The final part of my assessment of the leading four contenders for the club’s player of the year award. The man under the microscope today is a player who has endured a tough career since emerging from the club’s youth ranks, from being played out of position in many of his early games, to an injury which ruled him out of much of the 2011/12 season, to being placed on the transfer list last summer. Yes it’s Jordan Clarke who has endured a long journey to find himself in the reckoning having to prove himself against naysayers for pretty much the entirety of his Coventry career.
Following a non-descript campaign last season, Jordan Clarke was somewhat harshly placed on the transfer list by Steven Pressley who was looking to assert his blue-print on the first-team. Whilst many agreed that Jordan Clarke was perhaps the least deserving of an unceremonious exit from the Sky Blues, it was also felt that Cyrus Christie was the much better choice to have in the right-back berth with Jordan Willis a promising back-up player. Not many knew what the future held for Clarke, who has shown promise at times during his Coventry career but hadn’t really seemed to kick on from the stage of being a decent youth prospect.
However the loss of Richard Wood and the failure to secure Aaron Martin on a permanent contract last summer left Steven Pressley at a loss to find two centre-halves to play in the opening months of the 2013/14 season. Adam Barton, Cyrus Christie and youth-team central midfielder Jack Finch were all tested in pre-season friendlies but it was only when Pressley gave Jordan Clarke a second chance did the club have a viable centre-back pairing for the opening game of the season against Crawley. Jordan Clarke formed an inexperienced partnership with Jordan Willis in the opening two games of the campaign which saw the team somewhat unluckily lose 3-2 against both Crawley and Leyton Orient.
It was clear that the duo lacked the authority to force brutish League One centre-forwards into submission. To solve the problem Pressley turned to his former team-mate Andy Webster, a veteran Scotland international who was called upon to act as the defensive leader the team had been lacking. As the club’s first ‘home’ game outside of the city limits approached it seemed like Clarke would be sacrificed to make way for Webster and return to the back-up right-back role he had assumed the previous season. Pressley though had seen something in Clarke which made him crucial to his system and so Clarke and Webster played their first game as a centre-back pairing.
Despite conceding 4 during a remarkable win over Bristol City, those who had made the trip to Northampton found out just why Jordan Clarke had been chosen to continue as a centre-back. His distribution of the ball from defence was elegant and allowed the team to pass their way out of pressure and build attacks. His pace and timing of the challenge allowed him to cover for Webster’s lack of agility, it was the classic ‘stopper’ and ‘coverer’ partnership that teams look for in their centre-backs. Clarke’s performance in central defence was in stark contrast to how Richard Wood and William Edjenguele struggled with the ball at their feet during Pressley’s first two months in charge.
Over the course of the first 3 months of the season Clarke went from strength to strength as a centre-back. His composure on the ball improved as his confidence improved, this formed the Jordan Clarke-John Fleck-Leon Clarke axis which was the basis of our success in the first half of the campaign. Jordan Clarke’s marking and aerial ability improved immeasurably as the season’s opening months progressed, whilst his lack of height was targeted by opposing teams, Clarke quickly rose to the challenge and caught a number of teams out who were looking to exploit this perceived weakness.
It was all going so well until Coventry City travelled to Valley Parade when looking to extend a 4 game winning streak. The team had rushed into a 2 goal lead in the opening 10 minutes of the game, however an air-kick from Jordan Clarke in what should have been a simple clearance allowed Bradford City back into the game. From then on Bradford exploiting Clarke’s nervousness from high balls and eventually secured a smash and grab point in a game which Coventry would have won easily with just a little bit more composure.
The worst thing about the game from Clarke’s point of view was that it was on TV. As many Coventry fans were deprived of watching their team, Clarke’s performance in front of the Sky cameras cost him the fans confidence. From the next month onwards, Jordan Clarke was perceived as the sole cause of the team’s defensive failings as Coventry City struggled to recapture their mojo. After two heavy beatings from Tranmere and Rotherham, Clarke was eventually dropped in favour of the loanee centre-back Danny Seaborne.
Clarke had to endure a tough following few months as the team tightened up defensively with Clarke having to play a utility man role on the wings or as an emergency centre-forward. After the departure of his namesake Leon Clarke to Wolves and the team going through a 3 game losing streak, Clarke was eventually restored to the first 11 as a left-back with the brief to ‘keep things tight’. During the months of March and April, Clarke won back his first-team place after regaining his composure on the ball. His return to form over the past month has helped keep the team in the division with the team finding a new found defensive solidity.
It’s been a long old season for Jordan Clarke but once again he’s been able to overcome his weaknesses and doubters and become a better footballer. For me it’s a two-way fight between Jordan Clarke and Callum Wilson over who has improved the most over the course of the season. It’s one of the few things that Coventry fans can look forward to next season for certain that we’ll continue to have Jordan Clarke bringing his composure to the defence.