An Interview With: Lee Clark

A local lad from the banks of the River Tyne, Lee Clark was Newcastle United through and through. Clark fulfilled his dream of playing for the club he loved. During two spells with the Magpies, Clark played over 200 times for Newcastle. He was part of a side that gained promotion to the Premier League under the management of Kevin Keegan, as well as returning to the club eight years after departing to join Sunderland. "When I went to my first game in 1980, even though it wasn't the greatest side, you're still in awe of them because it's Newcastle United. You never really think about how you get to that stage (Playing for Newcastle) or how it's even possible for someone like myself, from the banks of the Tyne. You adore them on the pitch but you never ever think that you'll be able to achieve it because you don't understand the process. As I got older and the football started progressing and I got asked to go to the club, it was a centre of excellence then, not an academy. Even then, I was buzzing going into training but I never ever thought I'd get close to playing for the first team, never mind playing as many games as I did, nearly 300. It was surreal, when it happens it's like living the dream.

I remember the first part of my career, I had moved to Wallsend and during my first few months in the first team, I was still getting the bus from High Farm to Haymarket and walking up to St James' Park with the fans... The difference was, I was going to play! I always call it, living the dream. Every single game, I wasn't brilliant but in every game I gave my all for the badge on the jersey, no matter what my performance was like on the technical side, I couldn't have given any more in effort. I wanted to be something different from the stereotypical footballer all through my career. I hated some of the bullshit that surrounded footballers. Whatever one star would do, the rest would follow and I tried not to be like that.

I see myself as a lucky lad, someone who was and is a fan of a football club and I was lucky enough to play for them. I had to go elsewhere to carry on my career but it gave me a lifestyle that I could never have dreamed of. Things were tough when I was growing up, my parents worked extremely hard for me, my brother and two sisters. Like a lot of kids in Newcastle, we didn't have a lot but it was a great family environment that I was brought up in. Football allowed me to have and do things that I could never have dreamed of."

Picture Credit: The Chronicle

Clark reflected on what it was like to be managed by Kevin Keegan, and discussed a training ground incident which led to Clark leaving Keegan a bit worse for wear. "It was inspirational to be managed by him, I was there in 1980 so I was there when the boom took off, when Keegan-mania came to Newcastle. I watched his first game from the paddock and watched most games, the midweek games I couldn't get to because of school, I would listen to on the radio. It was an unbelievable time to be around the club, he took the club from the doldrums to levels at that time, I could only dream of. The team that we had, built by Arthur Cox, who I'd later work with was unbelievable. When Kevin came back, it was difficult because I had such a strong relationship with Ossie Ardiles, who was a fantastic manager for me. All the managers who have lost their job while I've been playing for them, I felt responsible for them losing their job because I was one of the players, who was going over the white line and trying to deliver their message. I hear things that go on these days about managers losing the dressing room, that was never the case for me with any manager. I felt a sense of responsibility and my relationship with Ossie meant I was gutted. When Kevin first came in I was euphoric but I was still hurting over what had happened to Ossie.

They say results and recruitment are the two most important things in management, or it used to be... Now everyone is obsessed with tactics and systems. Kevin's recruitment and results stand up to anybody's. The players he brought in enhanced the team. Yes, he got the odd one wrong but nine and a half times out of ten he got it right. The team got stronger and stronger, obviously the results went in toe with that. He had to deal with us being at the bottom end of the Championship when he first came in and he dealt with that brilliantly, and he used his powers to demand what he wanted. On a few occasions we probably could and perhaps should have been Premier League champions. Kevin was an unbelievable guy, he used to say to me many times that I had a similar personality to him, I wore my heart on my sleeve. I was quite an open book, you could tell if I was unhappy or angry, when Kevin left me out the team every now and then, emotions ran high in training. He was always one to be involved in training, he had left me out of the team and there was a 50/50 there to be won... I just went a little later and flipped him up in the air! Kevin had a little giggle at it but Pavel Srníček took exception to it. Pav lifted one of his long legs up and went over the top of my head! If it connected, I would've been saying an early farewell. Training was ferocious, Kevin wanted that and how we trained was the same as how we played.

Even though Kevin treated me a bit harshly at times, he still had a bit of a soft spot for me because he knew what I was about. He knew that I would always give my all and I would never let him down, even if I was angry at being left out or being substituted. Kevin spent a lot of time with me, trying to help me... He is just an unbelievable man. What's strange and scary is there's no mention of him at St James' Park, not a stand or a statue... Nothing. To think what he achieved as a player and manager at the club and he hasn't got anything there to acknowledge that is strange."

