Continuing his recent theme for his columns of highlighting some of the less-heralded Chelsea heroes, Pat Nevin this week turns to a current national team manager who developed ‘underlapping’ at Stamford Bridge before going onto to be a key coaching influence…
In this series about Chelsea players we don’t think about as often as we maybe should do, I promise not just to focus on my old team-mates although I am going to do so today. There are variety of reasons why some of these guys aren’t the first that spring to mind when you think of Chelsea greats. One major reason is they were understated characters and that certainly applies to this week’s focus, Stevie Clarke.Anyone with a decent knowledge of the club knows exactly who Clarkey is, but even those who watched him back in his playing days might have forgotten just how talented and how versatile he was. He was adept at right-back, left-back, centre-back and even centre midfield. I played with him in each of those positions and he adapted to the adjustment effortlessly. Just think of the understated importance of Cesar Azpilicueta at the club these days and you get an idea of how important my fellow Scot was to the club back then and how dependable he was.He was stoical, but classy. He was dogged but lightning quick. He relished the physical battle, but he was also perfectly capable of some silky skills when he stepped out of the back line. The above skills may appear contrary to each other, but Steve could be a chameleon of a player, showing different abilities for different situations.
Playing on the right down at the Bridge I loved having him behind me because I could trust him with one-v-ones, meaning I didn’t always have to double cover which saved my legs a fair bit. He gave me plenty of the ball, which always went down well, being too refined to continually launch that long ball into channels that many full-backs seem to love. It isn’t a hugely effective tactic most of the time, though it looks good to the untrained eye.We linked up well and while always willing to overlap at pace to give me an option, he was just as good at underlapping, trusting me to find him as he zipped into an area that few opponents expected him to go. That move is used a bit more often these days in the Premier League, but before Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar perfected it at Everton it was a rare sight. Stevie and I used it regularly way back when we were at Chelsea. It must have been impressing some folk because we then ended up getting called up to do the same thing playing for our country, Scotland and then, wait for it, for England at Wembley!Okay, it was the English League against the Rest of the World with the likes of Maradona, Platini and Lineker playing for the away team, but yes Clarkey and I did wear the white of England…just don’t tell any of our Scottish friends!
Clarkey’s last game for Scotland was against The Netherlands and he was marking a bloke called Ruud Gullit, who wasn’t a bad player to be fair. Maybe they had a chat during the game because when Ruud became Newcastle United manager, he made Clarkey his assistant. They were of course at Chelsea together, so that was probably a better time for a chat as Stevie had a tough time that day in Utrecht! I was on the bench and desperate to come on to give a bit of cover for my old mate, but the Scotland boss deigned only to bring me on in the second half when Ruud had already done the damage. Ed de Goey was in goal, not that he had too much to do. The Dutch were quite good back then.Of course, Ruud’s name resonates hugely at Chelsea but when you consider total appearances for the club he is miles behind Stevie. It always surprises me that Clarkey currently stands at a very lofty eighth in our entire history. With the players ahead being of the calibre of JT, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech, Dennis Wise, obviously Chopper Harris and of course the much-missed Peter Bonetti, clearly Stevie like all of those players is officially a club legend.
This is even before you get to the effect he had on the club in a coaching capacity which was extraordinary in itself. To think that the day Jose Mourinho first came to Chelsea, Steve Clarke, who was coaching with the younger players, expected to be sacked having never previously even met the quiet new Portuguese manager.He went into Jose’s office to ask if he would be needed going forward, expecting to be politely dismissed, only to a get a phone call later that night offering him the job of assistant manager. Steve was stunned and yes his knowledge of the club probably helped him as well as his long playing career, but considering how long and how superbly the two men went on to work together, he certainly didn’t let any of us including the Special One down.
Among his aptitudes that obviously helped back then was that he clearly wasn’t seeking the limelight. Jose could have all of that attention if he wanted it. On the training ground he was respected by all the world-class players who arrived and although he likes a laugh (though his face rarely shows it) he has enough strength of character and personality to stand up to anyone, including the boss! That is one of the biggest reasons why he was so respected by so many big names, that and the fact that he is a damn fine coach.As head coach he did an impressive job at West Bromwich Albion and many of their fans were shocked and saddened when he was eventually replaced. By the time he rocked up at Kilmarnock questions were being asked about whether or not he was past it as a force in management. The job he did at Rugby Park was little short of exceptional, staying on the coat tails of the mighty Celtic with a tiny fraction of the budget. Here is a secret, I had been the middle man a while before as I tried and failed to get him the job at my favoured club in Scotland. They definitely should have listened to me at the time. Killies’ good luck was Hibernian’s misfortune.Now he is the national team manager with Scotland. Getting my national team to a major finals these days is probably one of the hardest jobs in the business. Many good men have tried over the past couple of decades, but our man Steve still has a chance via the play-offs, when they eventually take place. I wouldn’t put it past him to pull it off.So Stevie is one of our legends and though I do not think we forget him, we maybe underestimate his talents and his influence on the club over the decades. The real fans get it, after all this is a guy who was assistant manager at West Ham and Liverpool and we still forgive him. Now that is impressive.