Lee Clark wasn’t about to argue with Mohamed Al-Fayed when the eccentric Egyptian alighted on Chris Coleman as the man to save Fulham’s top flight status after he sacked Jean Tigana last year. “He worked like a best to get back playing. I think the chairman looked at that and thought, we have a winner; a battler – someone who can through something that threatened his life – never mind his career’.
One of Coleman’s first acts on succeeding Tigana was to summon Clark out of the wilderness to add both bite and experience to what had become quite a tame Fulham midfield. Recalling him to face his boyhood team, Newcastle United, in a make-or-break fixture, proved a masterstroke. Clark scored the winner, Fulham climbed to safety and Coleman was quickly confirmed as the club’s permanent manager.
Clark attributes Fulham’s eye-catching start to a Premier League campaign where they were widely tipped to struggle to old fashioned dressing room values.
“Working hard for each other, fighting for each other. We have a bit of a laugh in training but work hard. It has been terrific since he’s taken over – the foreign lads have come out of their shell and joined in. There are certain players who were very quiet and within themselves, both on and off the pitch.”
The plain-speaking Geordie leaves everyone in no doubt about his irritation at being jettisoned by Jean Tigana in favour of big money signings.
“Well, his first season I played every game when we got promoted, but then I picked up the injury and he went out and spent a lot of money. A lot of the players he brought in were in the midfield, so when I did come back I found it hard to force my way in. I don’t know if it was that he didn’t believe in me any more – it’s just he had spent the money and felt he had to give those players a chance. Towards the end I was getting frustrated and felt I wasn’t getting a fair crack of the whip. But that was his choice. I had had a long-term injury and needed time to get my confidence back, and he wasn’t prepared to give me that.”
“A lot of pundits have said we are going to be one of the three teams who go down, and we can use that as a motivational thing. I get frustrated sometimes when people take a swipe at the club – they put it as ‘this crisis club’, but the club nearly went out of business before the chairman took over. Second from bottom of the Third Division – he came in and gave them a dream, and he delivered that dream. But he cannot go on spending millions of pounds.
Clark admits that time spent of the sidelines has given him a new perspective about the game.
“Up until then my career had been full of highs, with minor hiccups here and there. It had been about winning, winning promotions, the First Division with three different clubs. A couple of big moves, playing for my hometown club, winning Champions’ League slots. Everything had been positive. Then the injury came along; that was a massive blow. I’ve now experienced both sides of the coin and can use that experience.”
He feels confident that he can play for another ‘six or seven years’. “I’ve never relied on pace. I’ve played at the top level through intelligence, not because I can run the 100 metres in 11 seconds”. Fulham fans will hope that their likeable dynamo remains the heartbeat of this successful side for as long as possible.