No hiding place for Clark at Theatre of Dreams

With Sir Alex Ferguson’s office out of bounds, Lee Clark has pinpointed the boardroom at Old Trafford as his sanctuary from the lottery of penalties.

Clark is a man who likes to be in control, but when it comes to a shoot-out to determine a club’s future, he becomes as powerless as everyone... apart from those men picked to represent his team.

The Huddersfield Town manager may have guided the Terriers to a League One play-off final against Peterborough United on the back of a 27-game unbeaten run, but he knows better than anyone the fine margins between success and failure.

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For although he locked himself away in his office as the semi-final penalty shoot-out drama unfolded in front of 16,000 Town fans inside a rocking Galpharm Stadium 10 days ago, he could at least emerge from the tunnel to enjoy the unadulterated joy of a momentous victory over Bournemouth.

But as a player, Clark suffered the lowest of the lows.

He was a member of the Sunderland team that lost an epic Division One play-off final to Charlton on penalties at Wembley 13 years ago.

After taking the lead in extra-time both he and the Black Cats’ other designated penalty-taker, Kevin Phillips, were hauled off as the demands of an exacting season began to take their toll, only for Clive Mendonca to level the scores at 4-4 and the Londoners to win the shoot-out and book their place in the promised land of the Premier League.

The prize may not be as rich at Old Trafford today, but with so much invested in a 48-game season and with the ambitious Galpharm Stadium club on the verge of Championship football, is there any wonder Clark will be hiding behind a tray of prawn sandwiches in the Manchester United boardroom if the teams are tied after 120 minutes?

“I never felt so bad in my career than after that because you’re so close,” he said of a player’s heartache at losing a play-off final.

“You don’t get over something like that, what you do is you make it a motivation and you come back to life within a few days.

“You’ve got to be a man about it, you dust yourself down and you go again.

“It was important that the man in charge at the time (Peter Reid) was a good manager and a very tough man as well.

“When we started pre-season the next season we were all firing and ready for it.

“That Sunderland team had character and bottle because the season after we went and romped the league.

“Often you see teams lose a play-off final and usually bottle it the next season because they can’t handle what happened before.

“That team didn’t and from what this group have shown me, they’ve got the same amount of character and determination and desire as that group I played in.”

It is that mental strength Clark sees as non-negotiable in a footballer’s make-up, and something he has tried to instil in his time as manager of a club that has aspirations to one day play in the Premier League.

“It’s not just about talent, it’s not just about having technical ability, if you can’t handle the mental side of the game you’re in trouble,” he said.

“I want to go as high as I possibly can and the Premier League is the most demanding league in football.

“If you’re not mentally tough then you’ll just get swamped by the size of that; the media attention, the stadiums filled week in, week out, scrutiny in everything you do both as a player and as a manager.

“If you can’t handle that mentally it doesn’t matter what you’re doing physically or technically, because that will pass you by.

“But I hope the match doesn’t go to penalties because I haven’t got an office to go to. I’ll be struggling to find somewhere.

“I might just end up going to the boardroom where my family will be. If it means it has to go to penalties for us to win then we’ll do that, but I prefer for it to be settled in our favour in 94-95 minutes.”

To best prepare for the mental examination his team will face tomorrow, Clark last week took his side for a weekend getaway to Birmingham that involved playing golf, clay-pigeon shooting and paintballing as well as a spot of training.

“I wanted them to rest but to be in a controlled environment,” he said.

Clark called in a favour from Alex McLeish to use the facilities at Birmingham City to train, stating that it was good for his men to sample the environment of a Premier League club. That Birmingham have since lost their Premier League status and could be playing alongside Town as equals next season is irrelevant, for the infrastructure of a club like the Blues is exactly what Clark wants to build.

The importance of the next 90 minutes on Town’s future is illustrated by the stark financial reality of what the game means. Victory could yield an increase of £5m in turnover, while contrastingly, a cut in the wage bill is forecast if they are faced with another season in League One.

With livelihoods, hopes and dreams in his care, it is little surprise that, like his assistant Terry McDermott, honours in a stellar playing career matter little to Clark when compared to what steering a team to promotion would mean.

“Judging by what happened last Wednesday this would be the biggest achievement I’ve ever had in my career,” said Clark. “When you consider what I’ve done – winning the Championship three times, being on the verge of winning the Premier League, competing in the Champions League – that puts into context what Sunday will mean to everyone and certainly to myself.

“It’s completely different, as a player you just look after your own business and make sure your job’s getting done.

“I’m having to focus on 30 players, trying to keep them happy and making sure they’re getting the right information for us to win the game.

“What the players have shown so far this season is that they respond to everything that’s asked of them and every challenge that’s put in front of them.”