His playing history is widely known, but perhaps far fewer will be aware that Lee Clark’s coaching background goes all the way back to his Newcastle United beginnings. For a man who made his name in the midfield engine room, an extended recent break from the everyday cut and thrust of the game had its benefits, but was undoubtedly testing for the new Blyth Spartans boss.
He was something of a serial promotion-winner as a player, and his part in Kevin Keegan’s famed 1990s Newcastle United team still remains fresh in the mind for so many. It is also over a decade since the start of Lee Clark the manager.
Be it a mammoth unbeaten run, fighting it out at the top end of a division, or achieving survival, there have been successes to go with the strains. The breathless final-day conclusion that saw his Birmingham City side stay in the Championship on goal difference, as Paul Caddis’ 93rd-minute goal sent the Blues gaffer racing into the travelling support, likely ranks as one of the greatest Hollywood endings ever shot on location in Bolton.
There was another survival at Kilmarnock (and some joyous touchline celebrations from the Killie gaffer) as his team overturned a first-leg deficit in the 2015/16 Scottish Premiership play-off final to wash away Falkirk 4-0 at home. Having also ensured safety for Bury in League One a year later, his eight-month spell with the Shakers came to an end in late-October 2017 after a tough start to the season.
Nineteen months on, he was unveiled early this summer as Blyth Spartans boss in what is his first senior managerial role in his native North East, not to mention a headline capture for the National League North club. The period between Bury and Blyth allowed crucial family time, which included more opportunity to watch his youngest son Bobby’s early football endeavours in Newcastle’s academy.
Along with weighing up different job options, there was ample chance as well for reflection and to study the game away from the relentless pressure cooker of managing, though it was unquestionably a trying time in his illustrious football life, as he explains.
“It was a lot of different emotions. It was tough.
“Initially, for the first six months, I wasn’t interested in football and getting back in; my father wasn’t very well so I was looking after him and making sure things could be right for him. Then after that, I got some interest in some very exotic job offers from abroad, which I felt weren’t right for me.
“There were jobs that I applied for that I felt were right, that I didn’t get. At times it was tough; other times it was good for me.
“I could take a backwards step, I could analyse how things were being done and how I could do things personally. When the offer from Blyth came out the blue and they made a real strong push for us over the course of four or five days, I thought ‘yeah, different type of football,’ obviously part-time, so it could allow me to do other interests that I have.
“I’m excited by the challenge and I’m looking forward to trying to help develop young players and make them better.”
First-team coach and reserve-team boss at Newcastle under Glenn Roeder, who he would assist at Norwich City, the Walker native got his first tilt at life as a number one with Huddersfield in December 2008. His progress with the League One Terriers would make him one of the most highly-regarded young managers in the country, though reputations in football are nothing if not fickle; the negative aspects tend to stick, while the positives are handily forgotten after a downturn or spate of misfortune.
Although of course a spell not without its problems, from a purely statistical standpoint, Town had lost only three of 55 league games when he was let go in February 2012, and were four points off the automatic promotion places in League One. To have gone 43 regular-season matches without defeat, surpassing a Football League record previously held by Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, was also a feat to take immense pride in.
The work he had done had not gone unnoticed by clubs higher up, and he began his near-two-and-a-half-year stint as Birmingham City boss still having not turned 40. It is fair to say he attacked his first few years of management with the same ‘blood and fire’ levels of vigour that went with him wherever he played.
Removing that would take away the very fibre of him, though he admits he has learned to defer sometimes.
“You’re a young coach so you want to do everything. I’ve got to the stage sometimes where, especially in my last League job, at Bury, you don’t do your debrief until the Monday.
“You come out the way because emotions are running high and sometimes you may say things in the heat of the moment, whether they be good or bad, and you don’t want to cause any sort of conflict, so you take a step out of it. Try and keep the respect going that you have with your players, because you can quickly lose it.”
Huddersfield improved from 9th in his first season, to 6th and a play-off semi-final, and then to 3rd in 2010/11. Town came back from the disappointment of the play-off final loss to Peterborough at Old Trafford to be contenders again (and eventual play-off winners under Simon Grayson) throughout Lee’s final season.
As well as defender Lee Peltier to Leicester City, they had lost attacking star Anthony Pilkington to Norwich City ahead of 2011/12, but it would emphatically prove to be the season of Jordan Rhodes, with the young striker scoring an extraordinary 40 goals. There were braces, hat-tricks and even five in a televised game at Wycombe Wanderers, but perhaps the four he came up with against promotion rivals Sheffield Wednesday were most memorable.
