The future is bright, the future is Clarke

If we asked Gasheads which player has the third highest number of League starts for Rovers this season, I doubt many would guess James Clarke, with 33, just a brace behind Tom Lockyer, and a further brace behind Lee ‘Golden’ Brown, the subject of my previous (relatively) ‘unsung hero’ article.

Gasheads don’t seem to have taken James to their hearts yet, but I would ask quite what more we should expect from someone making his Football League debut at the ripe age of 25. James has been a virtual ever present as either the right hand man in a defensive three, or as a more traditional right back in a 442, and has been another excellent Darrell Clarke find (even if it is via the Salisbury connection).

Clarke has always struck me as an old fashioned right back, which may explain why his contribution has almost gone unnoticed. Not blessed with the height and strength of a bullying centre-back, or the pace and engine of a more modern right back or wing back, the lesser spotted Clarke is rarely observed over the half way line, and has never scored a goal in his professional career. He has to rely on positioning, a comfort on the ball rarely seen in lower league defenders, and a steadiness that wins few admirers in this age of training ground tricks and showy displays of one’s means of life. This solidity could almost make him a new Steve Yates, although, with all due respect, he’s unlikely to ever be in his league, as by the age of 23 ‘Scooter‘ was already playing in the Premier League.

If Aesop’s tortoise proved that sometimes ‘slow and steady wins the race‘, then Consistent Clarke and Golden Brown could well be the cornerstone of a successful season.

If you find yourself with time on your hands, a Rovers XI can almost be made from historic Clark’s, and Clarke’s, most of them in their correct positions. My favourite was Billy ‘The Judge’ Clark, so named because he spent so much time on the bench. Billy was actually a very competent player, and managed 248 league appearances in a decade as an almost one club man, but was exceptionally unfortunate to be playing at the same time as the aforementioned Steve Yates, still the best defender I’ve ever seen in a Rovers shirt, and Geoff Twentyman, who went on a staggering 163 game ever-present League run lasting from Boxing Day 1987 to 23rd August 1991.

The other Clarke I want to highlight is Ollie. A local lad who came through the youth system and whose 100th appearance for Rovers (a brief sub cameo at Notts County) seemed to go un-noticed. Although never a full regular like Lee Brown, or James Clarke, Ollie has now managed 70 starts, and come on 33 times as sub. His name-sake Darrell recently remarked, “I can’t speak highly enough of Ollie. He’s in and out of the team, yet he always gives me everything, every single day, in training”.

The one thing that every watcher of Ollie will mention is a slightly silly haircut. Only joking… it’s the long range cannonball shot he has. If Association Football was somehow like American Football and we could miraculously spirit him on when encountering a touch of space and a glimpse at goal, Ollie would the Most Valuable Player in many games.

Most of his eight goals in the blue and white quarters are memorable, but the two that top the pile for me are there for very different reasons.

The first was a bit of a speculative 25 yarder when no-one quite expected it, but his bending 55th minute strike against AFC Telford United in August 2014 proved to be the winner that day, and with it our first three point haul in non-league. It relieved the pressure on DC and vitally kept the home fans on board after two away defeats. Although Telford were later relegated they looked a respectable side in our encounters, and another Clarke strike in the return fixture (bizarrely only two months later; I think the Conference still have a ZX Spectrum as their fixture computer) was again the only shot to separate the sides.

But in my top 1 is the instinctive ’worldie’ that rescued a point for 10 man Rovers at Eastleigh, again in the 55th minute. This time it was at least 35 yards (it gets further away every time I think about it), and materialized from a wanton hash of a clearance from the usually reliable Spitfires goalie Ross Flitney. Lee Mansell helped win the ball for Clarke, and when Ollie saw the keeper wasn’t quite back in position he lashed a boomerang-esque barnstormer into the postage stamp corner. I was part of 1,000 Gasheads with a perfect view of it and that skinny metal terrace literally rocked off its hinges. It is up there with the best Rovers goals I’ve ever personally witnessed, and although a point at Eastleigh may sound distinctly pedestrian in the cold light of the League Two promotion spots, at the time it was a crucial comeback that proved we could handle adversity.

Ollie isn’t just a shot machine, he’s a tidy player who adheres to the ‘keep it simple’ philosophy, recycling the ball efficiently and tough tackling when needed. Slightly naïve at times, and in need of improved concentration, I suspect he can only improve, especially with the guidance of senior midfielders like Mansell and Chris Lines.

The future is bright, the future is Clarke.

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