“My best years are still ahead of me” – New Dundee United striker Nicky Clark

This interview was published on Saturday 28th April 2018 in the Official Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Match-Day Programme against Dumbarton.

Thanks to DAFC for allowing me to publish my article on my website.

Nicky Clark is currently the SPFL Ladbrokes Championship’s joint-second top goal-scorer for 2017/18. Tied with Scott McDonald and just one goal behind current leader Stephen Dobbie, the son of Assistant Manager Sandy Clark will be hoping to shoot himself into first position come 5pm this evening. The 21-goal striker sat down with Jordan Burt to discuss his career to date.

Following in the footsteps of his father, football was always the dream for Nicky.

“My mum and dad have always told me that when I was a kid, I was always kicking a ball about – whether that be in the garden or inside the house, so, it is something I have always wanted to do. I think it was natural for any youngster to grab a ball and kick it about when you are at such a young age, but, I think with my dad being around the house, it was very football-orientated: my brother and I were always involved in football when we were growing up.

When I was young, I may have seen my dad play a couple of times, but, in the main, he was nearing the end of his career. However, he has made me sit down and watch the videos of him when I was younger, so, I am definitely aware of his career and the clubs he played for, as well as his managerial career. I must say, my brother and I are two very lucky boys with the careers we have right now; we both love football and this is what we always wanted to do, but, first and foremost for my brother, he wanted to be a fighter pilot n the Royal Navy and he has managed to go and do that. I am very similar, as, on a football park, you need your team-mates to run around and help you and it is the exact same for my brother in his job as, if you go to War, you need people running about to help you, so, I would say we are both lucky for the careers we have both had, to date, and achieved what we have always wanted to do in life.”

Clark began his youth career with Rangers before moving on to Aberdeen.

“I was just 9 or 10 when I was at Rangers – that was great going into Murray Park at such a young age and learning from some really good coaches, although there were also some really bad ones at that time, I must say! I went to Aberdeen when I was 16, just after my fourth year. As I said, football was what I always wanted to do and I was lucky enough to be given that opportunity when I left school. I began my career as a striker, but, when I joined Aberdeen as a full-time professional, they played me in midfield for the first few years. I ended up getting growing pains and things like that so I lost a bit of pace while height wise I wasn’t the tallest, so, I played in the middle of the park and really enjoyed it.

As your career progresses, things change. When I was younger, I was a little quicker so I could run the channels and things like that, but, I feel nowadays you need to be able to do a bit of everything; to become a good striker, in my opinion, you need to be able to run the channels, link the play as well as score goals. I have been fortunate enough to have scored a few goals in my career so far.”

Despite not making a single appearance with the Dons, Clark wasn’t far away from their first-team squad.

“The first couple of years I was playing Under-19’s football and just learning my trade, basically. When I was around 18 or 19, I got the chance to go and train with the first-team and that is a massive learning curve as you realise you then need to kick-on. At that time, Aberdeen had a really good team and when I look back at the squad we had, they were great. We managed to finish third in the Premiership and qualify for the UEFA Cup so it was a fantastic experience.

To progress, you need to train and play against men. Aberdeen used Peterhead quite a lot to loan players out and hopefully allow them to develop. That was the option we went for and I really enjoyed it. I was only there for 6 months but I played a lot of games and scored a couple of goals. I wanted to go and play games and I probably played slightly more than I may have expected (23 appearances), but, that is possibly credit to me as obviously the manager wanted me to play each week. It was a learning curve for me, massively. I needed to be kicked about as a youngster, I needed to be up against and competing with men.”

Clark scored his first senior goal against Stirling Albion in his 8th appearance for the Blue Toon.

“The ball was cut back to me from the edge of the box and I think it was a bit of a sclaff, really, but, thankfully I managed to find the bottom corner. I was delighted to get my senior goal and it was a great moment for me. I think when I was there, I was playing midfield so goals wasn’t really my main focus or on my mind. In saying that, we all play football to score goals and win games so if I was doing either or both, it was great and I was happy to be involved.

