Keeper Clarke is in stingi­est form of his life

The Football League Paper - - LEAGUE ONE - By Stu­art Ham­monds

EV­ERY suc­cess­ful side needs a goal­keeper with broad shoul­ders, so it’s for­tu­nate for Ox­ford United that the ev­er­re­li­able Ryan Clarke has had his re­in­forced to cope with the weight of ex­pec­ta­tion at the Kas­sam.

The 31-year-old stopper is in the form of his life be­hind a U’s de­fence that, de­spite leak­ing three at New­port on Tues­day night, is the stingi­est in League Two with just 27 goals con­ceded in 32 matches be­fore yes­ter­day’s trip to More­cambe.

As the di­vi­sion’s player of the month for Jan­uary, when he didn’t let in a sin­gle goal in four out­ings, Clarke’s record is re­mark­able con­sid­er­ing that this time last year he was re­cov­er­ing from surgery to BOTH of his shoul­ders!

Clarke said:“It was a nice award to pick up be­cause of putting so much hard work in to get back, but the whole team’s been great de­fend­ing from the front this sea­son.

“That’s why we’ve got such a good goals-against record and stayed in the pro­mo­tion reck­on­ing all sea­son. The cam­paign has re­ally flown by and now we’ve only got 12 games to go, we just hope we can keep the con­sis­tency up to the fi­nal game.”

BBC web­site head­lines last year quoted Clarke ex­press­ing his fear of re­tire­ment af­ter go­ing un­der the knife last Jan­uary. “I don’t know where they got that from, I never said that,” says the ex-Bris­tol Rovers keeper.

“I never feared that I wouldn’t play again. I sup­pose there was al­ways that thing in the back of my mind that no other goal­keeper had ever had dou­ble shoul­der surgery be­fore. But with any in­jury, you al­ways think, ‘Am I go­ing to get back to the kind of stan­dard I was at be­fore?’

“I had a slap tear on the joint where the ball and socket sits in your shoul­der. I did one side in a game against Chel­tenham, when I felt a bit of a pop af­ter land­ing on my front with no kind of tech­nique.

“Then I did the other the fol­low­ing week. It was just pure co­in­ci­dence that both hap­pened around the same time.

“I tried play­ing on for a cou­ple of weeks, but it got to the point where enough was enough, and I was in too much pain to carry on. It was then a case of get­ting them done to make sure I was ready for the start of this sea­son.

“It was a tough sum­mer with a lot of self-dis­ci­pline, but thank­fully the ded­i­ca­tion I showed to get­ting fit, like get­ting to train­ing an hour ear­lier than I did pre­vi­ously, has paid off. Now it’s a case of main­tain­ing it.”

Main­tain­ing their league po­si­tion – or even im­prov­ing on the third place they filled go­ing into the weekend – is the pri­or­ity now for Ox­ford who, with the 3-2 mid­week loss in south Wales, suf­fered their first de­feat in the six games since Chris Wilder left to join Northamp­ton last month.

Clarke had a close re­la­tion­ship with the man­ager who five years ago res­cued him from the bot­tom of the Con­fer­ence, where he de­scribes his 2008-09 sea­son that be­gan at Sal­is­bury with a bro­ken foot suf­fered slip­ping on a rock in Spain, then ended at cri­sis club North­wich, as “the worst of my ca­reer”.

He ad­mits find­ing it tough see­ing Wilder leave, but is full of praise for the way as­sis­tant-man­ager Mickey Lewis and coach Andy Melville have kept the Ox­ford ship sail­ing.

“It was a real shock to the sys­tem with Chris go­ing, hav­ing been here so long,” says Clarke. “The boys have got the ut­most re­spect for Mickey and Mel though be­cause they treat us like men.

“Chris had his way of work­ing with things and that hasn’t been ban­ished. We are work­ing along the same lines and Mickey and Mel have just handed it over to us. You can tell in the per­for­mances they are get­ting the best out of us.”

Lewis, the ex-U’s, Derby and West Brom mid­fielder, is one of lower league foot­ball’s good guys, but side­line sar­to­rial el­e­gance is not in his makeup. It’s al­ways shorts and rolled down socks for the 48-year-old, and that hasn’t changed in re­cent times.

“I think he’s had the same pair of train­ers and socks on for the five years!” laughs Clarke. “Se­ri­ously, Mickey is the most pos­i­tive man I’ve ever met in foot­ball. If things haven’t gone so well, he’ll al­ways look to take the pos­i­tives out of it.

“He keeps the camp a happy place. If we can get pro­moted, it might make the de­ci­sion for the chair­man a lot eas­ier.”

Hav­ing re­cently signed a new con­tract ty­ing him to the Kas­sam un­til 2017, Clarke is one man def­i­nitely stick­ing around.

“I wouldn’t have signed it if I didn’t think the club was mov­ing for­ward,” he adds. “I could have held onto the end of the sea­son and backed my­self to see what I could get else­where, but this club is in a good po­si­tion and I think we’ve got a good chance of go­ing up.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

HAPPY DAYS: Shay Given cel­e­brates Middlesbrough’s first goal against Bolton

Surgery: Ryan Clarke

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