Future unknown – yet remarkable Matt Clarke closing in on record-breaking Portsmouth achievement

Matt Clarke’s Pompey future is indeterminable.

Thursday, 11th April 2019, 7:02 pm
Updated Thursday, 11th April 2019, 7:07 pm
Matt Clarke is heading for a Pompey appearance record in another outstanding Fratton Park season. Picture: Joe Pepler

Dependent on potential promotion, susceptible to suitable suitors, reliant on acceptable war chests.

At least there is cast-iron certainty of a Championship presence for the talented central defender next season.

That is unless clubs from even loftier perches initiate interest, admittedly not an unrealistic outcome to toss into the equation.

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You see, at this juncture, Clarke’s footballing destiny is entirely incalculable.

Still, in the present, the prized asset’s outstanding consistency and sturdy dependability are propelling him towards the Pompey record books.

No player in the club’s history has registered 60 or more appearances during a single Football League campaign.

Yet it’s a remarkable tally Clarke will exceed should the Blues be condemned to the League One play-offs rather than automatic promotion.

This term, the former Ipswich youngster has 52 outings, missing just two of Pompey’s 54 matches, both occurring in the Checkatrade Trophy.

Rested against Arsenal under-21s and an unused substitute at Southend, such absences were influenced neither by injury or form.

Clarke remains a pivotal presence in Kenny Jackett’s side, as evidenced by 82-consecutive league appearances before today’s visit of Rochdale.

It’s a magnificent run traced back to September 3, 2017, when an injury return announced his entrance against Rotherham at Fratton Park.

Featuring in a back three alongside Christian Burgess and Jack Whatmough, the outcome was a 1-0 loss.

The match also represented the 22-year-old’s maiden competitive outing under Jackett, following the boss’ enforced replacement of Paul Cook in the summer.

From that moment, in the subsequent one year, seven months and 11 days, Clarke has not missed a League One fixture.

Incidentally, the ever-flourishing Jamal Lowe has gone one better, amassing 83-successive league outings since August 26, 2017.

Having been sent off in the opening game of the season against Rochdale, he returned in a 1-1 draw at Wigan in the match previous.

But this is Clarke’s story.

In the 98-year Football League presence of the Blues, Kit Symons possesses the record for most appearances in a season.

Despite starting the 1991-92 campaign aged just 20, the centre-half established himself as an ever-present, featuring in all 59 matches.

It’s an impressive statistic in a year which resulted in that infamous penalty shoot-out defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final, among a staggering 15 cup fixtures.

In addition to a 46-game Division Two programme and the FA Cup, there were also matches in the Rumbelows Cup and the Zenith Data Systems Cup.

Symons, a home-grown player clutching four senior appearances before that campaign kicked off, was swiftly elevated into a regular presence by new manager Jim Smith.

The future Pompey Hall of Famer would start every one of those 59 fixtures, setting a club record in the process.

Chris Burns (58) and Alan Knight (57) would also feature prominently in Smith’s maiden year in charge of the Blues following his June 1991 appointment in place of caretaker Tony Barton.

In comparison, Clarke presently has 52 outings, with six League One matches remaining.

Should Pompey reach the two-legged play-offs and injury continues to steer well clear, the defender will amass at least 60 appearances by the season’s end.

In doing so, Symons’ achievement will be eclipsed by a player similarly destined for a career served higher up the leagues. Whenever that may occur.

Of course, Clarke’s progress from triallist teenager into reigning The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season has caught the attention of many outside Fratton Park circles.

Last month he was named in League One’s Team of the Season, Pompey’s sole presence in a line-up dominated by Barnsley and Luton representatives.

Affiliated with the 2019 EFL Awards and grandly titled the Football Manager Team of the Season for Sky Bet League One, votes towards the divisional select XI’s had been cast by all 72 Football League bosses.

Managers and their respective club scouts are well aware of the immense talent of player who has amassed 167 Pompey appearances and scored eight goals since July 2015.

Those eyes in the stands are present every match, scrutinising and surveying, before reporting back to their footballing masters. Clarke is no treasured secret.

Similarly, he can expect to feature prominently once again when voting later this month opens for The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season.

Those to have claimed the honour in successive years include Noel Blake, Alan Knight, Steve Claridge and David James.

Long-time central-defensive partner Christian Burgess has already tipped Clarke to retain the players’ player of the year accolade he scooped last term.

As is customary, that particular outcome will be announced at the club’s End of Season Awards Dinner on April 24, when the guest speaker is Jimmy Bullard.

Incidentally, the rescheduling of Peterborough’s visit to Fratton Park (April 30) forced the event to be brought forward a week, with at least three matches still to fulfil.

The previous recipient of Pompey’s players’ player of the year was Enda Stevens, in both of his two Fratton Park campaigns.

The Irishman is presently in a Sheffield United side scrapping it out between Norwich and Leeds to line-up in the Premier League next season.

Stevens has missed just one Championship fixture this season, signed a new three-year deal in February, and featured six times for the Republic of Ireland since an international bow last summer.

While the attacking left-back quit Pompey in the summer of 2017 on a free transfer, they would receive a fee should Clarke follow suit. 

The central defender’s existing deal, signed in February 2018, expires in the summer of 2020, presenting the club with contract security.

Owners Tornante also rejected interest in Clarke last summer, determined to keep their outstanding asset for another launch at promotion from League One.

With six matches remaining before today’s visit of Rochdale and a three-point gap behind Sunderland to negotiate, Pompey may yet be in the Championship next season.

Whether Clarke, a potential club-record holder, will also be present is currently unforeseeable.