NOT MANY strikers come off the field having found the net four times inside a little over half an hour only to bemoan the ones that got away.
Leon Clarke, though, did just this after bagging only the second matchball of his career as Sheffield United cruised back into the automatic promotion places.
He demolished Hull City in a remarkable second-half showing that ensured Kamil Grosicki’s wonder strike just before the half-hour turned out to be little more than a footnote as the Blades stretched their unbeaten run in all-Yorkshire contests to 16 games in emphatic fashion.
“To come away with four goals was fantastic and a real career highlight,” said the 32-year-old, whose CV boasts 17 clubs along with a couple of promotions and relegations. “But I could have had more.
“The goalkeeper (Allan McGregor) made some really good saves, but I should have done better with the header in the first half that he saved.
“The one early in the second half was a bit more difficult for him and I did think, ‘This is not going to be my day’.
“There was also the one when John Fleck played it through the guy’s legs to me only for the ball to take a nick on the way through, diverting it away from the line I was running into. I couldn’t get the connection I wanted.”
Clarke might have been able to recall, in minute detail, the ones that got away, but it was a different story for the goals that made him the first Blade since Keith Edwards 34 years earlier to net four times in an afternoon.
“When I came off, I couldn’t remember the second goal,” said the forward whose laidback attitude off the field is at odds with his all-action efforts on it. “I had to ask one of the boys what it was like.”
For Clarke’s benefit, his second goal 14 minutes from time was typical of the attacking vibrancy from the hosts to which the Tigers simply could not find an answer.
Mark Duffy, as reliable a passer of the ball as could be found in a red and white shirt, created the opening with a perfectly-weighted through ball that exploited Fikayo Tomori going walkabout and Kevin Stewart not filling in for his team-mate.
After that, though, it was all about Clarke and his deftness of touch as the striker dinked a shot over the advancing McGregor to find the net.
It followed an equally instinctive finish that had brought the Blades level eight minutes after the restart, Clarke nipping ahead of a hesitant Tomori at the near post to flick in a drilled cross from Cameron Carter-Vickers from close range.
Up to that point, the afternoon had been a frustrating one for the striker thanks to the agility of McGregor in the Hull goal.
To come away with four goals was fantastic and a real career highlight. But I could have had more.Sheffield United’s Leon Clarke.
First, the Scottish international had brilliantly tipped away a bullet header from close range after Duffy had picked out the striker with a typically pinpoint delivery from the left flank.
Then, just three minutes into the second half, Clarke again had reason to throw up his arms in frustration after McGregor had beaten away a flicked header from a Fleck free-kick. “I said to the ‘keeper, ‘Are you letting me score today or not?’,” laughed the Blades striker afterwards.
Clarke, of course, provided the answer to his own enquiry with the equaliser and then the deft finish that put the Blades ahead.
His hat-trick goal came ten minutes from time, Billy Sharp this time providing the ammunition with a deep cross that was headed in at the back post.
A first hat-trick in more than six years was his, but Clarke was far from finished.
A long ball forward from Simon Moore towards a defence that had lost all semblance of shape was all the striker needed by way of encouragement as Michael Dawson was quickly muscled off the ball and then McGregor beaten with an accomplished finish from 15 yards.
For Hull and their 2,018 fans, the final whistle could not come soon enough. Nor could the end of a week that had seen three games lost and ten goals conceded.
These are worrying times at the KCOM Stadium, with the Tigers possessing a brittle side to their character that is seeing the team collapse once behind.
United and Clarke ruthlessly exploited this weakness via a demolition job made all the more galling for those who had made the trip from the East Riding by it coming on the back of an opening 45 minutes in which the visitors had competed well.
Sure, McGregor had to be alert to keep out both Clarke and Billy Sharp early on. But Hull, too, carried plenty of threat going forward with Seb Larsson and Grosicki both threatening United’s goal inside the first quarter.
Then came the opening goal on 29 minutes when Grosicki used Larsson as a decoy before unleashing a ferocious 30-yard drive that flew beyond Moore and into the net.
Once ahead, the Tigers continued to threaten and Jack O’Connell was very fortunate a clear handball that prevented Fraizer Campbell racing through one-on-one with Moore was missed by the officials as a penalty and subsequent red card may well have been a double blow from which the hosts would not have recovered.
As it was, referee Darren Bond waved play on and McGregor had to be at his best to keep out O’Connell at the other end just 20 seconds or so later. Hull’s resistance, however, could not last and Clarke was soon on his way to a first matchball since netting a hat-trick for Chesterfield against Carlisle United in 2011.