The boy who performed as a man - now Portsmouth's Matt Clarke will grow old in the Premier League with Brighton

There was once a character called Wootton who patrolled The News’ comments section during its Wild West heyday.

By neil.allen1
Saturday, 22nd June 2019, 10:00 am
An 18-year-old Matt Clarke made his Pompey debut against Dagenham & Redbridge in August 2015. Picture: Barry Zee
An 18-year-old Matt Clarke made his Pompey debut against Dagenham & Redbridge in August 2015. Picture: Barry Zee

Jed Wallace was his bugbear, frequently gunned down in posts by the masked outlaw who relished branding the midfielder a ‘non-league player’.

Following a 2-2 draw at Carlisle in April 2015, during which Wallace netted a stunning goal from 30-yards, his chief critic couldn’t resist another volley of criticism.

‘As I’ve said many times, Wallace is not good enough to play in Div 2, he is believing his own publicity,’ Wootton wrote.

‘When is Awford going to realise young players like Wallace, Webster, Butler are just not good enough for even this league.’

Yes Adam Webster, who during the 2012 pre-season tour in Benahavis, Malaga, enthusiastically lobbied the club to orchestrate the awarding of a treasured blue Twitter tick.

They duly delivered, yet the defender’s initial interest duly waned following intense periods of social media abuse from Pompey supporters.

He subsequently largely steered clear of such communication, although inevitably critics often dragged him into their fury by crowbarring in his Twitter handle.

Currently Bristol City’s reigning player of the season, the 24-year-old has been linked with a switch to the Premier League, with Aston Villa, Newcastle and Southampton among those apparently interested.

Wallace, of course, remains a regular at Millwall, starting 41 times in the Championship last season, while 12 months ago Middlesbrough’s advances were spurned, despite a reported £5m bid.

Incidentally, Butler has battled back admirably having rebuilt himself in non-league football, last month earning a move to League One Peterborough from Newport County.

Yet surely Wootton, he of such dubious player judgement, wouldn't argue that Matt Clarke has long been destined for loftier climes.

The recent film ‘Our Club’ delivers a powerful reminder that the Fratton faithful still cannot unify in their opinion of Balram Chainrai, despite the multiple-owner’s lengthy rap sheet and well-chronicled handiwork.

For once, just for once, though, there must be harmony among supporters on the issue of Clarke’s prodigious talent and how he deserves a higher stage.

Nobody can begrudge the exit of a central defender who has consistently demonstrated a class way above League One, culminating in crowned The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season for two-successive years.

Brighton, a Premier League presence, may represent a vertigo-inducing climb from the present level, yet Clarke, with customary unflappable approach and nerveless manner, can be banked on adjusting with ease.

Since arriving at Fratton Park in July 2015 as a teenage triallist ahead of a potential six-month loan move, he has circumnavigated challenges with a minimum of fuss, uninhabited by fear, while demonstrating a steely dedication to succeed.

Upon entering that changing room patrolled by experienced campaigners armed with exacting standards, senior pros such as Michael Doyle, Gary Roberts and Ben Davies soon developed an admiration for this determined Ipswich youngster in their midst.

By the end of Clarke’s fourth season, he was still fulfilling 8am dates with Roko’s gym, a full hour before his team-mates’ scheduled training ground arrival.

Such devotion to football is reflected by his personal life, Clarke often glimpsed on the fairway at Waterlooville Golf Club, spotted playing snooker and also walking his beloved dog, rather than falling out of local pubs and clubs in the early hours.

Still, it is on the pitch where footballers are judged and, through escalating standards over every season since that maiden 2015-16 campaign, Clarke has established himself as the game’s most coveted centre-half outside the top-two divisions.

By the end of last term, he had been honoured by inclusion in the PFA League One Team of the Season. Considering players are unable to vote for team-mates, such recognition from peers is to be admired.

Similarly, many of his Pompey colleagues have long earmarked him for a Premier League destiny. Now that has arrived.

For the Fratton faithful, Clarke will chiefly be remembered for his central-defensive partnership with Christian Burgess, the backbone to the League Two title, Checkatrade Trophy and two play-off semi-finals.

Totalling 104 games serving under Cook and Jackett, they registered 33 clean sheets, conceding 103 times,

Yet the effectiveness of Clarke’s double act with Jack Whatmough shouldn’t be overlooked, lining-up alongside each other on 40 occasions, with 16 clean sheets and letting in 38 goals.

In total, Clarke featured in seven different pairings during his four years on the south coast, others including Adam Barton, Tom Davies and Oli Hawkins, while on four occasions was part of a back three.

Incidentally, he partnered Webster in 10 matches during the 2015-16 campaign, with two clean sheets and 12 goals conceded.

Should the makeweight in his Pompey arrival also secure a summer move, they may encounter each other in the top-flight next term.

Granted, some Brighton supporters may not be particularly enamoured at the prospect of a League One defender bolstering a squad which drifted precariously towards the Premier League relegation zone last term.

Yet few 22-year-olds can boast a CV which includes 175 first-team games and having been a cornerstone in a consistently-successful Pompey side for the preceding four years.

In addition, Clarke checks in at the Amex Stadium on the back of 91 successive League One and play-off appearances since September 3, 2017.

During the post-Meadow Lane celebrations following promotion in April 2015, incidentally a match which Clarke missed through injury, the boisterous festivities stretched into Drift, down Palmerston Road, until the early hours.

While Gary Roberts’ credit card bore the brunt of all those present, Clarke sought more relaxed surrounds, taking residence at the far end of the bar with the likes of Ben Close, Alex Bass, Brandon Haunstrup and Adam May.

It was a reminder that beneath the man remained a boy, his closest friends naturally the youngest members of Cook’s squad, bonded by age and growing pains.

On the field of battle, Clarke was a colossus, valiantly representing Pompey with advanced levels of courage and self-belief which defied his years, the rookie performing as a seasoned professional.

Whenever the Blues required attacking inspiration, Clarke was often entrusted with the baton, thrown the challenge to embark on those characteristically marauding runs, a centre-half often galloping ahead of the left winger.

On occasions, the captain's armband was sported by this softly-spoken player who inspires through example rather than motivational bellowing.

The boy has grown up mightily fast – and we can all agree possesses an outstanding future. Even Wootton.