I knew a lot of the boys [at Peterhead] and some of the lads I was with at Aberdeen had also signed on at Balmoor, too, so, while I was disappointed in leaving full-time football with Aberdeen – as, like everyone, you want to stay full-time for your whole career – it was the right move for me at that period in my development to join Peterhead permanently. While it was part-time, I was fortunate enough to train every day with Cowdenbeath, as their manager Jimmy Nicholl allowed me to come in with some of the full-time guys that had. I would just travel up north on a Thursday to train with the Peterhead boys as well as joining them on a Saturday for a game. I knew I was at the stage in my career where I had to go out and get matches under my belt and having played a lot of minutes the season prior, I knew I had a good chances of kicking on further once again.”

Nicky scored 8 goals in 50 appearances for Peterhead before joining Queen of the South under former Par, Gus MacPherson.

“You were coming up against some big brutes at times. They were blokes who’d just head or kick the ball as far as they can…they may even, on occasion, kick you! The biggest thing for me was learning the game and finding out what it is all about. When you are at youth team level, you aren’t playing for win bonuses or anything like that, whereas, when you are at this level, you are all fighting for each other as, at the end of the day, there is extra money on the line for you all. I certainly learned a lot in my 24 months up there. I had been full-time for three years and it was a privilege for me to go in and train or play each day that I did, so, I knew I always wanted to get back to that. I knew it was then all down to me to go and impress and have a good season and thankfully I managed to make the move to Queen of the South the following campaign.

As I said, playing against the boys I did – guys who were experienced and coming towards the end of their career, while I am just starting mines – that it definitely helped me improve as a player. Players can sometimes go missing at bigger clubs and maybe don’t get the game-time they deserve or like, so, in a way, you can argue it was a blessing in disguise for me to go part-time. I think, in hindsight, it was a good decision on my part as I could only rely on my own ability to go full-time.”

“My move to Queens wasn’t planned. I initially went on trial with them to begin with. Gus was unbelievable with me; I will always be thankful to him for giving me the opportunity. I done well in pre-season and during the friendly matches I played and I was delighted to be given a contract at the end of it all. While Gus had given me the chance, it was up to me to take that and I feel I definitely did that. I am a confident boy and I was sure I could step up a division and still do well. The first season at Palmerston didn’t go well, at all, to be honest. We had a good team, with a lot of really good players: then you add in Gus and his assistant, Andy Millen, who are both very experienced guys. Unfortunately, that term didn’t go to plan.”

Relegation followed with Allan Johnston stepping in as player/manager following the sacking of MacPherson.

“I think I played most of the season wide right, that year. It was another learning curve for me – I was only 19 or 20 so I was still developing and it was easy for me to pick up things each day from guys like Kevin Smith and Scott McLaughlin who had been in that division or higher previously. Football is all about winning, so, when you get relegated, it means you haven’t done your job well enough. As a player, it is the worst thing that can happen to you and it was difficult for us all at that time. It is horrible, but, it is all about how you react and luckily enough we done that the year after.

Nah, I wouldn’t say I was happy from a personal point of view, despite playing 36 matches. It was a disaster for the club and everyone associated with it after it got relegated. Playing 36 matches in the Championship, of course I am happy with that, but, ultimately, we got relegated and that was disappointing. We had a close dressing-room and everyone got on well: then my dad came in to help out the gaffer and that definitely had an impact on my decision [to stay]. I knew what Allan was about as I had worked with him the previous season and it was quite simple for myself and a lot of the other boys to transition. To be fair, he still trained with us daily and he was top-class; he’d take the mick out of us, his ability was incredible! The manager grouped together a really good side, bringing in guys like Derek Young, and we ended up going on to have a really good year.”

So, how does Nicky find working under the stewardship of Johnston and his father, Sandy Clark.

