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Dublin: 7°C Thursday 22 October 2020

'I wake up in the back of an ambulance. I’m still in full kit and I’m thinking ‘what the hell is going on here?’'

Former Stoke City and Ireland defender Clive Clarke is carving out a career as a football agent nearly 10 years on from surviving a cardiac arrest.

Clarke came through the ranks at Stoke City and went on to captain the club.
Clarke came through the ranks at Stoke City and went on to captain the club.

AT 27 YEARS of age, Clive Clarke’s world was turned upside down.

After suffering a cardiac arrest during Leicester City’s League Cup tie with Nottingham Forest in 2007, the Wicklow man was forced to retire from the game he loved.

Although he was blessed to survive the ordeal, Clarke now had to face up to the fact that his playing days were over at stage when most footballers are only coming into their prime.

“My career ended overnight,” the ex-full-back tells The42. “It wasn’t one of those things where I got the chance to work up to it. I was retired at 27, when I still hopefully had seven or eight more years left.”

Coming to terms with the reality was enormously difficult, but it also gave Clarke an opportunity to reinvent himself. He moved back to Ireland for six months to clear his head and reflect before making a decision on what he wanted to try his hand at next.

A solicitor friend, Gary Mellor, had advised Clarke over the years and offered him a job with his company — Beswicks Sports.

“I went in and worked alongside him, not knowing if I wanted to be a football agent or if I wanted to do a law career,” he explains. “I was just thinking of the next stage in my life.

“I sort of fell into agency with Gary’s help and six years later I was still there helping him to grow the business, which has done really well.”

Clarke felt he could use his experience to assist young footballers as an agent and, three years ago, founded the football arm of JPA Worldwide with Justin Paige and Dan Fletcher.

Republic of Ireland midfielder Eunan O’Kane and Northern Ireland international Shane Ferguson are among their clients, and the London-based firm mainly caters for those plying their trade in the English Football League.

In an age when there is obscene amounts of money on offer to players, and, after Fifa’s decision to deregulate the industry in 2015, Clarke believes having good representation is essential — now more than ever.

“They changed the rules a couple of years ago so there are a lot of people out there now who haven’t got qualifications,” he says. “They haven’t done the agency exam where you had to sit down and show that you knew the rules and regulations.

“Now you’ve got a lot of cowboys and it is more important for parents and the kids that they get sound advice. There is huge money involved these days but it’s a short career and if you don’t look after it right many end up going bankrupt.”

Having come through the system himself, the 37-year-old knows what he’s talking about.

Brought up in Newtownmountkennedy, Clarke was showing promise on the pitch from early on and he joined well-known Dublin club St Joseph’s Boys around 1990.

By 16, the defender had attracted interest from a number of clubs. He accepted an invite to visit Stoke City’s set-up and knew pretty quickly it was the right place for him.

“I got on well with the people there straight away and I turned down Arsenal, Blackburn and a couple of others to go there,” he recalls.

“I saw that there was a good pathway through to the first team. I think a lot of people get caught up with going to the big clubs thinking they’re going to be the next Wayne Rooney, but it is a very difficult environment.

That is the hardest part and it is where a lot of parents are advised poorly. They get told about going to the big clubs as they can offer more money and they see it in the short-term.

“You look at Robbie Brady, who is a wonderful talent. He went to Man United but had to go elsewhere to work his way up the ladder.

“He’s become a massive player for Ireland and he’s back in the Premier League after getting a lot of games under his belt with Hull City, Norwich City and Burnley.”

STOKE CITY FC He joined Stoke City as a teenager. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The year Clarke arrived along with fellow Irishman James O’Connor, the Potters had narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs, but they then suffered relegation to the old Division 2 (now League One) two seasons later.

That demotion was to work in the teenager’s favour, however, as he became a regular in the team by 19.

“We took advantage of the situation, because the club had got relegated and they had to let a few of their senior players go,” Clarke says.

