The 26-year-old centre-back proved decidedly error-prone during his time at Aston Villa, but the form he showcased two seasons ago offers reason for optimism.
Newcastle United officially completed their latest defensive signing of the summer on Wednesday afternoon, luring Ciaran Clark away from fellow Championship new boys Aston Villa after reportedly activating a £5 million release clause in his contract.
The 26-year-old centre-back, who has penned a five-year deal with the Magpies, played 159 times for his boyhood club after rising through their youth ranks to make his professional debut in August 2009, but it’s fair to say that he never really reached the heights expected.
After a promising first full season with the senior squad under Gerard Houllier’s tutelage during the 2010-11 campaign, the Republic of Ireland international’s performances over the subsequent years were mostly filled with inconsistency and costly mistakes as Villa regularly battled relegation.
He was certainly capable of producing the odd outstanding display, but there were also frequently occasions when he would ruin an otherwise faultless showing with a horrendous, goal-gifting howler.
His commitment and work ethic were never once questioned throughout his time in B6, but his error-prone ways meant few members of the claret and blue faithful ever really saw him as indispensable.
|Premier League 2015-16||Team||Goals||Total Tackles GAME||Tackle Accuracy||Total Clearances GAME||Headers Won GAME||Header Success||Interceptions GAME||Passing Accuracy||Appearances||Mins Played|
|Ciaran Clark||Aston Villa||1||1.33||75%||7.06||2.78||62.5%||2.61||76%||18||1,442|
For any Newcastle fans concerned about how Clark may fare on Tyneside, though, after reading some of the more critical assessments of his Villa career, his form over the second half of the 2014-15 season offers an obvious sign for optimism.
After spending the first few months of the campaign as the team’s fourth-choice centre-back behind Ron Vlaar, Philippe Senderos and Nathan Baker, the London-born stopper landed a spot in the line-up just before the festive period due to a spate of injuries and never looked back from there, building on an impressive performance in a 1-1 draw with Southampton to start all but two of the next 26 games.
Earning rave reviews in the process, he was even being touted as the favourite for the club’s player of the year award heading into the run-in, but a season-ending knee injury suffered in a 1-0 victory at Tottenham Hotspur ultimately put paid to his chances of winning.
Still, after making a speedy recovery and subsequently earning a new five-year contract, there was plenty of positivity going into last term. The academy graduate finally seemed to have cut out the mental errors that had previously held him back and was considered a key building block to take Tim Sherwood’s men forward into a bright new era.
He was also in the running to earn the captain’s armband following the departures of Vlaar and Delph – losing out in the end to Micah Richards – and had pushed his way back in contention to start for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland after being told nine months earlier by his former Villa boss that his place in the squad was under threat without regular playing time.
The feel-good factor didn't last long, though. After a testing start to the season, Clark soon lost his place to new signing Joleon Lescott and spent the rest of the campaign switching in and out of the side as Villa went on to finish rock bottom of the top-flight with just 17 points.
He still managed to produce some positive displays here and there, including in May’s 0-0 home draw with Newcastle that effectively sent Rafa Benitez’s men down, but the defender's form of the previous term had largely become a distant memory by that point.
Ireland’s Euro 2016 campaign offered a timely opportunity to put a difficult season behind him, but after scoring an own goal in the opening 1-1 draw with Sweden and an awful performance in the subsequent 3-0 loss to Belgium, he spent the rest of their tournament confined to the bench.
New Villa boss Roberto Di Matteo had stated his intent to keep the 6ft 2in centre-half at the club shortly before his departure, but with Tommy Elphick, Jores Okore, Richards, Lescott, Nathan Baker and the promising Kevin Toner all battling for playing time, first-team minutes would have been far from guaranteed under the Italian.
Nevertheless, while Villa may not immediately suffer from Clark’s departure given their current depth at centre-back, there’s certainly a chance that they could come to rue his departure in time. Despite his recent struggles, the ex-England Under-20 international has shown the ability to be a dominant top-flight defender on his day and should thrive with the opportunity to play regularly against second-tier opposition. Any lasting success will obviously depend on whether he can overcome the inconsistencies that plagued his claret and blue career, but it would be wrong to assume that he was a signing merely made to help with Newcastle’s promotion push rather than one who could make a long-term impact.
Never especially comfortable at left-back or holding midfield when played at either position in the past, problems may arise if Benitez opts to move him around the line-up as some have suggested could be an option, but he will undoubtedly add value to an already strong group of central defenders that includes Grant Hanley, Jamaal Lascelles and Chancel Mbemba.
Ultimately, if he manages to recapture the form he showcased only 18 months ago, the £5 million transfer fee will look like a relative bargain.