Lee Clark: ‘If I’d kept away from Blackpool and Birmingham, who knows what my next job might have been?’

Lee Clark is playing the waiting game.

“The longer you stay out of football, the harder it becomes,” the former Huddersfield, Birmingham, Blackpool, Kilmarnock and Bury boss says of his quest to get back into management after almost nine months out.

“This is the longest spell I’ve had away from it since I left school. I’ve applied for jobs and clubs have approached me, but nothing has materialised yet.”

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Being a football manager is a stressful and pressurised business, yet Clark is still desperate to get back into it.

“The adrenaline you get from being a manager is the next best thing to playing,” the 45-year-old explains. “Once you hang up your boots you miss that buzz of 3pm on a Saturday. You need to replace it and being a manager is the closest you can get.

“But with the role comes that stress. As a manager you’re in charge of everything, whereas as a player you’re just looking after yourself. It’s one of the few jobs when you’re not really in control of your own destiny. Yes, you sign and pick the players, but it’s their performances which determine your future.

“When I first started, players and agents would deal with the manager. Now most of them have the numbers of the chief executive or owner and go direct to them. It’s a bit of a power game. Then there’s the outside influences of the media and doing the right thing so the fans are happy.”

Why, then, would he want to do it all again? An increasing number of ex-professionals now get their fix working in the media, while others have been happy to leave football behind completely. Clark, you sense, would struggle to do that.

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“It’s the winning,” he responds. “When you collect those three points it’s a fantastic feeling because of the contribution you’ve made.”

Once a reliable midfielder for Newcastle, Sunderland and Fulham, it wasn’t so long ago that Clark’s managerial stock was high. Having served as assistant boss at Norwich, he was handed the reins at Huddersfield in December 2008 at the age of just 36. He led the Terriers on a 43-game unbeaten run and reached two League One play-off finals.

“I built a squad from scratch that would later have massive value and we went on to do some unbelievable things,” he recalls. “We went on that unbeaten run, reached the play-off semi-final, then the play-off final. When I eventually left they were third in League One and went on to be promoted with about 10 games to go.”

Things haven’t been quite so plain sailing since his dismissal from the John Smith’s Stadium, though, with stints at Championship sides Birmingham and Blackpool both proving challenging.

“The expectation level at Birmingham was still the same as it was when they were fighting in the top end of the Championship,” explains Clark, who was at St Andrew’s from June 2012 until October 2014.

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“But the reality was that because the owner [Carson Yeung] got put under house arrest and had his assets frozen, I had no finances. I had to cut the wage bill massively, but still make the team competitive. I kept them in the Championship on a fifth of the budget and when we unsurprisingly struggled at the start of the next season, I was let go.”

Just a few days after being sacked by Blues Clark headed to struggling Blackpool, a decision he regrets to this day and one he feels has hampered his career ever since. At Bloomfield Road he had to deal with a dire playing surface and supporter protests against the ownership. Money was so tight that the players had to wash their own kit, and the Tangerines’ season ended prematurely due to a pitch invasion on the final day of the campaign when the club had already been relegated.

“Taking the Blackpool job was poor judgement on my part,” admits Clark. “I was still hurting from the Birmingham decision and wanted to prove people wrong when I should have given myself a bit of a break. Blackpool were still in the Championship at the time and I thought it might be a good opportunity.

“But it wasn’t a nice place. The pitch was a potato field, there were demonstrations by the fans. I was only there for six months, but it killed a lot of things for me in regards to getting jobs. It’s put a few people off me. If I’d kept away from Blackpool and Birmingham, who knows what my next job might have been?”

After leaving Blackpool, Clark spent a year north of the border with Kilmarnock. He then took charge of League One Bury in February 2017, but was shown the door last October.

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“I turned things around at Kilmarnock,” he says. “I took over when they were bottom of the Scottish Premiership, but got them safe through winning the play-offs. When I left they were in the top six, which is no mean feat for a club of that size.

“I went to Bury when they were bottom of League One and kept them up. We then went out in the summer and signed a lot of players we thought would be good enough to get us in the top six and it went dramatically wrong. When I left it just went from bad to worse for them. The season ended up being a disaster and they were relegated.”

Clark hasn’t returned the the dugout since his eight-month stint at Gigg Lane. His future is unclear, but he wouldn’t be afraid to go outside his comfort zone for the right job.

“I’m not frightened of working abroad and if the right opportunity came along, I’d seriously think about it,” he says.

“In the meantime, I go to a lot of games at various different levels. I’m covering all the bases so if I do go into another job, I know who’s who and what’s what.”

Lee Clark: ‘If I’d kept away from Blackpool and Birmingham, who knows what my next job might have been?’
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