“We were lucky as there was the likes of Graham Kavanagh and people like that in our squad. We were surrounded by good players and it helped to get the club back into the Championship.”

They returned to the second tier in 2002 and Clarke was named club captain. He would go on to clock up a total of 262 appearances for Stoke over a nine-year period, and it is a time in his life he looks back on fondly.

“In some ways, I probably stayed too long,” he admits. “I was fairly comfortable, I knew I was going to be picked every week and I was captain at the age of 23.

It was a steady progression from youth team to the first team and then onto to skipper a few years later. That was a good period in my life and I’m pleased that I played so many games for Stoke because within two years of leaving them I had retired.”

Having represented Ireland at every underage level from U15s all the way up, Clarke caught the attention of then senior manager Brian Kerr with his exploits for the Potters.

In 2004, he made his debut for the Boys in Green in a friendly against Nigeria at The Valley before earning a second cap at the same ground in a win over Jamaica days later.

Unfortunately, they would turn out to be his only two appearances.

“I would have liked to add to them but around that time the full-back areas were very strong,” he says. “We had Steve Finnan, Gary Kelly and Steven Carr on the right-hand side and Steve Staunton and Ian Harte going down the left.

“So it was a tricky period to break into the international team but it was good. I played well in the games and always felt I could have been in more squads under Brian Kerr but each manager has their own thoughts.”

Clive Clarke Clarke lining out for Ireland. Source: INPHO

A move to West Ham followed in the summer of 2005, but injuries hampered his time there. Clarke went over on his ankle and did ligaments on his second day at the club, meaning he sat out the first three months.

The team was performing well and he managed a handful of games that year but never really settled. Hammers manger Alan Pardew wanted Clarke to stay but Niall Quinn, heading up the Drumaville consortium and acting as both Sunderland chairman and manager at the time, offered him a new challenge.

“Niall asked me to go to Sunderland, and growing up in Ireland he was a big player so I felt it was too good an opportunity to turn down.”

The Londoners allowed him to leave but the fitness problems persisted. Clarke had needed double groin surgery that kept him out of most of his final months at West Ham and he still had ongoing issues after joining the Black Cats.

Eager to prove himself at his new club, he attempted to play though the pain barrier.

“The squad wasn’t doing great so he [Quinn] asked me to play and I stupidly agreed and ended up getting injured again. In hindsight, I should have got myself 100% fit before risking tearing my groin again, which is what I did.

“I didn’t play a lot of games during that period with West Ham and Sunderland because I was injured a lot. That didn’t help.

“You want to show your talent. When I went to Sunderland I knew if I got myself fully fit then I would play, but I couldn’t shake the injuries. Then Roy Keane came in and I didn’t get on with him from day one so that was never going to work.”

As Clarke explains, there was a clash of personalities with his new manager right from the off.

“I’m not afraid to speak my mind and sometimes that can be a downfall as well,” he says. “I didn’t agree with the way he did things and I was an experienced enough player.

The way he wanted things done and the way he spoke to people wasn’t how I would speak to anybody. I’m a big believer in treating everybody how you find them — it doesn’t matter if they are a footballer or a cleaner. You treat them all with the same amount of respect, but not everyone does that.”

He was sent on loan to fellow Championship club Coventry City and regained match fitness while lining out for the Sky Blues. Upon returning to Sunderland, it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to feature in the first team.

“I was called back and a couple of clubs like Derby wanted to sign me but Sunderland wouldn’t sell me so I was just left in limbo,” he reveals.

“They wouldn’t let me go on loan but they wouldn’t play me either so it was frustrating between Christmas and the end of that year.”

Soccer - Carling Cup - Second Round - Nottingham Forest v Leicester City - City Ground Contesting a header during Leicester's League Cup tie with Nottingham Forest in 2007. He would suffer a cardiac arrest later in the game. Source: EMPICS Sport

At the beginning of the 2007/08 campaign, his parent club — newly-promoted to the Premier League — agreed to loan him to Leicester City on a three-month deal.

