Adrian Clarke: ‘I cried when I left Arsenal but I lived the childhood dream’
- Credit: PA
So many have had the childhood dream of playing for the club they love. Adrian Clarke lived that dream with Arsenal and witnessed an era at the club that saw them fall and rise again. This is his story.
Clarke was spotted by the north Londoners at the age of 10, catching the eye of Steve Rowley who had previously found Tony Adams and Ray Parlour and would go on to be Arsenal’s chief scout.
The young winger progressed through the ranks at the Centre of Excellence before signing schoolboy forms and edging ever closer to the first-team.
He made his debut on New Year’s Eve 1994, in a 3-1 defeat to QPR at Highbury, telling the Islington Gazette: “When you walk out with the first-team, having been with the club since the age of 10, you can’t explain how proud you feel.
“I was living out my dream. It’s a moment you dream about so many times and then it actually happens.
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“It was New Year’s Eve and I came on as a substitute. It was actually the game when John Jensen scored his one and only goal so it was a real I was there moment as well.”
But, Clarke would have to wait a year for another chance in the first-team. He returned to the reserves to continue learning from legendary winger George Armstrong.
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Then, George Graham was sacked following a run of poor form and the bung scandal and in came Bruce Rioch to take the Highbury hot seat.
While the Aldershot-born boss is not fondly remembered by Arsenal fans, he is by Clarke who was given more opportunities.
“People describe it as a lull under Bruce, but there was a big improvement in league position and the team played better football,” he said.
“When he came in I had the feeling he took a liking to me and liked my style of play. I also got the feeling he would give the young players a chance.
“From the moment he walked in it recharged and energised me because I felt it was a fresh start.
“Bruce won’t go down as one of the Arsenal greats, but he was great for me. He showed a lot of faith in me and he treated the players fairly by rewarding you if you were doing well. It was a great year, 95/96, for me.”
Clarke was fully aware of the added pressure first-team involvement brought, continuing: “It was nerve wracking, but you just have to back yourself when you are there.
“If you weren’t pulling your weight, the senior players would let you know, but it’s a wakeup call as a youngster and you realise the step.
“It was a steep learning curve, but they would look after you.”
One of those players who looked after Clarke was legendary striker Ian Wright, who nicknamed the winger ‘Reverend’ for being a perceived ‘goody-goody’.
Another was the man who would be Bruce Rioch’s lasting impact, Dennis Bergkamp, who was signed from Inter Milan in 1995, and playing alongside the Dutchman is Clarke’s career highlight.
“He was just pure class both on and off the pitch. He was a gentleman, no ego at all, he would include the younger players and he was very funny,” he recalled.
“In terms of on the pitch, I’ve never seen a first touch like it. I consider it the highlight of my career playing alongside him. He’s the best player I’ve ever played with.
“I remember his weight of pass, when as a wide player you are trying to link up with strikers, and he would feed a perfect pass, you wouldn’t have to break stride and if you gave it back he’d kill it stone dead.
“You don’t get opportunities to play with someone like that very often.”
The winger’s third manager at the club came in 1996 when Arsene Wenger replaced Rioch. It was a decision that would change the club forever.
Clarke revealed that the players were both shocked and impressed by the Frenchmen’s methods, saying: “We’d read up on him once we saw he was coming, but he wasn’t a famous manager in the UK. It was a shock and a feeling of who is this guy?
“He didn’t look like your typical manager either, he looked more like a professor. But, when he sat us down for that first chat at London Colney, at the end everyone was impressed.
“You also had to get over the shock of the training methods as they were so different, but once you got used to that you realised the benefits and he gained our respect very quickly.
“With Arsene, warm-ups were more like a Pilates class, so it was a shock to the system, but we felt stronger in a matter of weeks.”
It was to be the beginning of the end at Highbury for Clarke though, with an influx of new signings leaving him with the realisation that it was time to leave.
“It was heartbreaking to leave. I had limited chances to impress Arsene, but I ultimately needed to leave,” he admitted.
“I was out of contract and I knew it was unlikely they’d offer me a new deal.
“We had a 10-minute chat at the end of the season, and he said that he thought it would be better for my career to get first-team football and he couldn’t offer me that. He wished me the best of luck, I smiled my way through it and thanked him.
“I remember seeing Matthew Upson going in to sign for the club as I was leaving and I just got to my car and broke down crying. It just hit home that having been there since I was 10, it was all over at Arsenal.”
Clarke went on to play for the likes of Southend United and Stevenage, but he will never forget is Arsenal career, saying: “I just feel incredibly proud to have played for Arsenal. It was my childhood dream as soon as they signed me.
“It was a long, hard journey to get there, but to get there feels like an amazing achievement. I do have regrets, but I’m just proud to have done it and I look back at it as happy times.”