In the latest part of our series with the 2018/19 Academy scholars, the official Chelsea website talks to defender James Clark about his eclectic journey as a teenage footballer, from narrowly missing out on a Chelsea contract at Under-9 to being released from other London clubs and briefly turning his hand to rugby.
What are your earliest memories of playing football?
When I was about six, we had a Saturday morning football club at school in Weybridge. My dad used to take me every week and I just loved playing, even though I played a year up with bigger boys.
From there I was invited to join a local Sunday league team called Elm Grove and we played in a lot of games and tournaments. I remember the feeling of being involved and scoring goals was just fantastic at that age.
How did you first get spotted by Chelsea?
I was scouted at about seven or eight playing grassroots football and then joined Chelsea’s pre-academy programme. It was at the stage when they can officially register you at Under-9s but I just missed out on being signed so I joined Queens Park Rangers instead.
That was a big change from grassroots football – it wasn’t playing around in the park with your mates anymore. Everything became a lot more serious, even from such a young age, and the emphasis was ‘you’re here to play as well as you can’. I felt that pressure right away.
Unlike many of your Chelsea teammates who’ve been at the Academy for years, you’ve had to deal with many setbacks on your journey.
I was at QPR for a few years before I was released. They said my heading was poor and I was quite slow. My dad was on it straight away emailing clubs to get me trials and eventually I got into Brentford’s academy at the age of 12.
I was a central midfielder at that age but they decided to move me to centre-back and I’ve been a defender ever since. I was only there for a couple of years though before I got released again because I was technically weaker and off the pace compared to the other players.
How did those releases affect you?
One of my friends was playing at our local Sunday league team Leatherhead so I decided to sign up with them. It’s a different world from academy football at that level – we still wanted to win every week and it was a great feeling when you could grind out a result but the pitches were bobbly and muddy, and the facilities weren’t great.
There were two coaches there I was really close to and they helped me a lot. I used to arrive at training early and we’d play crossing drills for Haribo sweets. It helped me at that time just to have fun at football again and I developed some really good friendships there that I still have now.
'I knew I needed to take time out from academy football at that point because I wasn’t enjoying it. It was too much pressure for me to deal with all the time. I just wanted to find a group of mates I could play with and enjoy the game again.'
— James Clark
You briefly flirted with the idea of swapping sports altogether. How did that come about?
When I took a year out from academy football I actually got scouted to play rugby for London Irish. I trained with their academy two nights a week and even played a game against Middlesex. It was a completely different experience but I really enjoyed it because I found myself learning a whole new skillset.
Even though Leatherhead is round the corner from our Academy base in Cobham, the two are miles apart in football terms so how did you find yourself back at Chelsea?
One of the Chelsea scouts started coming down to watch our games. I remember being really nervous and then when he invited me in for a trial, I wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted or if it was the right time. There was a meeting with myself, my mum and dad and we had a long conversation about whether it was the right thing for me. Everyone had their opinions and it was difficult to balance it all but in the end I wanted to give it a go.
At my first training session at Cobham I was with the year group below, it was tipping it down with rain and freezing cold but I remember getting that feeling as I walked around the place like I was eight years old again.
The programme and the facilities at the Academy are a different level. Before one of the first games I played in, we went up to the lecture theatre and watched a pre-match presentation – I was just sat there in amazement thinking this is what I’ve been missing out on.
How did you balance football development with academic studies?
I was at private school so there was a big focus on my education and grades. I used to come in for evening training every Tuesday and Thursday straight from school so I’d have to do my homework in the computer room before training.
My mum was concerned that doing the day-release programme would take me further and further away from schoolwork but we eventually compromised so I could come in every other week, which was a big help for my football development.
Did you watch much football growing up?
I supported Chelsea when I was younger but I’ve actually become more of a neutral as I’ve got older. I went to games at Stamford Bridge a few times but I decided not to support any one club so I could just watch all the players and teams. I feel that’s improved my own game as well because I’ll watch matches on TV now and just watch the defenders to see what happens in certain situations.
Which fond footballing memory really sticks in your mind?
It was close to the end of the season when I was playing for Leatherhead and we were second playing against the team top of the league. We had to win to finish top so it was a massive game for us.
It was a night fixture so the floodlights were on but the pitch had puddles on it because of the rain and the referee was saying it was unplayable. Our manager persuaded him to play it and we scored to take the lead in the final 10 minutes. Seeing out the rest of the game was so tense and there were dirty tricks like time-wasting going on but it was probably the most fun I’ve had playing football.