Lee Clark closes the laptop on his impressively tidy desk and concedes he has changed. “In the past I didn’t know if I’d be able to get on with new technology,” says the Huddersfield Town manager. “But I’m always using it now. I’ve got all the computer programmes, I’ve tried to embrace it.”
At one time many people would have been astonished to see Clark choreographing both a League One promotion campaign and an FA Cup adventure with Arsenal from the manager’s office at the Galpharm Stadium.
The former Newcastle United, Sunderland and Fulham midfielder was, unfairly as it transpires, widely deemed a daft Geordie lad who, whisper it, did not seem the sharpest tool in the box. If such theories gained currency when his stint at Sunderland came to an abrupt end after he was pictured attending the 1999 Newcastle v Manchester United FA Cup final wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Sad Mackem Bastards”, they have been thoroughly undermined in West Yorkshire.
These days Clark is regarded as a potential high-flyer whose insistence on Huddersfield playing a smooth, thoughtful, passing game has persuaded Arsène Wenger to loan him Arsenal’s England youth international striker Benik Afobe.
While Afobe will not feature at the Emirates tomorrow Clark, also missing his injured leading scorer, Jordan Rhodes, can expect a warm greeting from the sometimes sniffy Wenger.
“It’s a big boost to me that we’ve had players loaned here from not just Arsenal but Liverpool and Manchester United too,” he says in his soft Tyneside accent. “It’s very complimentary that top Premier League managers want their players to come to Hudderfield. It’s important for me to win games and get out of this league but I intend to do it playing the way I want, with a good passing ethos.”
Kevin Kilbane, the much travelled Ireland international, recently arrived on loan from Hull and believes few managers do more assiduous homework. “Lee’s attention to detail and analysis are unbelievable,” Kilbane says. “He’s also a very good coach; I can certainly see him going higher up the management ladder.”
For the moment all Clark can think about is the most glamorous game of his two years at Huddersfield. “Trying to get out of this league and into the Championship is the biggest test,” he says. “But playing at Arsenal is my toughest and most exciting challenge. The style Arsenal play is what I aspire to. My dream as a manager is to get to that level, to have a team like that. As a club and a manager Arsenal and Arsène Wenger are a yardstick.”
A chat Clark enjoyed with Wenger at a coaching seminar remains a treasured memory. “I remember our conversation word for word and I keep going back to it,” he says. “Those type of things are worth their weight in gold to young managers like me.”
At 38, he remains relatively inexperienced but benefits from having served under an eclectic assortment of managerial mentors including Ossie Ardíles, Kevin Keegan, Peter Reid, Jean Tigana and Graeme Souness. “I’ve been lucky in that I’ve enjoyed working for all of them so I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and ask for their advice,” he says.
An epiphany came when he played for Wenger’s compatriot Tigana at Fulham and suddenly appreciated that an apparent fixation with players’ fitness and diet “enabled you to sell your wares better”. By then realisation had also dawned that there really was life outside Geordieland. “Leaving the north-east was tough at first,” Clark says. “But within a month I knew I’d made the right decision. Once I’d settled in to life down south I loved it. The lifestyle my family and I had living in Surrey was great; we had a magnificent time.”
Nonetheless, Newcastle still exerted a powerful pull and, not long after returning to St James’ Park in a junior coaching capacity that involved helping develop Andy Carroll’s academy skills, Clark was confronted with another big choice.
This time Glenn Roeder called, offering the post of assistant manager at Norwich. “I didn’t want to leave Newcastle, it was where I wanted to be,” he says. “But I knew if I was going to make my mark in management Norwich was an offer I couldn’t turn down.”
The decision to listen to his head rather than his heart was vindicated a year later when Huddersfield made him manager after hearing through the grapevine that Roeder had hired one of the brightest young talents in England’s coaching pool. His seemingly natural, attention-grabbing poise and authority in a tracksuit were not acquired overnight, however.
“I got my first coaching badge at 23,” says Clark who, early in his playing career, helped coach Walker Central boys club where Newcastle’s Shola Ameobi was harbouring hopes of turning professional. “It gives me a lot of pride that I had a little bit of impact on Shola and Andy Carroll. But I always knew I wanted to be a manager. I didn’t just want to be a coach, I wanted to be the one making the decisions.”
Although he is doing precisely that at the club Bill Shankly managed before taking charge at Liverpool, Huddersfield has lately been regarded more as a poisoned chalice than a stepping stone. After all the 1922 FA Cup winners and three-times League champions have not resided in English football’s top two tiers for 10 years now. Clark is their seventh manager in 12 seasons.
Yet with the team third in League One and anxious to atone for last spring’s play-off defeat against Millwall, there is cautious optimism that his partnership with the club’s wealthy new owner, the greetings card magnate Dean Hoyle, will finally end an era of instability.
It is not merely Clark’s habit of artfully knotting a blue and white scarf around his neck on matchdays that has earned him the “Roberto Mancini of League One” sobriquet, but a perception that Huddersfield are, à la Mancini’s Manchester City, now capable of financially outmuscling their divisional rivals.
“This is a huge club,” says an increasingly suavely groomed and smartly dressed manager who does not care to contemplate “what my Geordie mates might say” about that now hallmark scarf.
“Not so long ago Huddersfield were in administration but we’ve just bought land to build a training facility which will be of Premier League quality,” says Clark.
“The owner wants to see this club competing at the highest level and my ambition is to get us there. Reaching the Premier League is a dream but teams like Wigan and Hull have shown it is an achievable dream.
“Sunday at Arsenal will whet the appetite. We’re massive underdogs but I’ve got some gifted young players … and the FA Cup is all about shocks.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010