Picture Credit: The Football Times

Clark believes that had he not been replaced by David Batty, Newcastle would have gone on to win the Premier League. "I've always got to believe that because of the results that had come before his arrival. David came in and he was probably one of the best players, it's not a dig at David in any way or saying he wasn't good enough. He was a terrific footballer and a great pal of mine, we hit it off straight away and I rated him as a player, I loved his humour and his personality. I just thought that I brought something different to the team. I have to say if I stayed in the team we would've picked up sufficient points to go and win it, and nothing can change my mind on that. What happened in the games before David arrived, proves to me that I could be right on that... It's all ifs and buts now. I would've taken being out of the team for the last nine games if we won the Premier League. The dust on my mantelpiece where I had the space to put the medal has just built up over the years. I think we would've kicked on had we won it. I have no doubt that it left a lingering hurt in Kevin, it softened the blow when he signed Alan Shearer but I still think the frustration and disappointment remained. That night at Anfield when he was slumped over the advertising boards, if you asked any fan they would say they felt the same way. Kevin was showing genuine emotion. For him to leave so quickly the following January shows that there was a lingering frustration that we hadn't won the league. To take Kevin's famous words, he would've loved to have delivered the title to the Newcastle fans.

Kevin talked about the fans all the time, that's what his motivation was. When he did a team talk or if he needed to lift us at half-time, it was always about the supporters. There's a great story at the end of the promotion season, we went to Grimsby on the Tuesday and won to win the league and guarantee promotion. We celebrated like any team does, stopping numerous times on the way back from Grimsby and had a few beers. We had a game in hand to catch up on with Oxford on the Thursday night, we were all a little worse for wear! We were 1-0 down at half-time and Kevin came in shouting, 'It's a disgrace... You're letting them fans down.' I was sat there thinking, you've had us all on the drink since Tuesday! Kevin said that it was that poor that he couldn't even stay to watch it, and he got in his car and left! We ended up winning the game 2-1, I think it was just Kevin making a statement that every time we put that shirt on we had to deliver for the supporters. Kevin was a psychologist before his time, people talk about Brian Clough and Kevin was like that. Kevin would get in your mind, probably without us even knowing to motivate us and to get us to be better. He created an environment that was really competitive, when it came to the games there was no difference from training, and it was just a natural continuation." Clark reflected on his move to Sunderland, revealed why he left the Black Cats and the infamous SMB T-shirt. "The decision to leave was made easy because Kenny (Dalglish) had come in, I was in the side and I was doing particularly well but then I got left out of the cup tie against Nottingham Forest. I was on a really good run of form before that, I had scored in each of the previous three. Then the club offered me a new deal, they were great and there wasn't a falling out or anything. It was just soul-destroying to be left out and I've told you my attitude was my biggest thing, I worked hard in training and played well in games. I made the decision to leave in the summer. I spoke to numerous clubs and Sunderland were the last ones. Peter Reid had tried to sign me in the January window, but there wasn't any interest from me then. As I went into the meeting, I told Peter that I was just coming out of respect and told him there wasn't a chance. By the end of the meeting I had signed for them!

I gave my all for them and I think that showed in the two years I spent there. I was Player of The Year and I had done really well. The thing was, I could never change my love for Newcastle. I still attended Newcastle games, I went to St James' Park and still went to away games. I went to the two cup finals, and caused the controversy at the second one that resulted in me leaving Sunderland. I had already made my mind up (To leave), Sunderland had already won the league quite early on, after we had been knocked out of the cup against Leciester, I went into Peter's office and Andy Gray was there who was his mate. I asked Peter if I could have a word, I told them that I loved my time working with Peter and it's been brilliant. I told him that he was a great bloke and a top manager but there was a problem now, we were going into the Premier League and Newcastle were there. I told Peter that I cannot play for Sunderland against Newcastle. I told him there was no chance I could do it, Peter told me to fuck off and get out of his office! The incident with the T-shirt happened and Peter was in France, I get a phone call to go into Bob Murray's office and we were on a conference call. He's shouting at me, telling me there's no way I was leaving and that I would be in the team to face Chelsea. Me and my agent had already got the move to Fulham lined up. We eventually got the fee sorted but Peter tried extremely hard to keep me. If I stayed at Sunderland and they somehow managed to get me on the pitch against Newcastle, I would'nt have been able to play my best. It was different with Fulham against Newcastle, I was there to do a job for them then. I just couldn't do it for Newcastle's biggest rivals. Unfortunately, the success I had with Sunderland and the job I did for them is forgotten by a lot of the supporters at that club because of how it ended. I don't begrudge them that but I gave them everything for two years. I never hid the fact that I was a Newcastle fan, I never stopped going to the games and even said that in interviews. Nobody could change the way I was, I wasn't going to stop being a Newcastle fan.