Without a first-team game in eight months, Clarke started two of the Foxes’ first three Championship matches and he had 180 minutes of football under his belt ahead of their League Cup second round tie away to Nottingham Forest.

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28 August, 2007, is a day he will never forget. He remembers feeling short on energy in the first half of the game, but put it down to a lack of match sharpness.

“It was the middle of a very hot August and the start of the season so you’re bound to be tired anyway,” says Clarke. “Most players are at that time of the year when you’re trying to get your match fitness.”

Halfway through the opening 45 minutes, Clarke picks up a knock on the head after a collision with the Forest goalkeeper. As the sides walk off at half-time, he gets talking to an opposing player, Kris Commons, who also came through the ranks at Stoke.

“We had a bit of a chat and I said to him ‘I’m knackered here, I don’t know if I’ll be able to play the 90 minutes’, kind of joking more than anything,” he remembers.

“We go into the changing room and we were losing 1-0 at the time, which is bad as we’re in the Championship and Nottingham Forest are League One. It’s a derby and it’s a full house.

The manager Martin Allen is having a bit of a go at everyone and I can see him talking but I’m not registering what he’s saying. The next thing I know, I’ve collapsed. There’s chaos going on around me, but I’m KO’d. I haven’t got a clue what’s going on.”

Clarke suffered heart failure and was rushed to the cardiac unit at Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre. Match officials abandoned the match and the players didn’t return out for the second half.

Soccer - Carling Cup - Second Round - Nottingham Forest v Leicester City - City Ground Nottingham Forest manager Colin Calderwood announces to the crowd that the match has been abandoned. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I wake up in the back of an ambulance and I’m like a freak show,” he says. “I look down and my shirt has been ripped open. I’m still in my full football kit and I’m thinking ‘what the hell is going on here?’

“It was one of those surreal moments where you wonder ‘am I dreaming or is this really happening?’.

“People are telling you what has happened and you have a few drugs in your system at that stage so you’re just a bit all over the shop. Reality then sets in when you realise how lucky you’ve been.”

Clarke spent 10 days in hospital and was told by consultants that his chances of playing again were very slim. He was fitted with a defibrillator and, thankfully, there have been no follow-on problems to this day.

Having got himself back fit over the course of several months, he toyed with the idea of a return to football but thought twice and announced his retirement after Motherwell captain Phil O’Donnell died in a similar incident that January.

“It was around Christmas time, I’ve got a young family and if even though there was a slight chance I could possibly get back playing I thought there was no way I could risk it,” he says.

You’re not only putting yourself through it, but you’re putting all your family and everyone else through the risk and the worry too. It’s just not worth it.

“As a Wicklow boy, I’m very proud that I could come over and live my dream. There were a lot more things I wanted to achieve in football because I was only 27 but at the same time you’re relieved — especially when you see other people who have lost family members through cardiac arrest or heart attacks.”

Roy Keane once joked that he was surprised “they’d found a heart” in relation to Clarke’s health scare and years later in his book revealed an “evil thought” that he was glad the incident occurred as it deflected away from Sunderland, who lost to Luton Town the same night.

They were astonishing comments from the current Ireland assistant manager, but Clarke moved on long ago.

“Roy was a great footballer and one of the best midfielders of his generation. He’d be in your first pick for any Irish team or Premier League XI even today.

“He felt I crossed him and he’s one of those people who has to have the last dig. I’ll leave him to it because it’s water off a duck’s back for me. There are a lot of people who get caught up in the bullshit, but I’ll leave them to it. He got petty but I just laugh at it now.”

One positive to come out of his brush with death, which will be 10 years ago this August, is that it has allowed him to get his priorities right.

“Everyone has their ups and downs and way too many people get caught up in drama and other rubbish that’s not important. I’ve got three young kids and for me they’re what matters most.

“I’ve got to make sure that they grow up to be the best people they can be and I want to be here to support them. That event has helped me see that.”

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Ben Blake

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