The pace that the boys hit the ball at takes a bit of getting used to, but it was good.”
Clark will make his seventh Hearts appearance at Easter Road. He has fond memories of playing against Hibs in cup competitions, winning the Scottish Cup final against them in 2021 and also ousting them in the League Cup semi-final in the same season. “We had the final and semi-final when we won the double at St Johnstone but it is completely different squads now, new team,” says Clark. “It’s a fresh sheet of paper and we know what to expect from the game. We’ll approach it in right manner and have a plan set up.”
A good performance in Leith will also give Scotland manager Steve Clarke food for thought. There is a spot open in his squad for March’s match against Cyprus due to Gordon’s injury. Many want Clark involved. “I’ve not been in the last few squads because I’ve not played a lot of football during that time,” the 30-year-old says. “I always say it, my main aim is to do well at club level and if that catches the manager's eye and gets me included then brilliant. We’ve got some great goalkeepers in the Scotland ranks. Now I’m back playing it’s up to me to give them something to think about.”
From being unemployed on the couch to the national team in nine months? You wouldn’t put it past Clark. Perhaps it’s written in the stars.