Beginning his football journey in the same place that launched the careers of the likes of Alan Shearer, Michael Carrick and Peter Beardsley, serial promotion specialist Lee Clark was on solid foundations long before he joined Fulham.
A Newcastle United fan and player as a youngster, Clark made the move to SW6 after a high-profile exit from Sunderland to become a key performer in the early days of Mohamed Al Fayed’s revolution at the Club. Indeed, whilst the midfielder just missed Kevin Keegan’s impact at Craven Cottage, he caught the first showing at St James’ Park.
“I began at Wallsend Boys Club, the famous starting block for some young players to come into the professional game,” he told the official website. “I got into Newcastle as a boy and signed for them as a 14-year-old, then made my debut for the first team as a 17-year-old.
“It was a dream come true to join Newcastle and what made it even better was that I was part of a fantastic period in the club’s history, getting promoted from Division One (now the Championship) in the way we did and then taking the Premiership by storm. We were always up there [finishing as runners-up for two seasons] and even in our first season in the top flight, we were challenging to win it and came third. It was a great time for the club. It was a rollercoaster ride and testament to the impact that Kevin had.”
Things could have been ever better as, famously, Newcastle blew a 12-point lead in 1995/96 to see Manchester United come back to claim an unlikely title – something Clark admits wasn’t easy to get over.
“Losing the title was awful. It was really hard to take,” he said. “When you think you’re going to win the biggest prize in England and then it’s taken away from you, it’s tough. I think the biggest difference was that we didn’t have players who had won it before – only Barry Venison had done it before – and Manchester United had players who’d been there season in and season out, and I think that counted for a lot.”
The following season, Clark opted for a new challenge: that of the Magpies’ huge rivals Sunderland.
“It was a strange one in terms of me being a massive Newcastle fan and having played for Newcastle, but I just felt that I knew about the club and they were moving into the brand new Stadium Of Light,” he said. “I went in with manager Peter Reid and he was absolutely brilliant. He outlined his football philosophy to me and what he wanted to do with the team. It was a no-brainer at the end of the day – I spoke to several other clubs, but I decided that I’d go to Sunderland.
“Funnily enough, the day I signed for them was also the same day that I got called up into the full international squad for the Le Tournoi tournament (June 1997) under Glenn Hoddle. Peter had mentioned to me before I signed that he would get me into the England squad, but I’m not sure he realised that it would happen so quickly!”
Unusually, for a player heading across the Tyne-Wear divide, he wasn’t lambasted by either set of fans and helped the club to finish third and reach the Play-Offs in his first season; sealing promotion from Division One the following campaign in 1999.
“It was really special because we’d had the heartbreak of the previous year’s defeat to Charlton Athletic in the Play-Off Final when we lost on penalties,” he said. “We came back really strong and won the league with a record number of points at the time . I got some light-hearted banter, as I used to go and watch Newcastle a lot of the time, but I was successful on the pitch for Sunderland so there wasn’t anything untoward.”
Regrettably, Clark’s time at Sunderland would not see him face his former club in the Premiership as he was pictured in a derogatory t-shirt while supporting the Magpies at the 1999 FA Cup Final and left under a cloud that summer.
“I knew it was time to move on and had made the decision before the incident with the t-shirt,” he said, while also admitting that he was “unprofessional” and that the incident is “the only regret that I have on my career”. But his exit saw him given a chance to join former teammate Paul Bracewell at Fulham for £3m.
“I turned down some potential Premiership clubs at the time to join Fulham,” he said. “I came to meet Fulham and was excited by the owner’s plans. It wasn’t just his plans, it was what was happening around the place and I could see what he was doing; bringing in a new type of player from a higher level.
“I was really excited when I joined and the first season we finished just outside the Play-Offs. Unfortunately the Manager lost his job, which was disappointing as he was someone I was close to, but then Jean Tigana came in and led the Fulham revolution. The Club took off and it was another period of excitement. We romped to the Division One title, broke a load of records on the way, and went on to have some very successful years in the Premier League.”
In 2003/04, Clark took over the captaincy of the side and led them to their highest-ever finish – ninth – which included a stunning 3-1 win at Old Trafford in which he scored the opener. “We could’ve done even better,” laments the midfielder. “We were unlucky to lose Louis Saha to Manchester United in January and if he’d stayed then we could’ve finished higher that season.
“Still, it was brilliant to be a part of the side at that time. The Chairman was always upgrading the training facilities and the ground – we obviously had that spell where we were having to groundshare with Queens Park Rangers which was a tough one for the fans but we understood the reasons why. It was a great time to be around the Club and I met some great people and made some real friends.
“I loved my time at Fulham. I loved the area where I was living and the people of the Club. I loved the support I got from the fans and it was a fantastic period in my life. People take it for granted now as Fulham are fixtures in the Premier League, but it’s easy to forget where they were nine or 10 years before then when they were on the verge of being taken out of the Football League by finishing second bottom in the old Third Division.”
Clark moved on when his contract expired in the summer of 2005 and headed back to Newcastle again, although this time it was to take a new step in his career.
“I went back up to Newcastle and took over as a player-coach, which was a great way to begin my coaching career and take my first steps,” he says. “I helped out the reserve-team manager, then took over the job full-time when I hung up my boots. I got the experience and eventually moved to Norwich City as assistant manager to keep going on the managerial ladder. When I was offered the chance to manage Huddersfield Town, I took it with both hands.
“I had a fantastic time there, obviously culminating in breaking the Football League record of 43 games unbeaten, so I was gutted when I left because I was really enjoying my time at the club. But that’s the game sometimes. I had a couple of months out of work, but then I was given a chance to join Birmingham City and it’s a massive club.”
Now one of the top young managers in the country, Clark still has his eyes on his former clubs and Fulham are certainly close to his heart.
“I look for Fulham’s result all the time, alongside Newcastle,” he added. “Me and the family have fantastic memories of the Club and whenever I’ve gone back to Craven Cottage I’ve always been treated with respect and have had a great time.