I have regrets from a professional point of view for wearing that T-shirt, now I've gone into management and I'm trying to educate young players on how to behave. When they look on Google and the first thing that pops up is that, it's probably not the best thing! It was what it was, I wasn't walking around London with it, it was on my body for 20 or 30 seconds, even without camera phones back then, I think it was set up. It happened and Sunderland made money on the transfer and I got a fantastic move to Fulham." Clark described the feeling of returning to Newcastle and how the move had happened. "That was even more of a dream come true! When I was at Fulham in my second season there, I got a phone call from John Carver and he said they'd had a recruitment meeting, and said 'how about you come home?' Bobby (Sir Bobby Robson) was after a central midfield player and I was high on his list. I told John I'd go but the problem was I was on a good contract and only two years into a five year deal. John told me that money wouldn't be an issue, the chairman (Freddy Shepherd) knew me well, and I had close relationship with him. The contact between me and John started to go a bit quiet after 10 days, I have a good relationship with John so I called him. I knew something was wrong because John was finding it difficult to explain what was happening. Mick Wadsworth was involved with the club at the time and his son was part of an agency that was doing a lot of work with South Americans. What had been decided was, and Mick was involved in it... They thought that a cheaper option was Chrsitian Bassedas! Whenever Fulham played Newcastle, me and Bobby had numerous conversations after the game. Obviously Bobby had a strong ifinity with Fulham as well. His son lived in the next village to me and we'd talk about Bobby, and how I was enjoying it down South. The move had passed by, then my contract had run out at Fulham. I had a few options, Southampton which was only a 45 minute drive away from where we were living, the kids were settled so that was an option. Then Leeds United came in but I didn't really fancy that, I spoke to them but I wasn't really convinced. Terry McDermott had joined Graeme Souness at Newcastle, I knew Terry well from the first time round, he called me and asked me to go up and train with them. This was in the first few weeks of pre-season and it was the first one in about 20 that I hadn't been involved with a team. He told me to come back home and see my parents and family. I spoke to Alan (Shearer) and he told me it won't do any harm, I'll be training and when I find a club that's right for me, I'll be ready to go. I asked the wife if she wanted to go home for the summer and we can go back down once I find a club. After three days of training, Graeme Souness called me into his office and told me he was really impressed with me. I had played in a pre-season friendly over in Ireland, Terry said he could help me get into coaching and that if I was needed in the first team, I would double up as a player.

I spoke to the wife and she told me to go for it, I went in with the mindset that I would be playing in the Newcastle reserves, keeping myself fit and learning about the coaching side from Tommy Craig and helping him out. He used to let me take the team in the afternoon and pointed out what was right and wrong. Tommy was a great help and he helped me through some of coaching badges too. After a few games, the team weren't doing particularly well and I was named on the bench against West Ham. I remember Graeme turning to Terry wondering what he was going to do because the game was so flat, Terry told him to put me on because I could create something. I remember having a few chances that the 'keeper saved and I created one for Alan but it finished 0-0.

Graeme told me that I was starting against Balckburn away, he liked what he saw and the composure I had. Ewood Park had been a lucky ground for me, I had won promotion there with Fulham and had good results there with Newcastle. We went there and I was part of a comprehensive 3-0 win and I played well. It just went from there and by the end of the season I think I had played close to 30 games! Towards the end of the season, I was actually playing with an injury that I should've got treated, a double hernia. The club asked me to delay it because Emre had a serious knee injury and the midfield area was a bit short. I was getting injections to play. So I had gone from thinking I'd be playing in the reserves to them having to patch me up to play for the first team. It was brilliant because my kids could see me play for Newcastle. I started my career at the club I love and I ended my career at the club I love. I moved on to the coaching staff after that, I could've continued playing but the club had said there wouldn't be another playing contract. I had other offers, Leeds came in again but I wanted to get on to the next chapter. I started and finished at my hometown club which I love, I didn't need to go elsewhere. I take two great things from my time at Newcastle, I never lost a Tyne and Wear derby and every year I played in the Premier League, we qualified for Europe. Even though the first few years we couldn't compete in Europe because British clubs were still banned but we were in positions where we either qualified for the Champions League or the UEFA Cup. After what's gone on at the club over the last 14 years, to say you've qualified for Europe every year is some statement."

Picture Credit: Daily Record Clark opened up on his international career and how he felt he was a bit hard done by, to not have earned some England caps. "I should've got some England caps, there were some magnificent footballers in my position... Paul Scholes, Paul Ince, Paul Gascoigne, Rob Lee, David Batty and David Beckham could play in the middle. There was quality all over but definitely I feel I should've got some England caps, I felt like I was a good enough player. I proved I was a good enough player, every time Keegan updated the Newcastle squad, I held my own and I showed I was a good player. I think I was one those that impressed new signings when they came in, I heard on numerous occasions players saying they hadn't realised what I was about until they played with me. I think that can be lost on some of the fans as well, it was a different scenario with Alan, he went away and became the best striker in the world. When you've come through the ranks, the fans don't always look at you as one of the stars. The biggest thing for me was I had the respect of my managers, coaches and my team mates.

