Turning professional at Arsenal under George Graham and then Arsene Wenger would be a dream scenario for many, but that's exactly how football started for Adrian Clarke. Now a successful podcast host, Adam Bate caught up with Adrian.
You grew up in the Arsenal youth ranks at a time when they were winning football league titles. That must have been quite a footballing education?
I couldn’t have wished for a better place to learn the game. Being on Arsenal’s books from the age of 11 until I was 22, there were so many players I could look up to and try and emulate. As a winger the two wide men I watched closer than most were David Rocastle and Anders Limpar. They were both outstanding creative players and when I eventually got the chance to train and play alongside them it was an incredible buzz.
At that time you were also involved with the England U18s and one David Beckham. Be honest, could you have possibly imagined the fame that would come his way?
At 17 I could see he was good enough to play for Manchester United. His technique even then was a cut above most players in my age group and he had an air of confidence that set him apart. It was a different story three or four years earlier though when despite his skill he was tiny and easily knocked off the ball. At that stage I would have had serious doubts that he’d make it as a professional but all he needed to do was grow. I’m genuinely pleased for Becks that he enjoyed such a brilliant career. He is a really nice lad.
As you were breaking through, there were some huge characters in that Arsenal dressing room – Tony Adams, Ian Wright, Paul Merson - was it like the Wild West in there?!
The Arsenal dressing room at that time certainly didn’t lack passion that’s for sure! These were top players with big personalities and that ensured every training session was feisty and you couldn’t drop your standards for a second without someone coming down on you, urging you to up your game. As a youngster it could be intimidating at times because those guys wouldn’t hold back if they thought you did something wrong but in the same breath they were brilliant team mates who made me feel welcome and part of things. I saw many rows and even a few tear ups but those guys cared about each other and they cared about winning. I wish the current Arsenal side had more characters like them.
You got your chance to play for the first team in the 1994-95 season – and you were man of the match on full debut against QPR the following season. One of the best days of your life?
My full debut on Boxing Day 1995 was unbelievable. I only found out I was playing when I walked into the dressing room and saw the team sheet 90 minutes before kick-off but the whole day went like a dream. We won 3-0 and it was one of those games where everything seemed to come off for me. I got man of the match in many quarters, I felt on top of the world. In the shower afterwards I remember Martin Keown looking me in the eye and saying ‘you’ve just taken the best right back in the league (David Bardsley) to the cleaners’ and I had. On the way home I heard David Platt telling Five Live I was a really good prospect too. I just wish I could have had many more matches in the first team that were as good as that one.
It was an incredibly turbulent time off the field though – George Graham & Paul Merson both caught up in scandals. Was that something you were aware of – that the club was in transition or was it just a case of getting your head down?
As a kid at the time I tried to get my head down and ignore the drama but it was impossible. I was involved in the first team when George Graham stepped down and when Tony Adams and Paul Merson revealed their addiction problems too. It was like we had a crisis meeting on the benches outside the London Colney changing rooms every other week! That side was reaching a turning point for sure but at the time we all just had a laugh and tried to see the funny side, as most football dressing rooms tend to do when there is a drama.
Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt arrived in 1995 but it was 1996 that really changed the club with the appointment of Arsene Wenger. Did change happen overnight? Training etc?
Playing with Bergkamp was a pleasure. He was by far the best player I ever played alongside. A class act. In terms of Wenger’s arrival, his impact was dramatic. Training sessions were completely different, with stretching and strength work at the forefront alongside carefully planned technical sessions. I enjoyed training with Wenger but sadly for me he cut the numbers he wanted to work with and that meant I spent more time training with the reserves after he joined. The vitamin and creatine supplements also had a huge effect with those players on the program becoming much fitter and stronger within weeks. Unluckily for me I was left off the list of players that he wanted to work with each day, and that was a disappointment.
Did you get a look in at all? Must have been difficult?
Pre-Wenger I’d trained with the first team most days for two seasons and I’d developed well but it quickly became apparent I wasn’t part of the new manager’s plans and that did hurt me. My mistake was allowing that blow to affect my confidence and self-belief. After two months of training with the reserves and playing quite poorly as I was so low on morale, I went to see him and he admitted he hadn’t even been aware I’d played in the first team before his arrival. That angered me to some extent but before I had chance to channel that energy I was loaned out to Rotherham United and then Southend United. In truth, I wasn’t quite good enough to stay. As soon as they signed Marc Overmars I couldn’t really have too many grumbles!
And so you joined Southend. Presumably this is when you became Iain Macintosh’s hero?!
Far from it in fact! A few years back when I worked for football website Icons.com my boss was arranging to interview a Southend fan and on the phone he asked the interviewee (Macca) what he thought of a former player called Adrian Clarke. His answer was ‘Well, he started off OK but then completely faded really. Not a lot else to say.” My boss then told him I’d be sitting in on his interview later that week – much to Macca’s horror! He shamelessly backtracked when we met in person but I forgave him and recommended him for the job. A year later we were flat mates!
Speaking of Macca. We let him know we were having a word with you and he's provided a guest question of his own. Here goes... Macca: "Have you ever accidentally locked yourself in a bathroom and, if you have, what was your exit strategy?"
Arggh, The Bathroom Incident, eh?! Macca knows full well that my domestic common sense isn’t all it should be and yes, I did once get ‘trapped’ in our bathroom. A very small bathroom it has to be said. My exit strategy was to scream for help, and then once all other options had been explored I demanded that Macca smashed the door in with anything he could lay his hands on. Rather stupidly he grabbed his acoustic guitar! I escaped unharmed but the guitar wasn’t quite so fortunate.
Anyway! Moves to Stevenage and Margate followed – was injury a factor because you’re younger than Ryan Giggs?!
No, it wasn’t down to injury. I should and possibly could have had a much longer career in the Football League but at 26 I decided I didn’t want to be a journeyman footballer going from one small club to the next on low wages. I wanted to become a journalist while also playing non-league football in the Conference instead. I did that for the next six or seven years and I have to say it gave me some of the best times I had in football.
Gordon Taylor and PFA always talk about short careers but fans sometimes forget that. Do you look at former colleagues making serious money and think that could be me?
I try not to! There is no point in looking back enviously and wishing you’d done things differently but I have tried to learn from my mistakes. My biggest error was taking my place for granted at Arsenal. Up until Arsene Wenger’s arrival I’d always felt loved and appreciated by all the staff and mistakenly I had become complacent. If I’d worked that little bit harder, been that little bit more single minded and added a little bit more selfishness to my game I feel I’d have enjoyed a more lucrative career but it wasn’t to be. I had the talent to be a success but mentally I wasn’t quite as tough as some of my contemporaries.
But you’ve forged a new career as a journalist. How did you get into that? Best way of using your contacts?
When I joined Stevenage I needed a job, and my dream was to be a sports writer. I took on a role as junior news reporter with the Southend Evening Echo (on the back of two months’ voluntary work experience) and during the next ten months I learned an incredible amount about journalism. From there I joined Icons, and that’s where the next phase of my career really began to take off. During my time there I interviewed some of football’s biggest names and wrote for some of the world’s best publications. Nowadays, while running my own business Sport Media Solutions with Iain Spragg, I’ve carried that on and I’m loving it.
And your old gaffer at Arsenal is still in charge...
Yes, Arsene Wenger is still there and you have to admire what he’s done for the club. He’s been the greatest manager in the history of Arsenal and I love the football he plays. That said I wish he would spend more money on the team!
So what does your typical week involve these days?
Running SMS is hard work but also very exciting. Along with our team of freelancers we provide content for some fantastic clients in the UK and overseas. A typical week involves plenty of writing, a few interviews, some commercial work and of course the meticulous planning and execution of the Red White & Blue podcast!
The Red White and Blue podcast with Spraggy and Macca has been a success – you guys sound like you have fun recording it!
We love it. We’re all good friends and I hope that comes across in the show. It’s a pity Macca lives in the north east as I’m sure it would be even better if we were all in the same studio but all things considered we are very proud of what we produce. We’re starting from scratch under the Red White & Blue banner and hoping to find all our old Three Up Front listeners. The early signs are very exciting. The feedback we’re getting is great, so fingers crossed we can take the show forward and make it one of the biggest and best known football podcasts around.
What was the reason behind the split from Soccerlens?
I’d rather not go into the details but it was always our plan to go solo eventually and make it an independently run show. We have lots of ideas and the best way to implement them is to own the whole thing. We are still good friends with Soccerlens and wish them well for the future but it’s onwards and upwards now on www.redwhiteandblue.tv
And you're on Twitter now promoting the new site. Do you enjoy social media or can it be a bit of a chore (long interviews like this for example!)?
I enjoy it. I don’t have a lot of time to devote to tweeting but when I do go online I find it’s rather addictive! It’s a great way to spread the word for Red White & Blue – I just hope people don’t get sick of me plugging it. With the blogs we produce now too, we’re aiming to make the website a place that football fans regularly visit from now on, and not just for the podcast.
So what are the long-term goals now? Plans for the future?
I genuinely don’t know what the future holds. Here at SMS we’re looking to grow the business and attract bigger clients year on year, individually I am hoping to do more and more broadcast work and as far as Red White & Blue is concerned I hope the world is our oyster. As long as we’re producing a quality show I think the rewards will come. Sponsors for the show would be nice, as would being asked to do our own radio show but let’s not run before we can walk. For the moment all we want to do is entertain as many people as we can with our knockabout football chat!