Clark eager for action

Tuesday 15 October 2002

A major problem for players in the modern game is having to deal with the issue of squad rotation. When you add the number of competitions that the top clubs are involved in to the mental and physical pressure of competing at the highest level, then it's no wonder that clubs are building bigger and bigger squads and cherry-picking players for each game.

But most professionals will tell you that they want to play in every game available - they don't even like to be substituted let alone be forced into missing a whole match. So players need new skills these days; the ability to grin and bear it when they're not in the starting line-up and the capacity to give whole-hearted support to the team and to those who are selected in front of them.

It's not easy, and when you've been out injured for nearly a year and come back to find extra competition in your position, then it's even more difficult. That's the situation that midfielder Lee Clark finds himself in at the moment. Fully recovered from the Achilles and calf injuries that have kept him out since Christmas, the combative Geordie finds himself up against a whole host of talented midfielders who are themselves having to come to terms with the problem of sharing those midfield berths.

As Fulham can only play four in the middle for any one game, it's perm any quartet from the following: Malbranque, Inamoto, Davis, Legwinski, Boa Morte, Collins, Goldbaek and Clark. It's a great problem for the manager to have, if not quite so much fun for the players.

With many of his colleagues away on international duty, Clark gave Fulham Today an update on his current status. Pleased to have finally regained full-fitness, his pleasure is tempered by the frustration he is feeling at his lack of first team chances.

"I'm feeling good now," he said, "I was involved with the squad for the first time against Hajduk in Split and I got on for about twenty minutes. I've been on the bench a few times since then but without actually making it into the pitch.

"So I'm delighted to be back, but I'd obviously like to be involved a bit more. But all you can do is wait and see what the future holds."

Clark's was a remarkably injury-free career before he developed his Achilles problem. To have what was originally believed to be just a niggling injury take so long to clear up must have tested his resolve to the limit.

"To be honest, I had a very good injury record before that," Clark said, "So I've found it very tough dealing with this one. I've basically missed ten months from when I first picked up the injury in December, so to not get back involved with the lads until September was very hard. This was by far the worst injury I've ever had.

"I'm just really keen to get back into the first team. But this season it's going to be even more difficult; with the team having had a great start and the new signings doing well it's made it that much more tough. It's hard for the manager to change a side that's successful, and there's a lot of players competing for places, so I know that I've got a real challenge on my hands to get a place in the starting eleven.

"It is a good position for the club to be in, but not for the players who are being left out. It's very frustrating sitting on the bench when you've been out as long as I have, but all I can do is keep my head down, work hard, and when the opportunity arises make sure I take it."

With Fulham having started their season so early in the Intertoto Cup, and with UEFA and Worthington Cup games now coming thick and fast, there will surely be opportunities for every member of the squad to get a run-out soon. But as Clark says, his objective is to earn a place in the side by right, not just wait for his turn.

"At the end of the day I want to be in the team on merit, not just because the manager wants to give someone else a break for one or two games. I want to get into the team because I deserve to be there, and I want to play in every game I possibly can."

The riches available to manager Jean Tigana when he makes his team selection is a remarkable reflection of football today. Years ago you could measure how successful a team was by how few players were used over a season - I can remember Malcolm Macdonald making the point very strongly that one of the strengths of his promotion team was that he had been able to select virtually the same side, week-in, week-out. Times have changed.

Take a look again at Tigana's selection headache and you get some idea of what a strong position the club is in at the moment and why the season has gone so well on so many fronts. There's one thing for sure though, there's one player in the squad who won't be satisfied until he's forced himself back into the reckoning; and when he does it's going to be like having a new signing at the club.

Fulham missed Lee Clark last year. There were games that were crying out for the battling, determined qualities that he can bring to the team, and Tigana must be delighted to have the hard-running Geordie available once again for selection. Welcome back Lee.