Ciaran Clark back on course to play central role for Ireland
Defensive partnership of Clark and Shane Duffy looks likely to be renewed in Tbilisi
Ciaran Clark at the Republic of Ireland press conference in the FAI National Training Centre in Dublin on Tuesday. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Roy Keane has brushed aside the suggestion that Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy could be the central defensive partnership that anchors Ireland for the next five seasons, but it would still be brave to bet against the pair being reunited in Tbilisi to pick up where they left off late last year.
Richard Keogh, John O’Shea and Kevin Long have featured for Ireland since then, and Martin O’Neill insists those who stepped in did well, but Clark and Duffy, now both playing regularly in the Premier League, showed signs of settling in well together through the early stages of this campaign. Both, most memorably, featured prominently in the 1-0 win over Austria.
For Clark, who missed the return game due to a knee injury, it was a good season, even if you throw in the European Championship, where he started Ireland’s first two group games but scored an own goal against Sweden and lost his place after the defeat by Belgium.
“I think the first couple of games were tough,” he says now. “The manager felt it was the right time to make the change and I didn’t let it affect me really, to be honest. It’s a squad tournament, everyone played their part. No, honestly, I was happy. Every player wants to be playing but there were no complaints from my end at all.
“You just get your head down and keep working hard. Keep going, you’ll get your opportunity again, that’s what it’s all about, really, you can’t let things affect you too much; just got to get back to training and work as hard as you can.”
Sure enough, he came on in Serbia and reclaimed his place in the starting line-up for the home game against Georgia as Ireland kept a clean sheet. The rawness of the partnership was still fairly plain to see in Moldova, but the potential was apparent too a few weeks later when Duffy’s ability in the air, combined with Clark’s reading of the game and speed of reaction around the area, helped the team to a celebrated win.
At club level too, the 27-year-old was getting used to coming out on top, with Newcastle, under Rafa Benítez, looking like firm candidates for promotion from early in the campaign.
Expectations were high, says Clark, and so there was pressure to win, but “it was good pressure. It was different from what I was used to in the past.”
The intention now is to avoid a return to battling relegation. “The fans now want to see us improving and kicking on,” he says. “If we keep showing the attitude we did at the weekend, keep that going, then I am sure we will be okay.”
He scored in the 3-0 win over West Ham and played his part in the clean sheet; both of which were welcome after a somewhat shaky start back in the top flight for the club. He explains at some length what he believes went wrong against Tottenham and Huddersfield, but feels the team clicked as they beat the Londoners and expresses satisfaction with his own form which, he suggests, may be as good as it has ever been over the course of his career.
“I feel I’ve improved under the manager [Benítez] and hopefully continue to,” he says. “He pulls the group of defenders in, and the midfielders and strikers or whatever groups, and looks to see if there’s anything there he can improve. Once he’s something to tell you, he’ll want to keep practicing it until it’s second nature.”
After the years when he couldn’t seem to settle into one position at Aston Villa for long enough to completely master it, that greater sense of stability seems to suit Clark, who has grown into the central defensive role. The season is just starting and there will be tougher tests ahead, but the early signs are certainly good.
For Ireland, his ability to renew that partnership with Duffy and provide a solid base in Tbilisi will be critical. Scotland’s qualification hopes started to crumble when they visited the city during the last campaign, but if both Georgia and Serbia can be beaten over the next week then Martin O’Neill’s side will be clear at the top and firmly on course for the World Cup finals.
Either way, Clark and Duffy could be playing together well beyond next summer.