Sheffield United: Looking inside the mind of Leon Clarke

Leon Clarke scored his second hat-trick of the season in midweek: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Leon Clarke scored his second hat-trick of the season in midweek: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Paul Peschisolido doesn’t know Leon Clarke. But he does know strikers, what makes them tick and understands why the Sheffield United centre-forward enters tomorrow’s match against Birmingham City in the form of his life.

“As a player, every so often, it all just comes together,” Peschisolido says. “The team, its tactics and your own game in a physical and psychological sense. When that happens, it’s a wonderful feeling. You step out onto the pitch absolutely convinced, absolutely certain, that you’re going to do well and I figure that’s exactly the space Leon is in right now.”

The facts and figures behind Clarke’s season are simply ridiculous. Twelve goals in 15 outings, including eight in his last three games, explain why the 32-year-old acknowledged before Tuesday’s meeting with Fulham that, after numerous false starts and disappointing spells with rival clubs, he is now playing his best and most effective football since turning professional nearly a decade-and-a-half ago. Peschisolido, who made 97 appearances for United after leaving Craven Cottage in 2001, witnessed Clarke’s latest attacking masterclass first hand after being invited to watch their midweek meeting with Slaviša Jokanović’s side. Although his second hat-trick of the campaign was not enough to prevent Chris Wilder’s team slipping to a rare home defeat, the Canadian saw enough to confirm his suspicions that, rather than having one simple explanation, Clarke’s resurgence can be attributed to a variety of factors.

“He looks fit and he looks sharp,” Peschisolido continues. “You can see he’s been doing a lot of work on that and, I suspect, he’s been doing plenty in his own time away from the club too. But, even more than that, from what I saw the other night, it’s a mental thing. He isn’t thinking, if you understand what I mean, he’s just doing. It’s like golf; if you analyse your swing too much, it just falls apart. Football is such a mental thing and sometimes, even a turn you make on the training ground, can put you in the zone. What I see is a really happy player who’s enjoying who he’s working with and where he is.”

Peschisolido, now aged 46, can speak from experience after enjoying plenty of highs and lows during his own footballing career. Some of the best came at Fulham, where he lifted the 1999 Division Two title, and United’s next opponents City after finishing as their leading goalscorer in back to back seasons at St Andrews. But it was at Bramall Lane where Peschisolido’s name is most fondly remembered following his added time strike against Nottingham Forest during an unforgettable Championship play-off semi-final in 2003. Earlier that term, Neil Warnock’s squad had also reached the last four of both the FA and Worthington cups. Clarke, whose idiosyncrasies are, by his own admission, not to every manager’s taste, also secured a place in United’s history books when netted all four of their goals during the rout of Hull before the recent international break. Which begs the question why, after flattering to deceive with the majority of his 16 previous clubs, is the former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield Wednesday marksman now fulfilling the potential which once prompted Warnock to claim “he’s got all the attributes of a top-flight player” after signing him for QPR? Peschisolido suspects he knows the answer.

“Leon clearly feels a connection, he clearly feels like he belongs here. Like I said, I’m not a friend of his but you can see it a mile off. You’ve got to give huge credit to Chris and his staff because they’ve clearly identified what he needs and have set up the team to play accordingly, to make sure it suits not only Leon but the rest of the lads out there. However, you’ve also got to give massive credit to the lad himself too because, ultimately, he’s the one who is doing it.

“Different people mature and develop at different ages and, because he’s happy with United, because it’s such a huge and special club, that’s made him realise this is a massive chance for him to show what he can do.”

Peschisolido thinks senior colleagues including Billy Sharp, Chris Basham and Paul Coutts, whose season-ending leg injury has presented Wilder with a major headache, have contributed too.

“Maybe, in the past, Leon’s reputation has gone before him,” he says. “Maybe people have had a perception of him and that’s made it difficult to fit in. But I reckon the lads in that dressing room like him for who he is.”

“I know from my time at United, under Neil, what a powerful thing having a team spirit like that can be,” Peschisolido adds. “We often had players turn up and then, two weeks later they were gone because they didn’t fit in. If anyone was getting above themselves, Neil included, we had lads like Kozzy (Rob Kozluk) bring them right down to earth.”

Former Sheffield United centre-forward Paul Peschisolido believes their are a number of factors behind Leon Clarke's form

Former Sheffield United centre-forward Paul Peschisolido believes their are a number of factors behind Leon Clarke's form

Clarke is expected to make his eighth consecutive start when United, who slipped to third in the table following their 5-4 loss to Fulham, host 21st placed City in a fixture set to have a major bearing on both club’s respective moods. Peschisolido, who returned to South Yorkshire in his role as a presenter for live streaming service DAZN, known as ‘The Netflix of Sport’, believes United showed enough in defeat against Jokanović’s men to suggest they will can maintain a promotion challenge.

“Obviously conceding five at home isn’t ideal,” he says. “But they went for it, they kept on going right until the very end and that’s the club I recognise.”

Leon Clarke has been on target 12 times this season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Leon Clarke has been on target 12 times this season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Chris Wilder is getting the best out of Leon Clarke: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Chris Wilder is getting the best out of Leon Clarke: Simon Bellis/Sportimage