In the pre-Christmas game at Hillsborough, he put the visitors two up early on, before The Owls came roaring back to lead 4-2, only for Rhodes to net twice more, with a 97th-minute equaliser in front of the travelling support. His manager played in Sunderland’s 4-4 Division One play-off final game against Charlton, Newcastle’s 5-0 win over Manchester United, and the March 1997 sequel to the Magpies’ famous 4-3 loss to Liverpool (with the very same final score).
There was also a 6-6 (after extra-time) in which he scored for Ossie Ardiles’ Newcastle at Tranmere in the Zenith Data Cup (before losing on penalties), so he knows a thing or two about games of the zanier variety. As a manager, though, Huddersfield’s 4-4 at Wednesday carries a whole heap of significance to this day.
“It was a phenomenal game, and it was a game that I always felt we would get something out of, even though we were chasing it. I think the ex-owner Dean Hoyle has a picture in his home of me on the pitch hugging Jordan Rhodes, because it was a day that you could never forget.
“The type of performance we delivered, both teams just went for it, went to win the game, old-fashioned ‘attack, attack, attack,’ and the scoreline backed that up. It was a day when I realised that I had a fantastic group of players, and we had a special goalscoring talent in Jordan.
“The games like that when you’re part of it as a manager, you’ve got to cherish those, and that’s one thing I’ve learned, because they don’t come around all the time.”
As well as his combative on-field nature – ‘an absolute hot-head on occasion’ he once admitted – Lee helped provide the ammunition for accomplished frontmen like David Kelly, Andy Cole and Kevin Phillips in his career. Many Newcastle fans will still recall him with the number 10 on his back, finishing off a magnificent sequence of 16 passes to seal a 2-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday and keep them sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League in February 1996.
Any team needs their difference-makers in the final third, and with summer signing Scott Fenwick, Blyth have themselves an ‘old-fashioned, aggressive nine,’ as the man himself puts it. The 29-year-old, who featured on here earlier this week, was a player Lee tried to sign during his Kilmarnock tenure, though the ex-Hartlepool United man felt his personal circumstances better suited a move to York City at the time.
He got his man this time around, nevertheless, after the Gateshead lad opted to end a very productive Chelmsford City spell in favour of moving back to the North East. Many successful sides have had a crucial foundation of different leading voices in the dressing room, and while Fenwick is the life and soul of the party in various ways, he also won’t shirk speaking up when needed, much to the approval of his manager.
“It was imperative for me to get someone like Scott into the building, because of his knowledge, because of his experience. As you said, I tried to take him to Kilmarnock a few years ago.
“He’s played at a higher level, he’s played in the Football League, so he’s been there, seen it, done it. As I said, we’ve recruited young players, so we needed a bit of experience, but also someone who could still do the job.
“He’s a player who can still contribute massively.”
The homecoming aspect is a pivotal piece in Lee taking up the reins at Croft Park. His career encompassed six years in London, with a Division One title, plus Michael Jackson, Sophia Loren and others passing through to visit Mohamed Al-Fayed’s Fulham – stupendously surreal for the one-time Wallsend Boys Club player to be around.
From West London to West Yorkshire, West Midlands and the North West, the lad from Newcastle’s east end is cherishing this chance now to work from close by his own neck of the woods.
“Home’s special. I’ve obviously travelled the length and breadth of the country as a player; moved to Fulham and lived in London for six/seven years, and had a fantastic time, but always kept the family home in the North East.
“My wife’s from here, my oldest two children were born here, my youngest boy was born in London. Our families are here, it’s a huge part of our life, it’s what we love.
“We love returning home, but it’s never been a big issue, location and where I’ve managed, where I’ve played; it was my happiness and where I felt the right job was. When I went to Birmingham, the family moved down; other jobs, I’ve relocated myself personally and the rest of the family have stayed up here.
“Home’s huge. Geordies are very homely, they like to be around their families, and me and my wife are no different.”
By very definition, an inherent will to thrive doesn’t leave you, especially after years in the upper reaches of English football. While savouring being back home, Lee says the desire to be a Football League manager again remains.
“I’ve still got ambition to go again. I’ve experienced it, I loved it, there were some very tough challenges during it, some great experiences with it as well, some real positive stuff.
“There’s still that ambition to do that. I’m only 46 – 47 in October – so still got a lot of time left in managing and coaching, and looking forward to doing it.”
After surprising many to clinch a play-off place last season, a mass exodus at Blyth ensued at the season’s end, with manager Alun Armstrong departing for Darlington, along with numerous players. Speaking for this on the eve of the season opener against Gloucester City last weekend, Lee responded to the question of how he has approached the role in the early weeks, with the likes of trusted former assistant Paul Stephenson joining him on his coaching staff.
