The Apprenticeship Of Leon Clarke
When Dave Jones found himself in the midst of an injury crisis, he had little choice but to thrust an 18 year old Leon Clarke into the harsh glare of the Molineux limelight, and Leon didn`t let him down.
Having made a handful of appearances as sub the season before, he made his full debut at home against Preston, scoring his first senior goal.
He went on to notch up a further 12 starts, with 19 more from the bench and scored a total of 8 goals. The future looked bright for the home grown talent going into Glenn Hoddle`s first and only full season in charge.
But following unfounded accusations regarding Leon`s lifestyle, a dip in form, and the Shhhhh incident that is best left in the past Leon found out at an early age that those that build you up, can be twice as quick to haul you down.
Hoddle had little choice but to farm Leon out on loan to QPR, but even then, things couldn`t have gone much worse. A change of manager at Loftus road meant Leon was once again surplus to requirement, by which time Hoddle had found his missing piece, Frankowski, and lured Jeremie Aliadiere away from Highbury on loan , leaving little opportunity for Leon to break back into the starting 11. Another loan to Plymouth swiftly followed where he made a further 5 starts without scoring.
The season ended with a tally of 12 starts, one at QPR and a further 5 at Argyle, 14 appearances for Wolves as sub, and two goals.
All in all, a torrid introduction to professional football for a youth barely out of his teens.
With the arrival of Mick McCarthy to replace Glenn Hoddle, came a new set of striking rivals, and a new set of obstacles to overcome. Jay Bothroyd, Craig Davies and Jemal Johnson joined Leon, Carl Cort and Tomasz Frankowski all vying for two starting berths and 6 into two does not go.
Having shipped Franek out to Tenerife on a seasons long loan, the maths are now possibly more in his favour, but dishearteningly, a starting place seems even further away now, than it was at the start of last season.
The difference now, being that Leon has the full support of his manager, who is keen not only to see the youngster flourish at Molineux, but is prepared to smooth over any potential misunderstandings with the fans, by talking openly to the press regarding Leon`s motivation, and his own regarding the player who still bears an unforgiving level of expectation from Wolverhampton Wanderers fans.
After a second half cameo against Chesterfield, scoring one of Wolves five penalties, Leon once again found himself consigned to the bench come the weekend. But as McCarthy was quick to point out, this was not down to lack of belief in the youngster.
players, as he tried to escape down the tunnel alone, a move McCarthy explained to The Birmingham Post.
'Clarkie's been on for four minutes and thinks he's not really been involved and that it's a kind of embarrassment to go and clap the fans,' McCarthy said.
'It's like 'those lads have really done it and I want to just get off up the tunnel'.
'I know all about that. I was sub on my first competitive appearance for the Republic of Ireland when we beat Russia 1-0 and I felt like a spare one at a wedding.
'I hadn't contributed, I hadn't been involved and everyone's loving it, buoyant and bubbly, and you're sat there thinking 'what have I done'.
'But you should all enjoy the victories because things can change. I just said to Leon 'Enjoy it, be part of it'.
'It's important because the fans are the lifeblood of every single football club and we should show our appreciation to them.'
As young players should show their appreciation for a manager prepared to stick his neck out, and help ease their passage back into the Molineux fold.
And the best way for Leon to do that, is by scoring goals.
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