RYAN LOVES LIFE AS OXFORD’S SCROOGE
Keeper Clarke is in stingiest form of his life
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.”
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