“When we are here, at the club, that means work. I am no different to anyone else. I get treated the same as anybody else would and I view him in the same way the rest of the squad do. When I am out on the pitch or the training ground, I just focus on working hard and if he has a go at me, then that is fine, I obviously deserve it. Of course, when we are at home, it is slightly different as we can sit back and relax more. I am sure my dad would tell you the exact same thing – he doesn’t put any additional pressure on me because we are father and son and I don’t feel there is any particular strain on my part because he is part of the management team here at Dunfermline. We both just want to go about our jobs professionally; we both want to do well personally, for our team-mates and management staff members, as well as for everyone associated with the club we represent.”

In a season in which Clark won the SFL Division Two title, as well as the Scottish Challenge Cup, Nicky also won the top goal-scorers award with over 35 goals being netted by the front-man.

“To be honest, we were flying and it was an unbelievable season for myself, goals wise. To bounce straight back up to the Championship was great. I remember that day [the opening day of the season] as I had missed a few chances and probably should have scored a couple of goals before I did manage to find the back of the net. I scored after Dan Carmichael crossed it in and I headed the ball home: I am not quite sure what happened to me after that, I just seemed to kick on from there. I never set myself any targets – my only aims is to go out on to the pitch and play to my best and hopefully help my team-mates out. It was incredible the season I had in front of goal and you can definitely say that myself and a lot of other boys done well enough that season to get moves on the back of that. For me, I always get the praise for scoring so many goals that term but I couldn’t have done it without my team-mates, so, I need to say thank you to them, as well. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to score as many goals as I did.

I am lucky enough to have won the Challenge Cup a couple of times in my career, that season being one of them. I was still quite young at the time so to score a goal in a cup final – any cup final – as well as to win it, it was a proud day for myself and I will always look back on it with fond memories.”

After scoring so many goals, Clark had attracted the interest of Ally McCoist who quickly snapped up the attacker for Rangers, who had just been promoted to SPFL League One.

“It was quite hectic, to be quite honest. I obviously had a good year, so, I had a few options to consider from Scotland, down south and abroad. As soon as I knew Rangers were interested, then there was only one team I was wanting to sign for. You don’t go to Rangers and expect to play every week – the summer I signed, I was joined by a lot of really good players too, so, I knew I was going to have to fight for my place in the side. I’ve always said though, that when I look back, I was disappointed with the amount of chances I got to play: I feel when I did play I done well and scored goals, a lot of important goals too. But, all in all, my time there gave me memories that would live with me forever; I loved my time at Ibrox.

It is a completely different world when you turn up to Murray Park – it has everything you want and more. Then, you walk out at Ibrox in front of 50,000 fans, with the music playing and the fans singing…it gave me goosebumps every time. It was satisfying to win the league, of course, as you want to win every competition you enter. We were expected to win the league, so, in a way, we were in a lose-lose situation. If we won the league, everyone would say we should’ve. If we lost the league, we would have been the worst team in the world.

I remember playing Dunfermline that season: we played here at East End Park one night, the stadium was packed and I am sure we won 4-0. I stole a goal off big Jon Daly I am sure! His header was going in but I nodded it in on the line. He was quick to slaughter me for that one! It was a great atmosphere. It was probably a wee bit harder to get up for the game as you were normally coming up against part-time sides, but, at Rangers you are always being scrutinised, so, you know you need to perform every match, so, there was no doubt that each and every guy gave 100% for Rangers when they crossed that white line.”

The following year, Clark had his best year to date, making 43 appearances for the Gers.

“It was good to play that many games, as well as getting a decent amount of goals. That campaign, we had players like Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd who were playing up-front. It was great competition for myself while I was also learning off them every single day: I was only 22 so what more could I have asked for? They are two of the best strikers from Scotland in a long, long time. Their goal-scoring records are incredible. [Ally McCoist leaving Rangers] was a bit of a strange one, to be honest with you. We were all arriving for a game one night against Queen of the South and we heard over the radio that the manager had left. We didn’t know what was going on and were all a bit confused.

