Rather than tease Leon Clarke, as Chris Wilder suspected, Sheffield United’s players roared with approval after discovering he had been named in the PFA’s Championship team of the year.
“I got told about it via text,” the striker remembers. “And then the manager mentioned the award before training. He knows I’m not someone who likes to be the centre of attention and probably thought I’d get a bit of stick. But fortunately there wasn’t. The lads were brilliant and just told me well done.”
Wilder’s motivation was mischief not malice. Indeed, as Clarke admits, his relationship with United’s manager has revived a career which had begun to dwindle and drift in recent years. But there has been another factor behind the player’s recent renaissance too. Clarke, who enters Saturday’s game against Preston North End having scored 18 times since August, also credits his friends and colleagues behind the scenes at Bramall Lane for creating an environment where his skills can flourish.
“It’s probably the best group of lads I’ve ever worked with,” Clarke continues. “We enjoy ourselves and we play with a freedom. Credit has got to go to the manager and his staff, because of the way they set things up, for that.
“It’s the best group because of how we approach our football, because of how everyone gets along and because there are no cliques in the dressing room. Nobody is separated and everyone gets along. People here help each other out and that goes a long, long way in any walk of life. Not just sport.”
Clarke’s importance to the United cause was underlined last weekend when, after suffering from back spasms on the eve of the game, he was forced to miss their trip to Birmingham City. The result - a 2-1 victory in favour of Garry Monk’s side - effectively ended the visitors’ hopes of securing back to back promotions after lifting the League One title last term. But there will be no shortage of motivation when United contest what, barring some unexpected twists, is likely to be their final home match of another memorable season. Clarke, providing a glimpse into his own character, explains why.
“We’ll keep on fighting because you never know what might happen. We owe it to ourselves and also the supporters to keep on going until we’re told it’s not possible anymore. That’s the outlook of this team. That’s the way we go about things and, no matter what, that isn’t going to change.”
“This season has been all about proving a point for me,” he adds. “A lot of people were saying at the beginning that I couldn’t score goals in the Championship anymore. They thought it was above my level. I didn’t really listen but I knew that if I had a chance, if I played games, that I could do it.”
Despite being portrayed as brooding and morose, Clarke is actually quite affable. Questions about his public persona reveal a self-deprecating sense of humour - “Maybe I’m shy?” - as does an enquiry about his vast collection of tattoos. “That one doesn’t mean anything. I had it done when I was younger. It sounded much cleverer then than it does now.”
But when conversation turns to football and United in particular, Clarke turns deadly serious.
“I doesn’t feel like a chore here at all,” he continues. “I know it can at some places but you can’t help but enjoy yourself here. Especially in my position because you’ve seen the chances we create. We’ve just got to keep on trying to drive things on.
“That’s what I did before coming here and, after I’d arrived, when I was injured for long periods too. I’ve always had the manager’s backing though and knew, so long as I worked hard, that I’d get a chance. Even this season, when things haven’t gone so well, he’s kept faith in me. That means a lot.”
Clarke has scored 27 times in only 50 starts since arriving from Bury in 2016. Given that ratio, United must be ruing their decision not to show greater persistence when they first had a chance to sign him four seasons ago.
“I think there was an opportunity to come here when I was at Coventry. There was more interest in Callum Wilson than myself. But there was an interest there. I didn’t get involved. I left the two clubs to sort it out. Nothing happened in the end. But I’m here now which is the most important thing.”
Eleventh-placed United hope Clarke is available to face Preston, who are ninth in the table.
“I don’t know if I’m getting fitter,” he laughs. “I’ll tell you after pre-season. This season is the best I’ve ever felt though. It’s the most games I’ve played in a season by a long way. The legs are a little bit tired but I’ll get through the last games, no problems.”