The rumours and interest surrounding Jack Clarke developed long before Marcelo Bielsa let him loose. The winger has been a regular magnet for scouts and, by the time Leeds United signed him to his first professional deal in 2017, the club knew that Manchester City were positioning themselves to do the same.
That deal was done on Clarke’s 17th birthday, the first date on which an academy player is permitted to sign senior forms, and that alone told a story about how keen Leeds were to nail him down. Twelve months on, the speculation in this transfer window is all about him: clubs queuing up, bids on the table, increased wages being offered elsewhere.
Leeds can see that Clarke is making waves but the scale of the talk about him in January has surprised them. With seven days of the window to go, the club say no formal offers have been received and told the one team who approached them, Crystal Palace, that Clarke was not for sale. The YEP understands that Palace made contact after being informed by a third party that the teenager might be available for the right price.
United value Clarke in excess of £10m and have drawn comparisons between him and David Brooks, the forward who Bournemouth signed from Sheffield United for £12m in the summer, but it was agreed at Elland Road before the January window began that all enquiries would be knocked back. Marcelo Bielsa has warmed to him and, in the past three matches, has named him in his starting line-up. Clarke’s full league debut earned him the man-of-the-match award.
Clarke, who grew up in York, is precocious at 18, a rough diamond with a rare blend of flair and confidence. Within Bielsa’s squad, he is also different: an old-school winger who consistently hits the byline and hassles defences by getting in behind their full-backs. None of Bielsa’s other wide players are quite as direct or persistent. Clarke has two assists to Gjanni Alioski’s four, despite making a fraction of Alioski’s starts, and two more than Jack Harrison, who has appeared twice as often this season.
Palace’s approach to Leeds – made through their sporting director and former United striker Dougie Freedman – came after United’s 2-0 win over Derby County, the night on which Clarke was named man of the match. Leeds brushed off the call and Palace have not returned to them. Southampton were reported to have tabled a £5m proposal earlier this week but United moved yesterday to reiterate their stance that Clarke would not be auctioned and deny that they had received a single bid. Tottenham Hotspur and Bournemouth are among the sides who have been monitoring him but both are aware of United’s resistance to interest.
The contract Clarke signed at Leeds in November 2017 replaced his scholarship and, in keeping with countless graduates at Thorp Arch, extended a relationship which began with United before he was 10. The club say no player on their books has ever been paid more on a first professional contract but a continuation of Clarke’s rise under Bielsa would make negotiations about improved terms necessary. To date, Leeds have not spoken with him or his agent, Ian Harte, about a salary increase.
United intend to widen their pool of wingers before the end of the window by signing Daniel James from Swansea City and appear confident that Swansea’s need for injections of cash before the end of the season will facilitate the move. But Clarke is in line to start again away at Rotherham United on Saturday and, having been taken under Bielsa’s wing with several other Under-23s during pre-season, is firmly installed as a first-team player within the Argentinian’s set-up.
The pressure on Leeds will come if promotion gets away from them in May and they are in the position of trying to persuade Clarke to continue his development in the Championship. Transfers from Elland Road have not always worked well for products of the academy at Thorp Arch – Sam Byram, who Leeds sold to West Ham United in January 2016, has played 37 times in three years – but Brooks became a regular at Bournemouth overnight and is enhancing his reputation on the south coast. That concern is for a later date and one which Leeds will douse with water if they make good their opportunity of promotion.
The weekend’s game at Rotherham is the first of two which a club in their position – a point ahead at the top of the Championship, with the January window into its last week – need to exploit: one which, on the basis of the table, Leeds should be winning and another which they would love to win.
Rotherham are clinging to 21st place and United’s record against the bottom eight in the league shows eight games played, 20 points accrued and no defeats incurred. A win in South Yorkshire would reverse the damage of last weekend’s loss at Stoke City and perk Bielsa’s players up for Norwich City’s visit to Elland Road a week on Saturday. Norwich at home is a televised game which deserves its box-office billing. As it stands, the fixture will throw together first and second and remind both teams that this is where the sprint to the finish starts.
At Stoke, Clarke and Bielsa’s attacking players paid for their own wasteful use of possession around City’s box, allowing Stoke to dig in to earn a 2-1 victory through second-half goals from Sam Clucas and Joe Allen. Bielsa was critical of the performance. “We had all the resources to win the game,” United’s head coach said. “The possibility to break the balance was so evident.”
His Polish midfielder, Mateusz Klich, said he expected Leeds’ Yorkshire derby with Rotherham to be as much of a scrap. “It’ll be very difficult and we’re probably going to see the same game,” Klich said. “They’re going to wait for our mistakes and that’s going to be it. So we need to create more clear chances and be more dangerous.”