Once we had got to Murray Park for our pre-match the manager walked in and told us it was a load of rubbish. We ended up getting beat and a day or two after that, he was relieved of his duties. It was a bit surreal and crazy at the time. If you have a couple of bad results at the club, you are under pressure, manager and players included. I still don’t know why he got sacked then, but, as players we just had to get ourselves ready for the next match as they were coming thick and fast. We were all devastated to see Ally go, but, the next match was just round the corner so we didn’t really have time to dwell on the situation. I think we finished 3rd in the league, so, we had quite a few games leading up to the play-off final against Motherwell. We beat Queen of the South and then Hibs – who we thought were going to be the toughest test for us! We got battered 3-1 at Ibrox off Motherwell, I don’t think anyone saw it coming to be 100% honest with you, and, the tie was pretty much over at that point. It was a low moment, definitely. It was a chance to get the club back up to the Premiership, where it belongs. We had momentum going into the Motherwell matches but for whatever reason we didn’t turn up and it ended up turning into a disaster for us.”

The following year, Rangers were to lose out in the Scottish Cup Final to Hibs with David Gray scoring a last-minute winner to break the hearts of all connected with Rangers.

“Mark [Warburton] came in and he changed a lot of things around the place; the standards got lifted to a really high level, football wise. He brought in the style of play he wanted us to adopt and we all bought into it from day one. It was a lot of repetition, particularly in pre-season as he wanted us to understand the pattern of play he wanted us to undertake and I think all the boys took it on board really quickly. We knew we couldn’t go another season in the Championship, without being disrespectful. It is such a big club, but, we knew Hibs would be right up there too. We done well against them and really kicked on that season. Thankfully we won the league and got the club back into the top-flight.

I loved walking out at Ibrox and playing in front of 50,000 – they sing their hearts out when they are winning and they let you know what they think when you are losing, but, I absolutely loved my time there as I played in so many big games and in front of massive crowds. We beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final, at Hampden Park, was absolutely magnificent. It was such a great feeling afterwards. So, we were going into the Hibs clash with confidence and, similarly to the year previous against Motherwell, I don’t know what happened. It was probably our worst performance of the season. It was a horrible day: it is probably one of the only regrets I have in my career so far, that we didn’t win that day. The one thing we struggled with that year was defending set-pieces and it killed us when it mattered, in the biggest game we had that season. The scenes after it weren’t great either – I was on the far side of the park, so, I was right across from the tunnel so I had a bit of a walk! Then, I saw a couple of Hibs fans running on, so, I turned around and there must have been about 5,000 fans charging towards me! I was devastated and I was just trying to get myself off the pitch as quickly as I could. The situation probably helped us as it meant we didn’t need to go up and collect our losers medals while they were all celebrating and singing.”

Despite having 3 good seasons with Rangers, Nicky moved to England that summer, joining Bury.

“I had a discussion about it [my future] a couple of months beforehand and there was a wee chance I could have stayed for another year, but, I was 25 at that time and while I had been playing games, it wasn’t as many as I would have liked. At my age, you need to be playing week-in, week-out and I probably wouldn’t be doing that. I came to the decision to leave and go down south, although, that didn’t work out well for me either! I needed to get myself playing regularly; there were a few clubs down south I had the chance of joining but Bury seemed the right choice for me at the time. I met the manager and everything was positive, their facilities were unbelievable: they trained at Carrington which was literally just over the fence from Manchester United’s training complex! The manager was bi-polar I think as for whatever reason, one day, he just seemed to flick a switch and I wasn’t playing anymore!

I played the first 3 or 4 games. We beat Charlton at home in my first game which was a great result for us, but, I wasn’t playing as a striker. I was playing wide right again but I was defending a lot more than attacking. The first few games were fine but then we tailed off a little bit and weren’t playing as well. I went to see the manager and all I said was “I signed as a striker, gaffer, is there any chance I will get a chance to play up-front?” and that was it, he went in the huff with me. I walked past him at the training ground and would say morning and he would just ignore me, so, at that point, I knew it was time for me to move on.”

That is the moment when Clark joined the Pars, on a 2-year deal. Nicky signed on the final day of the summer transfer window of 2016.