“What’s happened was out of my control before I got the job, they lost nine of the group that got them to the play-offs last year, and since then another four or five went, so it ended up being a rebuilding job that I didn’t want to do. What we’ve done, we’ve recruited players from a lower level who we think will be young and hungry and want to go to the next level.
“They’ll be looking at the National League North as a great environment for them to be in, to prove themselves, and we’re hoping this young, hungry, exciting team can go and play at the level most of them haven’t played at before. We think they can, we’ve been excited and impressed by the pre-season that’s been delivered.
“We purposely picked a lot of games, so we’ve had 11 pre-season games in total, and we feel that we’re developing a good side and a good nucleus of the team.”
Lee’s seven months at Blackpool were uniquely challenging (to put it very kindly), with the club being torn apart off the pitch. At Birmingham before that, with chairman Carson Yeung’s assets frozen, huge financial constraints meant having to sell the likes of Jack Butland, Curtis Davies, Nathan Redmond and Tom Adeyemi, while largely getting by on free transfers and loans.
Asked whether he has often in his management career found himself in the office long after everyone else has left for the day, questioning what he has got himself into, Lee paints the picture of the overwhelming nature at times.
“It’s a lonely place. I’m a ten-12-hour-a-day man; in the office 7/7:30.
“If I’m not going around scouting, I’m in the office until late. A lot of people don’t see that type of thing; they think that I’m just doing the coaching and then the players are away.
“I’m doing various other things in terms of how the club should be run; commercially, sponsorship etc. Trying to help with all these type of things, also dealing with players and their personal lives etc.
“Sometimes it can be a very lonely place, especially when you’re not getting the results that you so desperately want and you know there’s so many people inside that football club counting on you. It can be very, very lonely.”
Playing 50-60 games in a number of seasons during his career, Lee even returned from his leg break on the opening day of the 1998/99 season at Sunderland to play 32 more times as they won the league. ‘All in’ was the way for him back then and still is, but as well as hunting the added extras – knowledge of players, tactical ideas and suchlike – is he able to switch off from the game and enjoy other interests?
“One thing that I’ve tried to change and manage has been the life and football balance. It’s difficult to not take the results and work home with you, but you do have to have a bit of chilled time and relax with the family.
“I’m hugely into learning about the South American cartels, the drug trafficking, the narcos; Pablo Escobar, the Cali Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel. Any time there’s any new series on that – not that I’m into any of that type of stuff!
“It’s just very interesting to think that some guy in the 70s and 80s was making a quarter of a billion pound a week, it blows my mind. I like factual documentaries, things that have really happened.”
What he may well have struggled to believe was real-life was the decision not to award Blyth a penalty for the late challenge on Robbie Dale in last Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Gloucester City. Damen Mullen had pulled one back but a turnaround ultimately eluded them. While it exposed areas to sharpen up on – namely some game know-how and belief, as Lee saw it – spirits were not dampened too much after what was just the first of 42 league games.
Newcastle United goalkeeper Nathan Harker was one of the final additions (on a half-season loan) before the opener, following the likes of former Consett goal machine Michael Sweet who had joined earlier in the summer. The hope is that an ambitious and hungry team with a discernible local feel will surface impressively over the months to come.
In football, there are some who play up to the ‘down to earth’ angle without it really ringing true. Whether it’s been for presenting awards at schools, giving his time up to speak to fans, or even going out of his way to meet for this interview with the season kicking off the following day, Lee has rightly garnered a reputation for remaining thoroughly grounded over the years.
In the various Q&A sessions he has taken part in at events, many have naturally wanted to ask about those heady days with ‘The Entertainers’ (Newcastle, not Michael Jackson or Sophia Loren this time). Lee smiles ruefully, though, as he confirms that the question he’s asked the most concerns the anti-Sunderland t-shirt his mates threw on him while he was playing for the club but down in London to watch Newcastle in the FA Cup final. Some things are hard to shake off – even a 20-year-old t-shirt.
In amongst the huge highs was 265 games for his boyhood team, a First Division title with all three clubs he played for, and getting to end his playing career back in the black and white. He also impressed enough for Glenn Hoddle to call him up for England’s Tournoi de France squad in summer 1997.
From a beautiful game but such a cutthroat industry, does he feel it’s changed him from when he started out?
“Yeah, I think you change. It makes you sometimes angry, because people make assumptions about you and about your personality, and who you are, despite often not really knowing you, especially in today’s world and social media.
