WATCH - Birmingham City v Sheffield United: Self-belief pays rich dividends for Leon Clarke

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Three years ago when his boyhood club Wolves shipped him out to League One strugglers Bury on a free transfer, a 30-year-old Leon Clarke would have been forgiven for thinking his time in the Championship had reached its natural conclusion.

The move to the Shakers was the 18th deal the striker had been involved in, and Bury were about to become the 16th club of his peripatetic career.

At Wolves on two separate occasions, at Sheffield Wednesday and at Queens Park Rangers, Clarke had proven to be a handful to defences but never enough of a goal threat to hold down a regular starting place.

Injuries had also held him back, which is why he found himself in the third tier once more at the start of the 2015-16 season; by no means the scrapheap, but closer to that reality than the heights he has scaled with Sheffield United this season.

For it has been with the Blades that Clarke has enjoyed a career renaissance, and even then it was not in the first instance that his true value to the club was realised.

United moved for Clarke at the end of his one season with Bury, with the 15 goals he netted that year pointing to an experienced campaigner who could score the goals that would finally end United’s long stay in League One.

Leon Clarke: In team of the year.

Leon Clarke: In team of the year.

He hit the net nine times that first year but also spent two months out injured; a record that did little to suggest he was about to have the season he is currently enjoying.

But not once, not while at Bury, nor while being attended to in the treatment room of United’s Shirecliffe training ground, did Clarke’s belief in his ability to make his mark in the Championship ever waver.

That self-belief has proven to be well-placed. Clarke has scored 18 goals this season in helping Sheffield United to within three points of the top six with three games to go.

His form in a consistently strong team formed the basis of his selection this week in the PFA’s Championship Team of the Year, a career-high accolade for a well-travelled striker and one that is a huge pat on the back for a job well done by all at Sheffield United.

I’d like to think some of the centre-halves I’ve come up against, it’s not been an easy afternoon for them, it’s been a tough one – and that’s maybe why I got voted in.

Leon Clarke

“I never stopped believing, I knew that if I had a chance to play consecutively week in, week out I’d be fine,” said Clarke, 33.

“There’s been times when I’ve played in the Championship but never as much as I have this season. The coaching staff still trusted me and put me in the team and I’d like to think I’ve repaid them with what I’ve done.

“I was injured for long periods of the League One season last time but I always had the manager’s backing that as long as I worked hard, once I was back fit I’d be available for selection.

“I had to fight for my place and I did that towards the end of last season. For me, this season was about proving a point to a lot of people. There were many who said I couldn’t play in the Championship, so scoring 18 goals has proved a few people wrong.”

Indeed it has, with fans of Wolves, QPR and Sheffield Wednesday among others looking on and wondering why he could not replicate that form for them.

In spells, Clarke did show those flashes, across town at Hillsborough a decade ago as much as anywhere else.

But a sustained run in the United team has brought its rewards.

Perhaps it is the fact that he is the surprise success story in a team that has caught many on the hop this season which earned the respect of his peers, but asked why he himself felt he had got the vote, Clarke alluded to his ability to do the basics well.

“Me, personally, if you ask me how my game is, I run, I chase, I harry, I make it difficult for centre-halves,” he offered.

“If the ball’s there to be won, I’ll go and win it. If the ball’s going over the top, I’ll chase it down.

“And I’ve scored goals this season. But I’d like to think some of the centre-halves I’ve come up against, it’s not been an easy afternoon for them, it’s been a tough one – and that’s maybe why I got voted in.”

The enjoyment he has derived from playing in a Sheffield United team that has defied conventional Championship wisdom, has also contributed.

As the grey hairs sprouting through his neatly-shaven head suggest – along with a quick glance at his curriculum vitae – Clarke has been around enough years and enough dressing rooms to know that a good team spirit and success on the pitch goes hand in hand.

“It’s a great group of lads, one of the best I’ve ever worked with and the way the manager gets the team playing is a credit to him,” said Clarke. “We play with a freedom and an enjoyment. If results don’t go our way we rally around as a group, we speak about it, we try and take the positives into the next game.

“It doesn’t feel like a chore here, you can’t but enjoy playing here. You can see for yourself the football we play, the chances we create and how we get the fans on their feet. You have to enjoy it, I know I do and I’m sure the rest of the lads do as well.

“Everybody gets along, there’s no cliques, everyone is in it together, we all know what we’re doing; it’s just an enjoyable place to be.”

Clarke was informed of his selection for the PFA team last week via text message, and as a person who likes to keep himself to himself, attempted to keep it quiet, until his manager intervened.

“We pulled him in front of the players last week – he wouldn’t have liked that but I’m not that bothered,” joked Chris Wilder.

“He’s been a great signing for us, with what he did for us last year and what he’s done for us this year and how he’s enjoyed his football. This honour really is one of the biggest you can get, being recognised by your fellow players and for him to receive that award when you look at the players that are in the division is an outstanding achievement.

“You don’t score the goals he has done without having confidence in your own ability and that of your team-mates.”

Wilder likened Clarke to Glenn Murray, another ageing striker who has stepped up a division but who has continued to score goals.

Three wins to end the season could be enough to seal a place in the Championship play-offs – leaving Clarke and United just three games from a return to the Premier League.