“I went to see the manager on the Monday and I told him I would like to leave and he said he would let me go away on loan so I got on the phone to my agent. It was craziness, but, by this time, I had decided I was going to leave Bury permanently. I wanted to get away from it all and after I was approached by Dunfermline, I just felt that, having worked under the gaffer and my dad before, it’d be really good. Thankfully the club were happy to take me on and I have managed to do what I set out to do when I left Rangers, play games and score goals.

There were other teams interested in me from up here in Scotland as well as down south in England, but, I had to get back playing and I knew the style the manager and my dad played, so I was more than happy to sign. They were a massive factor in me joining Dunfermline – I liked their ambition of where they wanted to take the club, even though we didn’t quite do it last year, which was disappointing. I knew I was going to have to work hard and earn my place in the team which I have managed to do and that has contributed in me really enjoying my time here so far.”

Missing out on the play-offs last term disappointed Clark alongside his team-mates, with the Pars hoping to clinch their place within the top 4 this afternoon against Dumbarton.

“We felt we should have reached the play-offs last year. We had a really bad spell where we were down the bottom of the league and fighting for our lives and even though we came through that and finished strongly, we were still unhappy with finishing where we did as we felt we had a good enough group of players to have achieved that aim. The more games you play, the more confident you get and the more goals you get. In years gone by, I was maybe in for one or two games and then out for two or three so it was hard to build momentum and get a rhythm going, so, I have been lucky enough to be given a more regular opportunity here and the goals are coming with that too.

The boys know that is what football is all about. It is all about learning and then progressing. We wanted to win the league this season, but, now the play-offs are massive for us. We have a big game this afternoon which would seal our place in the top four and after coming through a sticky patch – similar to last season – we are picking up some really good results at the moment and hopefully we can carry that on today and then moving forward into the play-offs. I really want to get promoted this year; it is such a big club and it deserves to be in the Premiership. When you look around the stadium, it is a perfect place for players to thrive in and I am hopeful we can get back there come the end of this season.”

Clark has played up-front alongside Declan McManus for the majority of the season, with the strikers forming a successful partnership in attack.

“Deccy does a lot of channel running and hard work; he links the play well and I think Dec and I have been involved in the majority of the goals we have scored this season. I just hope someone smacks the ball in the net off Deccy’s backside because he just needs that little bit of luck right now in front of goal. It has been a great couple of months for me, too, personally. It was an honour being presented with the Championship Player of the Month, helped by the fact I’d scored a couple of hat-tricks in quick succession. It also helped me beat my tally of last season, so, hopefully I can keep going and bag a few more.

Having the captain’s armband helps spur you on slightly more as you have a little bit more responsibility. I was delighted when the manager gave me the opportunity to take the chance to wear it when Cal [Callum Morris] wasn’t playing, but, Cal is the captain of the club and he has done a great job this season: if I got the chance again though, I would be more than happy to take it. I have really enjoyed my time at the club so far, there is a lot of good people here associated with Dunfermline and we have a great group of guys in the changing-room too. Hopefully we can top that off with promotion, as I feel if we do gain promotion, we can really kick on and battle to be finishing in the top 6 spaces of that league.”

Clark has made 310 career appearances to date, scoring just over 100 goals.

“I think I have matured a lot as a player: the season I scored a lot of goals for Queen of the South, I was basically just an out-and-out striker, where I would just run about and run in behind, but, now I would say I have a wee bit more of a wiser head on me and see the game in a different light. I am different now, I would say I am much more an all-rounded player compared to when I was younger. I am only 26 now, so, I feel my best years are still ahead of me; 27, 28, 29 is usually when you are in your prime as a forward, so, hopefully I can keep going and see where the future takes me.

From previous years, I have learned a lot. I have become more street-wise and I think I will continue to be like that in the coming years. We’ve had a great support from all the fans this season and I am sure you are all out in force this afternoon for today’s massive match. When the fans get behind us, it makes a real difference to the players and I hope you can see that through our performances on the park. Your backing has been great and we hope to reward you for that this afternoon by securing our spot in the play-offs!”

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