JACK CLARKE knows the Championship – and Brentford – had no clue what to expect as the teen made his Leeds United debut at Elland Road last October.
Even after 20 minutes as a second half substitute, the tag of unknown quantity had somewhat vanished and certainly so by the time the teen netted his first goal in December’s 3-2 win at Aston Villa.
Seven months later, Clarke is a £9m Premier League footballer with the winger’s impression in just five starts and 20 outings from the bench enough to prompt Tottenham Hotspur to splash the cash on his services.
Now, nine months after his Whites debut, Clarke is back at Leeds again; back for a second crack at the Championship yet this time as a Premier League loan star.
This time, also, with Championship defenders very much aware of his talents.
In Clarke’s eyes, it means a second assault on English football’s second tier could subsequently be harder than his first but the teen has vowed to “change up” his game in his second full season and bring a new element of surprise to those out to stop him.
“Last year it was obviously a lot easier being an unknown prospect and people not knowing how I play and what not,” said Clarke.
“But this year people know what I am about and how I like to play and what I like to do and it will obviously make things a lot more difficult but I’ll have to try and find ways to get around it.
“I think the players that I will come up against, obviously some of them will be the same as last season but there will be aware of what I am about and what I am going to do so I will just have to change my game up and do new things.”
Clarke certainly faced something new in terms of his outings under Whites head coach Marcelo Bielsa in Thursday night’s pre-season friendly at Guiseley.
Having been used solely as a winger on either flank during his 25 outings last season, the 18-year-old lined up at Nethermoor Park in a central attacking role, regularly swapping positions with summer recruit from Wolverhampton Wanderers Helder Costa out wide.
“It’s definitely a role I haven’t played for a while,” smiled Clarke.
“But if they want me to play there I will try my best.
“I’d obviously be more suited out on either of the wings but if it’s a job I have to do I’m sure I’ll do it.”
Long term, the task in hand for Clarke is then ultimately to break into the first team fold at Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham following his season-long loan spell back at Leeds.
Clarke, though, is first and foremost focused on gaining as much game time as possible back with the Whites for whom the teen has still only experienced four league starts.
The teen’s progress at Leeds was temporarily stalled last February when the winger fell unwell on the substitute’s bench during the second half of the 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough.
Clarke required oxygen in the away dug-out before being transferred to James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough.
Doctors discharged the teen the same night but the Whites star then spent a week away from Thorp Arch as United attempted to establish the cause of his illness - believed to have been caused by a virus.
Clarke finally returned to training three weeks later with another eight appearances presenting themselves in the remainder of the campaign.
The winger was brought on as a late substitute in both legs of the Championship play-off semi final against Derby County with Clarke then sealing his switch to Spurs two months later before returning back on loan to Leeds.
Asked what Tottenham had said about his loan spell, Clarke pondered: “I’m not sure.
“It just depends how things go and we’ll see what happens.
“Obviously I want to come back here and play as much as possible and maybe use it as a bit of a platform to propel myself on next year and maybe push to be involved with the squad next year but we’ll just have to see how it goes.”
For now, the next step for Clarke and his Whites come through the last three weeks of pre-season training and next week’s pre-season tour of Australia.
Some of the club’s internationals are staying behind at Thorp Arch for extra fitness work but the majority of United’s squad are heading down Down Under for friendlies against Manchester
United at Optus Stadium in Perth next Wednesday and Western Sydney Wanderers at Bankwest Stadium in Sydney three days later.
Leeds have now been back in pre-season training for three weeks with Clarke and company knowing exactly what to expect having already experienced one summer of double and triple sessions under Bielsa.
“I’d say it’s still as tough but I would say the lads as well as me expect it to be tough,” said Clarke.
“Last year it was the unknown, we didn’t know how hard it was going to be.
“Obviously he has a reputation for pushing his players and we didn’t know how hard he was going to push us but this season we have all come back even fitter knowing we have to be even fitter to go again this year.”
Going just one place better than last term will make Leeds a Premier League side in 2020 and Clarke has every confidence that Bielsa’s men can erase last season’s heartache by sealing promotion.
Mirroring the situation with Clarke, there will no longer by any surprise element to the stylish football at Leeds under Bielsa whose men are favourites across the board to end what will be a 16-year absence from the country’s top flight by winning the Championship next term.
United are no bigger than 5-1 market leaders and favourites with every single bookmaker ahead of Fulham at 8s.
Recently relegated Cardiff City are next in the betting list, followed by West Brom, Middlesbrough, Stoke City, Brentford, Derby and then Huddersfield Town.
Following the pre-season tour to Australia and a friendly in Sardinia against Cagliari Calcio on Saturday, August 27, the quest to justify the hype will all begin on Sunday, August 4 away at Bristol City but Clarke is taking little notice of the favourites tag.
“We were there or thereabouts last season to do a job and we didn’t manage to do it,” said Clarke.
“If we go on and lose the first five games we won’t stay favourites so that’s pretty much irrelevant to us.
“I think we just use last season to build on and we know what it’s going to be like this year.
“We just do it again but do it even more.”