Subscriber OnlySoccer

Ciaran Clark relishing imminent return to top flight

Big season beckons for Newcastle defender – with a possible World Cup duty as a bonus

Ciaran Clark: “Last season we knew as a squad that we had the quality to be up there.” Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

It was perhaps symbolic that as John O'Shea and Sunderland tumbled into the Championship at the end of last season, Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy passed them going the other direction.

After fighting to stay in the Premier League for nine seasons, a 10th proved unlucky for Sunderland with another feat of escapology beyond the powers of manager David Moyes.

Meanwhile, there were rumblings below, as their local rivals Newcastle – along with Brighton & Hove Albion – finished in the top two of the second tier and booked their tickets to the big time.

Ireland’s Ciaran Clark is congratulated by team-mate John O’Shea after scoring against Poland at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

Ireland veteran O’Shea has stayed loyal to Sunderland, but this means for the first time in his career – barring loan spells at Bournemouth and Royal Antwerp – he will be playing outside of England’s top flight.


It also means Clark and Duffy – who have now usurped O’Shea as Martin O’Neill’s favoured centre-backs, after a brilliant 118-cap career – will be plying their trade against the best next term.

Of the pair, Clark can be deemed the senior party – he has 24 international caps to Duffy’s 11, as well as far greater Premier League experience.

We're coming up from the Championship and there's a lot of very, very good teams in the league and it's going to be a tough season

Clark came through the youth system at Aston Villa, making 134 appearances for the club after his debut against Fulham in 2009.

Last summer, however, a 16-year association with the club came to an end as Villa were relegated for the first time since 1987, and Clark was head-hunted by Newcastle and their new permanent boss Rafael Benitez.

Clark helped ensure Newcastle’s spell in the Championship was a brief sojourn, anchoring the defence as his side earned promotion a year after they had joined Villa in the bottom-three.

Newcastle’s squad spent last week in a pre-season training camp at Carton House, and were treated to a rare July heatwave as they set about plotting Premier League survival.

Stern task

Clark is more than aware of the stern task facing his side in the coming season. “You’ve always got to aim high,” he explained. “We want to do the best we can, at the minute we’re preparing for the opening game.

I always take every game as it comes. A club the size of Newcastle we should be a strong force in the Premier League, but we’re coming up from the Championship and there’s a lot of very, very good teams in the league and it’s going to be a tough season.”

The Championship is a notoriously difficult league to get out of, and increasingly looks like a graveyard of fallen giants – with the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest all finding it impossible to escape.

And while Newcastle justified their favouritism with the bookies and bounced straight back, Clark explains their promotion was far from straightforward.

“Last season we knew as a squad that we had the quality to be up there and there was a lot of pressure on us really – from the get go everyone was saying ‘Newcastle are up and they’re going to dominate the league,’ but it doesn’t work like that.

“There are a lot of games and a lot of tough teams to play against and it’s about trying to get those points on the board. There was a blip in the season when we didn’t have the best run of games but come the end we managed to pull off a few really important wins.

“It came down to the last day and that was unbelievable. We knew it was going to be tough and when we got it done and got promoted it was a bit of a relief.”

A large part of Newcastle’s return can be attributed to Benitez, who decided to stay on with the club despite failing to keep them in the top flight at the end of the 2015/16 season.

For Clark, working under Benitez was one of the main attractions of a move to northeast England.

He said: “I was at Aston Villa at the start of pre-season, and you can see other clubs’ activity [in the transfer market] and I looked at Newcastle and thought they’re a club who want to push and really have a go this year.

Important signings

“I was lucky enough to get a call and the fact that Rafa committed his future that and he made some other important signings was another factor. I came up and met Rafa and from then on it was pretty straightforward.”

And Clark believes Benitez has helped him blossom: “He’s managed a lot of top sides and won a lot of trophies. All you have to do is look at his CV, he’s got a lot of experience.

“He’s really intense, and the fact he wants to improve players, and the staff around the club – he just wants improvements . . . Since I’ve been here I definitely feel like I’ve improved under him.”

Ireland’s Ciaran Clark is congratulated by team-mate John O’Shea after scoring against Poland at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

Clark progressed through the England youth teams, captaining the Under-19s and Under-20s but with a call from the English FA not forthcoming, he happily accepted the advances of the FAI.

He said: “My mum’s from Leitrim, Dad’s side are from Donegal. When I was younger, the call never really came [from England] and as I got older I spoke to my family about it and the FAI got in touch – from then it was a pretty easy decision.”

Ireland currently sit second in their qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup, with Clark starting in the three wins so far – against Georgia, Moldova and away to Austria.

And he is confident Ireland can make it to Russia next summer: “We’ve done really well as a squad in the group stages so far but there’s still a lot of work to do. There’s some really tough games coming up which are obviously going to decide the outcome.

I've played with Shane a couple of times now and he's obviously a top player

“I think the squad we’ve got we’re more than capable to getting the right results and being in a good position coming the end of qualification.”

Clark started those three wins alongside Brighton’s Shane Duffy and the duo now look to be O’Neill’s preferred partnership.

He said: “I’ve played with Shane a couple of times now and he’s obviously a top player. He’s a big lad and wins the ball and he’s good with the ball at his feet as well. I enjoy playing with him and hopefully over the next few years we’ll get a few more chances to play with each other.”

Knee injury

A knee injury ruled Clark out of Ireland’s last two qualification fixtures – draws with Wales and Austria at home – as well as bringing a premature end to his domestic season, but he is confident a difficult few months are behind him.

“Obviously I had a knee problem at the end of last season, it was a very frustrating end to the season for me. I got injured for a few weeks, got back and played and then re-injured it and missed the last game of the season and the international games.

“I spoke to the club and the medical team and went to see a few specialists, did what I needed to do with them and the main aim then was to try and be fit for the start of the season when all the lads came in, and touch wood so far everything’s been alright.”

So, Clark has a big season ahead. How about a good finish with Newcastle, and then starting for Ireland in the opening game in Russia next summer?

“That would be ideal, that would be the perfect season all round.”

Ciaran Clark was speaking during a recent visit to Sports Direct’s new flagship Irish store at North Earl Street in Dublin. NUFC’s new third kit is available at all Sports Direct stores and