The 72 Interview #2: Lee Clark
After last week’s chat with Rotherham United’s Ronnie Moore, it is time for The 72’s second interview with a Football League boss. This time, Mike Holden speaks to Huddersfield Town manager Lee Clark about life at the Galpharm and his thoughts about the season ahead. Just don’t mention the budget…
For the second successive summer, you’ve conducted most of your transfer business early…
I think it’s important you try to integrate as many of your new players as you possibly can into your training methods and that’s starting with the first day of pre-season. Obviously you need a huge amount of support from your chairman and board of directors and for the second summer that’s been the case.
You also seem to place great emphasis in continuity of team selection. For example, seven players started at least 38 league games last season. Is it difficult keeping fringe players happy?
Yes, it does make it difficult because we had a successful season and when the team’s doing well, you don’t want to change the players. But that’s my job to look after players who aren’t totally happy, by making sure they’re still working in a good environment.
When they do get the chance, they understand they can stay in the team themselves. It’s purely down to them. If they perform, they stay in the side. If they don’t, then I can make a change. It’s as simple as that.
How would you sum up your efforts last season. Did the team meet your own hopes and expectations?
We made massive strides. We played some terrific attacking football, scoring over 100 goals in all competitions. We got down to the final stage when we came up against a very strong and powerful Millwall team in the play-offs and then we just lacked that little bit of experience that might have helped us along. So we made massive progress, but we know that we need to continue that and better that, which means reaching the play-off final as a bare minimum. But hopefully we can go one step further than that and be one of the three teams celebrating come the end of the season.
You’ve now brought in a few slightly older heads, particularly in defence and midfield. Is that primarily a reaction to what you’ve learned from the Millwall defeat?
Well, you say that but [Jamie] McCombe is only 27 and has got his best years ahead of him, [Gary] Naysmith is only 30 and he’s still got great desire to go with his 46 caps for Scotland. So yes, they’ve got lots of experience, particularly at a higher level, but they’ve still got lots ahead of them in the game. You could say similar things about Joey Gudjonsson and Lee Croft, who’s looking to reignite his career. All in all, there’s experience been added but they’ve still got legs in them.
You’ve built a very attacking team at the Galpharm. Will you be looking to compromise anything this season?
No, not at all. My beliefs have not changed. I want us to improve defensively. In terms of goals conceded, we were up there with the top six or eight clubs in the league but I want us to be the best at everything. If you look to top the charts in every aspect of your play, then you’re going to be in with a good chance of achieving your goals.
Are you happy with the contribution of your four young strikers to date? How much do you think they will have benefitted from the experience of last season?
Yes, very happy. Three of the four (Lee Novak, Theo Robinson and Jordan Rhodes) scored more than 50 goals between them. Our other striker Robbie Simpson had a really bad season, to be fair. It was stop-start from one injury to the next for him. He was the only player that really suffered any soft tissue injuries for us.
But yes, by and large, they will be better for the experience of last season. They’re all willing to listen and willing to learn. If they continue in that vein, they can repeat the feat, no problem, especially with the number of chances we create.
It’s interesting you touch upon injuries because it comes back to that continuity factor. Are you proud of your record for avoiding injuries or do you think you have to be lucky to an extent?
We’re very proud. For my performance director Steve Black, it’s the biggest thing in his life. He doesn’t entertain injuries, certainly not soft tissue injuries. We’re in a contact sport, so some players might pick up injuries through impact and that’s something we can do nothing about, so luck in that area does help. But we never had more than three players on the treatment table at any one stage last season and that enables me to more or less pick the same team week in, week out.
So would you say that most soft tissue injuries are psychological?
No, I’d say all about getting the right person to do your fitness work and base work. I also think it has a lot to do with training how you play. If you train with the same intensity that you play, then the body’s not being tested in a way it’s not used to.
My players train to the same intensity with which they play but it might not always be for the same period of time, so some sessions might only be for an hour, some might be even less, some might be for an hour-and-half, but it’s always at match tempo. If you do that, then you’re not putting your body under undue pressure when it comes to playing matches.
Your results improved away from home in the second half of the campaign. Why was this the case?
It was all down to confidence. One you pick up a couple of wins, players start believing in themselves a bit more. In the first half of the season, we went to Norwich and more than matched them for an hour. Before that, we went to Charlton and were absolutely fantastic for the full game but got done by a dodgy refereeing decision.
The lads knew they weren’t a million miles away, we just had to get a little bit of luck and start being a bit tougher and more certain of ourselves. Sometimes away from home you have to approach the games a little bit differently in the psychological sense but in our case we got the results and our confidence grew.
A lot of big clubs have dropped into this division in recent years and it seems to be creating a two-tier effect with big gap between the top six or seven and the rest. Would you say there’s an obvious gulf in quality yourself?
No, no, no… not in the slightest. This league is tough from top to bottom. Every team gives as good as they get. There’s no easy matches and there’s some very difficult places to go and play football. There’s a lot of good footballing teams and I would never be as disrespectful as to say it’s two-tiered.
Well, OK, let me rephrase, perhaps some teams enjoy a significant advantage in terms of budget that perhaps makes a difference…?
What is my budget? Do you know my budget? Put it this way, my club probably finished higher in the table than what my budget was last season. The five teams that finished above us all had a higher budget — and that’s a fact. I don’t care how the media report it in terms of what we spent on players because I’ve seen some of the figures reported and they’re miles out.
I wasn’t specifically talking about Huddersfield, more clubs like Leeds and Charlton who have come down from the Championship with big debts but still seem to be paying big money compared to the rest of the division…
That’s not for me to comment on. Whatever Leeds have done, they’ve reaped the benefits because they’re in the Championship and the snowball effect might work for them now. They will be looking to push on again I would have thought. Whatever their budget was, it’s been justified because they’ve achieved what they wanted to do. That’s their call and it’s none of my business.
I’m manager of Huddersfield, I get given my budget by the board of directors and we try and achieve our goals with that. But, listen, people are getting obsessed about budgets. It’s not about budgets, it’s about getting the job done.
The bookmakers seem to think Southampton are nailed-on for the title, with Sheffield Wednesday and yourselves not too far behind. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Southampton had a terrific second half to last season. They’re a club with Premier League history, so they’re obviously the team that everybody’s going to be looking to chase and compete with. As I’ve said, we want to compete and improve on what we did last year and be one of the three teams that gets out of the league.
Talking of Southampton’s run, it was you they were hunting down for most of it. Presumably, you learned plenty about the mental strength of your players in fending off that challenge?
I’ve learned a lot about my players in the time that I’ve been here but the biggest thing is that I’m happy with them as a group. They work extremely hard, every day, and whatever the result on a Saturday, I can always say they give everything they can.
Where else do you see a genuine threat coming from? Do you see any dark horses among the pack, teams who perhaps aren’t being talked about much in the build up?
I’m sure there will be dark horses, but I don’t really know who. This time last year, not many people would have mentioned Swindon Town. They had a magnificent season, getting to the play-off final and I’m sure there could be a similar story this time around.
Hey, every club that starts the season on August 7 will be ready. They will all be aiming for a place in that top six, and rightly so.