Last weekend's international break had a special significance for Lee
Clark. Not that the 29 year-old has yet forced himself back into the
England squad he last graced in 1997 - "I've got to get established and
playing well consistently for Fulham before thinking about that" - but the
extra seven days gave himself a fighting chance to be fit enough for
selection this afternoon.
Because though Clark's the ultimate professional - last season, he refused
to take promotion for granted despite a double-figure points lead - the
chance to face his home-town team for whom he played well over 200 times is one he craves like no other. "They're all massive games for the football
club in the Premier League, but Newcastle is a little bit extra special.
It'll be the first time, injury permitting, so I'm looking forward to it.
I'm still very friendly with a lot of the players and the medical and
He goes along to games when he can, and is happy to be treated by fellow
fans like the supporter he is. "I was lucky enough to play for the team
but, at the end of the day, I'm just like them and they appreciate that. It
doesn't matter what numbers come down, there'll be some noise from them,
and hopefully our fans can be at the same level - that will make a terrific
Two years ago, Lee was Fulham's record signing and far and away the Club's
biggest name. Now he's no longer the undisputed superstar but a star among
stars, is life easier or harder? "I've always believed it's easier to play
with better players, quality players, and that's what's happened since I've
come to the Club. We've brought in the highest quality, and that's why
we've achieved what we've achieved over the past two years.
"I can speak for most of the players in saying that, when we came back
pre-season and the Club hadn't made a breakthrough in the transfer market,
there was a lot of disappointment, even though we knew our places would be
in jeopardy. You want to play in a good squad. Not being disrespectful, but
the team that won the Second Division wasn't going to go all the way
through and achieve what the Chairman and management want to achieve. It
was the same at Newcastle: we went on to break transfer records, to bring
in world-class players - the best available. So I've been in the situation
Lee's injury happened three weeks ago in training. "The scan showed a bit
of bone bruising and a slight problem with the medial ligament which took a
bit longer to heal than we thought." It meant he had to sit out the
back-to-back wins against Southampton and West Ham that may well prove the turning point of our season.
As if that wasn't enough, man-of-the-match honours went to Steed
Malbranque, the young Frenchman playing in the advanced midfield position
Lee favours. "That's football, you know. It's about taking chances, people
do well out of others' misfortunes. Steed played very well at West Ham and
even before that he'd been impressive. But at the end of the day there's
other positions I can play, other positions he can play and we're all
challenging each other."
As for the possibility of Lee playing in the tougher away games and Steed
being selected for home matches, the player is unconvinced. "I know the
squad will get used over the season, but I wouldn't like to think the
Manger would just use me in games when we might be up against it. I want to
try and play as many games as I can. I'm happiest playing football and I'm
not too happy if I'm not. We've just got to see what the situation is."
As far as Lee Clark is concerned, a realistic goal for Fulham's this season
is "to finish in the top ten. I said that at the start of the season and
I've seen no evidence we can't hold our own in this division. We haven't
had as many wins as we would have liked and our performances have deserved, but we've only been beaten three times - and of those, only Arsenal really out-played us. So we've got be looking top ten."
And for Newcastle? "They're getting back to where the club was four, five,
six years ago. They're building up a good squad, the stadium's fantastic,
the supporters have always been fantastic, and there's no reason why they
can't be pushing for Europe. They've got everything in place: the
chairman's a Geordie as is the manager and the captain. That's important.
And on the field, the likes of Robert Lee know what the supporters expect."
Finally, who will the Clark family be cheering today? "Me! It's the same
situation for them as myself. I've never ever gone out on a football pitch
and let everybody down. I'm here to do a job and, if fit and selected, I'm
going to go out there and do my best to get three points for Fulham."
Ha'way the lad!