“A lot of people who assassinate my character don’t even know about us, so there’s that side of it, but it’s a game that’s brought us lots of happiness, lots of things that I could have only dreamed of doing. It was a game that I just played on the streets because I loved, and it’s been my life and my job, so you’ll always respect that really.”
To break it all back down to the heart of why we play, why we watch, and why we accept the many hits of loving the game, the uncomplicated but unrivalled enjoyment is where we finish here (before the board goes up for a stoppage-time Q&A below). In a 5-a-side game based purely on who would bring the fun as well as ability, who might Lee choose from his career teammates to fill his line-up?
“To have a good laugh…Faustino Asprilla, Mark Crossley, Alex Rae, Philippe Albert, Alan Shearer. Those five probably, and then I’d have to be a sub, but I’d join in the banter from the touchline!”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing? You said you got your first coaching badge at 23.
Well I actually started earlier than that in terms of the lower coaching badges; I started about 18 or 19. I was taking Walker Central Boys Club and a young Shola Ameobi was playing for them. That’s when I really got into it, and I knew I enjoyed the coaching side of it, so I knew from an early age, it wasn’t just getting to the end of my career when I decided I wanted to become a coach. (What about managing?) I always wanted to become the boss, even when I was working my way up; reserve-team manager at Newcastle, assistant at Norwich. I always wanted to be the man who was calling the shots, from day one really, but I knew I had to get myself up the ladder in terms of different coaching jobs etc.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
I enjoy all types of coaching; defensive practices, attacking practices. Obviously, coaching sessions that you put on and what you’re looking for in the session and they deliver that, they’re the ones that give you the most pleasure and you can see the players are enjoying it and they’re getting developed. I really enjoy developing young players, that’s my main enjoyment, and lots of players that I’ve coached and managed in the past, there’s many of them who’ve gone on to bigger and better things. I enjoy seeing them being successful, so that gives us as much pleasure as anything really. That’s one of the reasons I took on the Blyth job, in terms of I want to try and help some of those younger lads fulfil their dreams of becoming professional and playing in the Football League, or up in Scotland, or anywhere in Europe at a higher level, and I believe I can help them do that.
Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)?
I’ve done it once or twice, and I vowed never to do it again, because once you’re involved in the sessions, the will to win comes and you still have the same tendencies you had as a player. Obviously you have to be the manager of those guys, so kicking them in training’s not an advisable thing if you want them to go out and get results for you!
Favourite ground (other than St. James’ Park) that you’ve visited or would like to visit. Perhaps the significant ones in the context of your career, like that last day at Bolton with Birmingham.
Yeah of course, it was the Reebok then, and the way we stayed up at Birmingham City. Southend, Roots Hall, we achieved the goal with Bury there of staying in League One; when I took over with 14 games to go, we’d have been in the bottom two. 4-0 win at Rugby Park for Kilmarnock against Falkirk in the play-off to stay in the Scottish Premier League. They’re from a managerial point of view. From playing, obviously St. James’, living the dream of playing in front of 52,000. Old Trafford, Anfield, Berlin Olympic Stadium, Wembley, Nou Camp, San Siro; many, many stadiums that I’ve played in that have massive significance for my career and what I’ve done in my life.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
When I was growing up and I was a young Newcastle fan, the (Kevin) Keegan era of the 80s when he came and played in that team was exciting. A young Peter Beardsley got brought in at the time and he was a phenomenal player. I was lucky enough to play alongside him and that was backed up; an unbelievable footballer. Players I’ve admired, in the domestic game, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, two I came up against, were phenomenal footballers, unbelievable competitors. (Steven) Gerrard and (Xabi) Alonso for Liverpool, (Frank) Lampard, (Claude) Makélélé, (Michael) Ballack for Chelsea, (Patrick) Vieira and (Emmanuel) Petit for Arsenal. Absolutely phenomenal footballers. (Zinedine) Zidane, I played against him when he was at Juve. So, all these terrific footballers that you admire, and when you get up close and personal against them, you see really how good they are.
And how would you sell the club to let’s say Keegan from that list, if you were trying to sign him for Blyth (in his prime)?!