The biggest buzz I got was when Kevin wrote one of his books and he said that I had the best first touch of any player he'd played with or managed. He said if I had another yard of pace I would have been world class. Kevin would tell you that I tried everything to become quicker, I did extra work with him, balance and sprint coaches, I tried everything but it's just something that's a God given talent, you've either got it or you haven't. What I had to do was make my mind sharper. I have that book in the house and when there's been down times, even in my managerial career when I start doubting myself, I look at that statement from a guy like him and think, 'Wow, is that me? The kid from the banks of the Tyne?' I just wish that Kevin forgot about my lack of pace when he got the England gig! He picked two of my team mates, Micky Gray and Kevin Phillips... The bugger!

Having known Glenn Roeder for many years, Clark opened up on what the former Newcastle captain and manager was like. "I was devastated when I heard, I was devastated because I spoke to him via text six weeks before and all he wanted to do was see how I was and talk about me. He told me not to step away from football because it needs good peole like me. He was more concerned about how I was and how my family was than how he was doing. That was the mark of the man, what made me fell better was reading the messages from people, whether it was Newcastle fans or people Glenn had worked with. When I was with him at Norwich and we would go for a few drinks, he would talk about Newcastle and how he had to mind Gazza for a while, which is a tough job for anybody! I knew Glenn since the early 80s when he was captain and I was 14, I was able to train with first team. Glenn knew about me then and he looked out for me since. When he came back to Newcastle and eventually became manager he had me as part of his staff. It's heartbreaking because he was so young. I felt like that last text conversation I had with him, he was probably ill then and he wouldn't tell me. The saddest thing was not being able to be at his funeral because of COVID. I just think the esteem he's held in with the Newcastle fans, both as a captain and a manager tells you everything. I think the job he did as a manager of Newcastle probably wasn't highly thought of at the time but it is now. I'm glad that there a bit of good that came out of it in the messages that were shared.

Picture Credit: TalkSport Clark discussed whether he would take the Newcastle managerial job if he was offered it under the current regime. "A year ago I would've said 100%, yes. That's on the basis of it being offered and not knowing if it would come around again. That's the dream, the next dream to be the manager of Newcastle United. That's the ultimate ambition and whether that can happen or not who knows. Sitting here now and if Steve Bruce was to go and I got the call, I'd say no because I don't think any manager has got a chance at being successful under that regime. The job is huge, there's so many issues behind the scenes. The infrastructure of the football club is so far behind the rest of the Premier League. The accademy needs so much work done to it, I don't think I would do it. I've taken on impossible jobs in the past in Blackpool, and I wouldn't want to go to Newcastle now because I don't think any manager can succeed. We had a world class manager in Rafael Benitez, he could only take the club to mid-table. His frustrations would be exactly the same as mine. The reason I got into management is so I could become the manager of Newcastle United, and I'm telling you that if it got offered to me now, I'd say no. It hurts. I lived the dream as a player and the next best thing is to manage the club you love, I just wouldn't do it now because there's just no chance of succeeding. I wouldn't want to go in there and not be backed, I would have a stronger chance of taking the club down than I have being successful, that's what the club has based on for the last 14 years, survival. If you keep aiming for fourth bottom, you'll eventually finish bottom. It's like what Kevin used to say to us, 'Aim fo the stars and you might reach the moon.' If you aim to be number one, you might fail but you'll end up being second or third." Clark has embarked on a new challenge as manager of Sudanese club, Al-Merrikh SC. "I've gone from the River Tyne to the River Nile! The Tyne is cleaner! My hotel looks out on to the Nile, we're in a training camp at the moment. We've got an African Champions League game coming up against Al Ahly, who've won this competition nine times. We'll have only been together for two weeks by the time the game comes around. I've always wanted to coach overseas. It's off the map, people didn't expect this to be a combination! I looked into the club, the stadium is called The Red Castle, when restrictions are lifted, during Champions League games they get 45,000 there. They are one of the biggest clubs in Africa. This is a new opportunity, I've had a brilliant time so far and the people have been so respectful and nice. The players have done everything I've asked, the one good thing is that in their language, 'Aye' means yes just like in Geordie! I know a few words but that's my limit, I'm not sure if it's as embarrasing as Gazza in Italy at the moment but he's trying his best! Two Geordies abroad trying to hold our own, whether we're doing the Geordie Nation proud, I don't know!


Recent Posts

See All