On any other night, and without the cultural clash between Marcelo Bielsa and Frank Lampard, Jack Clarke would have been the story of Leeds United’s win over Derby County. English football saw in technicolour what Leeds have been nurturing for years and Max Lowe, the Derby defender, spent the whole evening chasing his back.
Clarke is an unknown quantity to much of the wider public but not to those who are paid to track the best domestic talent around the country. The winger is on the watchlist of numerous Premier League clubs and had scouts on his tail long before he signed professional terms at Elland Road but a full league debut showcased the off-the-cuff, old-fashioned flair which is making the 18-year-old a coveted commodity.
Reports last week suggested that four Premier League clubs are considering making offers for Clarke this month, and Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur are amongst the teams most keenly interest. Sources at Elland Road, though, are categorical in saying that no active member of Marcelo Bielsa’s squad will be sold in the January window and Clarke’s invasive performance against Derby revised his reputation as a weapon from the bench.
Friday night was Clarke’s first start in a league fixture, against a 21-year-old in Lowe who was playing for the first time in the Championship since returning from a loan at Aberdeen. Clarke bested Lowe repeatedly, attacking him with direct running, hitting the byline and serving up six crosses from the right flank.
Lowe was posted missing in the 20th minute when Clarke picked up the scraps from a corner, surged past Craig Bryson and produced a near-post delivery which Kemar Roofe side-footed into the roof of Derby’s net. Marcelo Bielsa was impressed. “He gave a very important performance in the game,” United’s head coach said. “He had a big influence on the final result.”
In previous weeks, Bielsa had used Clarke as an impact substitute, more often than not to turn games in which Leeds were trailing or struggling to click. His introduction usually worked. Clarke has played the equivalent of five full matches - 443 minutes in the Championship - and registered two goals and two assists. On Friday he produced as many key passes as the ever-resourceful Pablo Hernandez.
Jack Harrison, who sealed a 2-0 victory with Leeds’ second goal after half-time, said Clarke’s confidence was limitless.
“He's a brilliant young player and he only gets better every time he plays,” the on-loan Manchester City winger said. “He gets more and more confident and that's massive as a player. It’s almost as if nothing can stop him.”
Manchester City were vying to pinch Clarke from Thorp Arch before the teenager signed his first professional contract in 2017 and Leeds have not moved yet to improve his deal. As the country fixated on ‘Spygate’, there were plenty of other people more taken with the fearless winger who left Lowe needing a map and compass to find his bearings. United have known for a while that they have a big talent on their hands. Friday night left no doubt.