That the team, the club would be built around him. He would be the catalyst for everything that we’d do; he’d be like the Pied Piper, help us to attract better players. The type of football that we’d wanna play would suit him, and that we’d want to become successful and he was a huge part in it. Kevin is a man who demands success, wants success, he wants people around him who want that, he doesn’t want people who are accepting of mediocre and just run-of-the-mill stuff.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
Well I’ve been on many fantastic training camps around Europe; in Spain, Portugal, Austria, southern Ireland. I would just want a place where I had fantastic facilities, where you can coach. Sometimes in the summer months you go somewhere that’s got a good climate, where you can do a lot of coaching and you can stop-start, not like in the UK where a lot of the sessions you’re dealing with rain or snow or hail. I think that’s a big thing on the continent with the younger players, they have a climate where they can continually stop the sessions and talk to the players and they’re not worried about the players losing focus because they’re cold, because of the temperature. I think it’s important that you have that type of environment, and also where you’re living with each other 24/7 so the players and the staff get to know each other’s habits, what makes each individual tick. Some of the ones in Austria, Switzerland, France that I’ve been to where you’re really in remote areas and it’s about just focusing in on the job and getting quality work in to prepare for the season.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
Not being able to give the supporters all the information that you’d want to give them at times, because of certain things that have to be kept in-house. It would probably give them an outlook and different expectation levels to what you’re having to deal with. Certainly some of the times at some of my clubs I’ve had some really tough scenarios to deal with, which I couldn’t really explain to the supporters at that moment in time. Also, being in an environment where your shelf life is very, very short, because the football world’s changed, and head coaches and managers have a very short period of time to get things right. Players and agents seem to know that there’s gonna be a continuing change of managers so there’s not always that belief from them. That’s a frustrating thing for me.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
Mark Crossley was a really funny guy, Chris Coleman, Shay Given, Alan Shearer. Behind those personas that come out in the public domain, there’s lads who like a real good laugh and the camaraderie of being in the dressing room. Alex Rae at Sunderland was a very funny guy. So, lots of them. I don’t know if I was lucky, but I was always in an environment where we had a great camaraderie and it basically showed in the togetherness when we went out on the pitch.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach/player
Couple of times on the touchline where I’ve reacted to something and the trousers I’ve been wearing have split down the backside. There was once at Dagenham & Redbridge, it was a weird one because John Still was the manager then and he must have thought it was strange I was on the touchline with my suit on and when I went to see him for a beer after the game I had my tracksuit on! Same thing happened at Carrow Road, at Norwich, when I was there as Blackpool manager, so you’re trying to make sure no one’s seen the situation! The one at Norwich, I was trying to put a long trench coat on even though the temperature was ridiculously hot! So they could have been more embarrassing than they ended up being, to be honest.
Your routine on a match day
I did have it where you get results and you become superstitious but I try to keep away from that. Over the years, I’ve tried to become more chilled out before the game and let the players have a bit of their own time. You’ve done your preparation work and you’ve done all the talk you can give them and it’s now down to them to deliver the performance to get the result.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist, assuming that you don’t run it already…
I don’t run the playlist at all; the modern-day music is way over my head! I’m more of a Rat Pack man; (Frank) Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. That would be my type of stuff, but it wouldn’t be suited in the dressing room today, so I leave the lads to their own playlist and let them get on with it.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
Just whatever task I’m given, just give everything to that. As a player, give my maximum; no one could ask any more. As a manager, give my maximum. You can’t ask any more of yourself. In my general life, my private life, to give the best for what I’m trying to do, to look after my wife and children and do the very best I can for them. So just to look myself in the mirror and know I’ve given everything I can to whatever I’ve been trying to do.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
Brian Clough. I’ve heard so many unbelievable stories about him. He was today’s manager ahead of his time, he was a psychologist before they were brought in. I’d love to have one, been considered good enough to play for him, and two, to have sat and picked his brains. On top of that is obviously Pep Guardiola; I’m a huge admirer of him. People say he’s done it because he’s been at big clubs; he’s created huge teams in those organisations. Sir Alex Ferguson, I’ve admired him from afar, you see what he’s achieved and he continually built new teams, at a club that had huge demands, but also stuck to the philosophy of developing young players. Those are the three that I’d like to sit round a table with; they’d probably be sick of us at the end because I’d be asking that many questions!
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
I don’t think so. I don’t do social media, so I don’t know what’s out there about us. You get what you see, I’m an honest lad, come from a working-class background, and I try extremely hard for the clubs I’m at.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?
The buzz, the challenge. Obviously, the buzz of managing will never replace the buzz of playing, because you’re in control of what you’re doing, but the buzz of managing is second, and it gives us something a little bit different. You have a lot of pressure on you, because it’s not just the team, it’s the supporters and the people who work at the football club, and you want to deliver positive results for them. It’s that buzz, it’s that build-up to the game, preparing the team, and it’s being involved in the cut and thrust at 3 o’clock on a Saturday.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes