PFA chairman and Football League defender of 15 years Clarke Carlisle is often called upon to display the numerous facets of his persona as a prominent name in the English game, and when discussing all things music and football there was one of his ex-colleagues who came up more than most.
The 32-year-old centre-back has represented Watford and Burnley in the Premier League amongst his eight clubs and he is close to joining a new side for the coming season. He has also garnered attention over the years for such achievements not typically associated with the stereotype of the footballer – this includes appearing on BBC’s Question Time and Channel 4’s Countdown as well as earning the title of ‘Britain’s Brainiest Footballer’ alongside his considerable academic achievements. His story has not been without its hugely significant obstacles but he is now a role model as the Professional Footballers’ Association chairman and tackling an ever-relevant issue with his BBC Three documentary ‘Is Football Racist?’ has also won him praise.
Myself and Clarke kicked off our chat by talking about his own love of music, and it has gone through some inevitable transitional periods over the years!
“I’ve got an eclectic taste in music, there’s not any one artist I’ve followed more than any other but my music’s certainly changed since meeting my wife for instance. I’m a big fan of the old school drum and bass like LTJ Bukem and I’m very much into hip-hop and r&b, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, and ‘Encore’ of his is one of my favourites of all-time.
“Lauryn Hill’s album ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ is one where you don’t skip a track it’s that good. (Radiohead singer/songwriter) Thom Yorke’s ‘(The) Eraser’ is another one I really do like.’’
Clarke’s father Mervin was a semi-professional footballer himself and the family on his side is of Dominican heritage so did that influence the music Clarke would tend to hear growing up?
“Definitely, Dad is really into his music and he’d always have a bit of reggae on. It didn’t really influence me as much as the music my school friends would listen to though.
“I’d listen to a lot of dance and things like happy hardcore, DJ Sy, and the Bonkers compilations! When I was about 15 I got into jungle music through my brother and then some of the heavier old school hip-hop like The Pharcyde.’’
With the level of interest he has had for differing genres I wondered if Clarke was a regular attendee at gigs or festivals, and I was a little bit surprised at the first part of his response, though he did make up for it somewhat as he explained further.
“Do you know I’ve never actually been to a music festival? My wife is really into her music though and she took me to my first concert which was Ludacris in Brixton, then I think we saw The Black Eyed Peas.
“We’ve been to a few good ones – Eminem at Milton Keynes Bowl was another. Nas and Damian Marley in Manchester was one I saw quite recently and loved.’’
Fifteen years of teammates at professional level means a large pool of players to choose from for Clarke on the subject of the most interesting sound choices he has come across, and the man referred to in the introduction gets the first of his numerous mentions here.
“Chris Eagles was quite surprising – he’s really into his Portuguese / South American kind of music, it’s really good actually. He’s quite a dominant one for changing room music and so is Lee Grant, he does a bit of DJing too.
“Gareth Ainsworth has to be the one though, we called him ‘Wild Thing’ and he’s done tours with his band in Scandinavia so he’s certainly the most memorable.’’
Clarke then described the spotlight that falls upon you if you elect to treat the team to your own iPod selection in the dressing room, with the aforementioned fleet-footed winger swiftly coming up in conversation once more.
“I have (played my music) yeah, but in that situation you feel like everyone’s judging you! I generally left it to other players because I’m not sure my choice of some deep and heavy mix with opera like Carmen thrown in is what they want to hear!
“When Chris Eagles dominated he got so offended if anyone didn’t like the stuff he played, like he couldn’t understand the idea of someone not liking his music, he seemed to really take it to heart!’’
There may not have been any of Clarke’s managers so far that have stepped in with regard to the playlist on matchdays but a couple of the assistant bosses did have their say, as well as his Watford gaffer getting involved outside of work hours!
“There haven’t been any managers who’ve interfered with the music but Sam Ellis at Leeds and Keith Burkinshaw at Watford voiced their opinions on it asking ‘what the hell is this?’! Aidy Boothroyd took the most interest and at the Christmas parties he took the chance to play some of his power ballads!’’
With the conversation moving on to the subject of singing in front of teammates Clarke spoke of his tried and trusted track of choice, as well as the most memorable performance of any of his colleagues, and a familiar name came up once more!
“I have done it and I go with the same song every time – Bob Marley ‘Three Little Birds’. It’s very simple and because of that everyone starts to join in, so that’s the trick you see?
“The most memorable was Chris Eagles again! He did it at Watford but he started and then absolutely froze, so when his turn came around again at Burnley he outright refused!’’
On the field, Clarke’s career started back in September 1997 as he played for Blackpool in a 4-3 win at Wrexham in what was then Division Two (now League One). He has witnessed firsthand plenty of changes in the game since he started out which he described before looking back over the best memories of his stay at Blackpool which ended in 2000 when he was signed by QPR, sadly after relegation for the Seasiders.
“The biggest changes since I started are definitely in the context of the general lifestyle of players, the professionalism has gone through the roof. Gone are the days when everyone goes out every single Tuesday or Saturday after a game, or when you could get away with a steak and kidney pie!
“If you want to be successful then you have to be committed 24/7, the temperamental players aren’t really tolerated as much now it seems and the focus is on you not only in every game but in every training session too. Players are more conscious about their diets and it’s thoroughly more professional so that is the biggest change.
“My best memories of Blackpool, well when I signed my first professional contract was huge because I didn’t really believe I could be a professional footballer up until then. I remember my first ever goal, at home to Carlisle – a diving header at the back post in the 91st minute to win the game (a 2-1 victory in September 1997).’’
As referenced at the beginning of the article, Clarke’s academic achievements are often alluded to and he also has a degree in Professional Sports Writing and Broadcasting to his name. As a teenager in the mid-90s, the time came when he had the choice of giving football a go professionally or focusing solely on education, and though in hindsight he has managed to combine the two, his parents were always fully supportive of his decision.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision, I always believed I could go back to education but football was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I thought if I didn’t go for it I’d always regret it. My teachers always tried to steer me down the educational route but I didn’t want to live my life wondering, I didn’t want to be that man in the pub saying how he could have made it.’’
The year 2000 brought appearances for the England Under-21 team before the Preston-born defender’s four years with QPR that saw relegation, injuries, adversity and a promotion to finish his stay at Loftus Road in 2004. As a Sheffield Wednesday supporter I was at Hillsborough as a 14-year-old on the day Clarke won promotion to the second tier with Ian Holloway’s side as they beat Wednesday 3-1. I mentioned that moment to him but there was something else regarding his memories of playing against Wednesday over the years I wanted to ask him about. While at Watford in November 2005 he scored in a 2-1 win against us at Vicarage Road, but his goal had more than a hint of Diego Maradona about it!
“Oh I do remember that! It just happened, I didn’t go to punch it deliberately, it just came off my hand and the ref didn’t penalise me so I thought I might as well take it, my goals are few and far between so I had to!
“I remember the whole of the away end booing me for the rest of the game after that!’’
Before his move to Watford in 2005 he had spent a year at fellow Championship club Leeds United, but his move to the Hornets brought an unprecedented promotion to the Premier League in his first season at the club. That success under rookie manager Aidy Boothroyd was something I talked about with Clarke’s former teammate from that side, USA international defender Jay DeMerit, and it gave Clarke his first taste of the top flight the season after. I asked him if there was one moment in particular in which the true reality of the fact he was in the Premier League really hit him. He would later win promotion to the division with Burnley in 2009 and he interlinks his time at both clubs for giving him two specific memories that fit the criteria of my question.
“It was our home debut with Burnley against Manchester United when we beat them. It’s never more real than when you see Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney strolling down the tunnel at your ground and to beat who were then the current champions as well is my lasting memory.
“There was a moment with Watford, I’d been injured for seven months and been out on loan at Luton and I’d been thinking I might not get my chance in the Premier League. I played at home against Portsmouth and (Lomana) Lua Lua had the ball on the halfway line and turned blind, I came steaming through with a Norman Hunter challenge and cleaned him out!
“That for me was a defining moment. I got taken off towards the end and it gave me the opportunity to receive a huge ovation from our fans for it.’’
Having joined up with Championship Burnley in August 2007 following Watford’s relegation, Clarke won promotion with the Clarets two years later, making over 150 appearances with 9 goals and a starring role in the play-off final victory over Sheffield United at Wembley in May 2009. After a second taste of Premier League football he spent one more year at Turf Moor before a move to hometown club Preston in July 2011. Preston suffered relegation to League One but Clarke made a loan switch to Northampton Town for the final few months of last season, helping his old manager Aidy Boothroyd’s team to survival in League Two. He left Preston this summer but he says fresh developments on his future will be announced soon.
“I’ve been in discussions with half a dozen clubs, I’ve spent a long time making a decision because there are things to consider geographically with my wife starting a business and my kids starting school. I want to play as high as I can and for a successful club but also continue with my union responsibilities.’’
In the latter part of 2010 Clarke stepped into the role of PFA chairman and he admits that the level of the tasks involved exceed that of his original expectations.
“It’s a lot more work than I anticipated, I thought it would be more of a figurehead role where I’d be called upon for quotes and questions but the politics in football go so deep. The FA really has its finger in a lot of pies and it’s so far reaching with all the grass roots levels for example.
“There are a lot of social responsibilities and it takes up a lot of time but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.’’
Last month Clarke’s documentary ‘Is Football Racist?’ aired on BBC Three as he looked at such issues as the lack of Asian players and black managers in the English game while also delving into the main issue. In the programme he is shown witnessing racist chanting at a game in Poland, as well as hearing about the abuse his father experienced as a semi-professional and stories from the likes of current Premier League player Jermaine Jenas, ex-England internationals John Barnes and Stan Collymore and comedian David Baddiel amongst many others. The audience reaction was largely positive and there are plans for other projects in the pipeline.
“Off the back of the documentary it will be shown on BBC One this Thursday (16th August) and there are ideas about some films that can be made. I’m really enjoying my media and studio work I’ve done with Sky and ITV and hopefully there can be some different documentaries because I’ve had such an energy and buzz from it.’’
Clarke remains committed to all his endeavours off the pitch and his standing within the domestic game is certainly high at present so is there a particular objective he would like to achieve above all else as a result of this?
“There are so many charities in football but it’s very individualised, there are loads of players setting up within the same market. I have this notion that if we work together so much more can be achieved so I’d like to see some kind of unified approach in that sense.’’
A man you will hopefully continue to see and hear a lot from over the coming years, Clarke concluded his discussion with me by answering one of my regular questions, regarding the 5-a-side team he would choose comprising of the best players he has so far worked with in his career.
“Ben Foster in goal – a fantastic keeper and I can’t believe he decided to retire from international football, I think it was a crazy decision and I hope he changes his mind. Danny Shittu at the back – a colossus with such pace and power and I think we complimented each other well because he swept up all my mistakes with his pace and I’d like to think I swept up all of his with my nous.
“Jack Cork in midfield – he was outstanding at Burnley and I think he’ll have a phenomenal career. I’ve got to put Chris Eagles in there – he could do things with the ball I could only dream of and I still don’t think he’s reached his potential even now.
“Lastly, up front would be Peter Crouch – a fantastic player who I think still hasn’t got the credit he’s deserved for how good he’s been.’’