EXCLUSIVE: Dave Clarke has scored 124 goals for England and can bend it with Becks
David Clarke has scored 124 goals in 131 appearances for England, won five European Golden Boots and played alongside David Beckham. Why might you not have heard of him Because David Clarke is blind.
At 41, Clarke has become a legend of blind football, representing his country across the world in the five-a-side format, scoring goals for fun.
But, with London 2012 fast approaching, there is one final fling on the cards before he hangs up his boots.
That is why he and his guide dog, Ned, were photographed for Sportsmail as part of the class of 2012 and why he spent a day teaching Beckham what it is like to be a blind footballer.
Blind ambition: David Clarke in his Olympic tracksuit
HOW FIVE-A-SIDE BLIND FOOTBALL WORKS
Keepers are fully sighted.
The balls have ballbearings in them.
Each team have a guide behind the goal, restricted to a metre either side of the posts and two metres behind the goal line.
The guides are allowed to coach only in their own third of the pitch.
The middle third is coached by the overall team coach. This split is to avoid too many voices shouting at once.
There’s rolling substitutes with a squad of 10.
‘I was asked by the FA if I was available for certain dates but was then kept very much in the dark — excuse the pun — until the very last minute,’ Clarke, a senior partner at Clydesdale Bank, tells me as we meet at his office in St Albans.
‘We had fun. He is absolutely, genuinely normal and decent. I spent about three hours with him, of which an hour was spent just the two of us chatting. If I was as famous as he is, I’m not sure I’d be as level-headed. He is a genuine football person, loves the banter and loves to talk about the game.
‘We’ve both got kids, so we talked about that, too. He was interested in blind football, too, and seemed a little in awe of it.’
Watch blind football at the highest level and you’d be in awe of it, too — the skills are still dazzling and the finishing lethal. ‘The key to it all is spatial awareness,’ says Clarke, who navigates himself around his office easily without a cane or dog. ‘I can tell the size of a room just by listening. We have a 40m x 20m pitch with boards down the side so you’re using the sound of the boards to gauge where you are.
‘There is also a guide behind each goal and their job is to tell you how far away you are from the goal and, more importantly, to give you technical information about defender and goalkeeper positions. It’s not good enough to know where the goal is — you have to aim for the corner because the goals are small and the keepers are fully sighted and very good.’
Star attraction: Clarke showed former England captain David Beckham how to play blind football
Clarke was born in Wigan but spent the early part of his life travelling back and forth to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London to try to restrict the damage caused by congenital glaucoma. He could see colours at first but his sight gradually disappeared completely, meaning he went to specialist blind schools. Not that his parents treated him any differently because of his disability.
‘My parents didn’t pour my cornflakes for me because they knew at some point I’d have to do it myself,’ adds Clarke, a Liverpool fan but a Wigan season ticket holder. ‘At school we had to do our own ironing and washing from 14 and I lived in a flat at 16.
We were often more independent than the guys who could see. One blind guy from my school fixed a washing machine for a fully sighted friend.’
Independent: Clarke learnt to live with his disability from an early age
Not that there were never moments when life was difficult. ‘I used to come home from school and run upstairs and all over the place, jumping on top of my mum and dad’s bed. But one time when I was nine I sprinted up and went to jump on their bed but they hadn’t told me they had switched the room round so I landed on the dressing table.
You’ve got to laugh. So it’s nice if things stay where they are but life doesn’t always work like that.
‘I have a very strong belief in specialist education because, from a sporting perspective, I was playing against people on a similar playing field to me. So leaving that for sixth form or university is the right time as kids can be quite cruel before that.’
Clarke did move on, going to university in Manchester, doing a Masters in Lancaster and then joining Clydesdale. But it was only in 1994 that blind football took off in the UK. Until then, Clarke just played for fun with friends.
‘I was born to two Scousers so you don’t get much choice about football — you either love it or leave. I was kicking a ball on the driveway for as long as I can remember.
The ball will ring: Clarke describes the introduction of ballbearings as a “revelation”
When I went to secondary school and they had balls with ballbearings in them so I could hear it, it was a revelation. I played all the time but went off the boil a bit at university because there wasn’t yet a standardised version of the game.
‘Everyone had different balls, different rules, different numbers. Then around 1994, they started selecting an English team for the first time.
‘The sport then built up and up and, in 2000, the FA got involved for the first time and realised they had to make a commitment to disability football. It became a paralympic sport in 2004. The big shame is that I was formally coached to play football only at 25 years old. But now the same pathway is available for blind kids as my kids.’
Equally frustrating was the Specsavers advert, where one blind player accidentally kicks a cat instead of the ball, something Clarke feels gave completely the wrong impression of his sport. ‘I didn’t like it,’ he says, his cheerful tone becoming more serious for the first time in the interview.
Ready: Clarke is looking forward to the start of the Paralympic Games next year
‘I didn’t think it was appropriate. It didn’t do our sport any good at all — it made it look a shambles. I suppose the one thing it did do was make people aware that blind people do play football. But when I went to football matches and it came on the big screen at half-time, I cringed. So much work has gone in to London 2012 on our side and that advert didn’t help.’
Clarke goes to football a lot — he was at Wigan’s match against his beloved Liverpool last week — using the sway of the crowd to follow what is happening. But it is the Olympic Park hockey centre rather than Anfield or the DW Stadium that will be his main focus in 2012 as he prepares to defy the odds and win a medal for Britain in the five-a-side tournament.
‘I’ll be staying in the village. I scored four goals in the last Paralympics, including one that won us fifth place. We believe we can win gold. It’s full of talent but teams we can beat. It’s about how well we want to do it. You have to believe it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be going.’
In the stands: Clarke was at the DW Stadium for Wigan”s goalless draw against Liverpool
Then two days after the September 9 final, Clarke turns 42. He’ll hang up his boots, spend some quality time at last with his wife and two children and do some coaching on the side. He’ll probably have another Golden Boot to put on display, too.
Dave Clarke is a senior partner working across Clydesdale Bank’s Hertfordshire Financial Solutions Centres.