BY ADRIAN CLARKE / @sms_adrian
As fun as it was warming up to the near constant sound of various Scouse scallywags hilariously screaming “Who the f*** are you, you Cockney b*****d?!” from behind me, all I truly wanted to hear was the sound of a shrill Bruce Rioch whistle fizzing down the Anfield touchline to signal that he was ready to let me enter the fray.
The date was December 23rd 1995 and it was a dark, drizzly afternoon that had seen us come in at half-time level pegging thanks to goals from Ian Wright and Robbie Fowler. The man I was most likely to replace for what would have been my third substitute appearance (QPR at home, and Southampton away had been my previous cameos) was the enigmatic winger Glenn Helder. On his day, the drumming Dutchman could twist any full-back into knots with his fleet-footed trickery but – conveniently for me - this wasn’t his day. Rob Jones had him in his pocket and the gaffer wasn’t happy with him. Not happy at all.
With just three subs in those days my chances of getting a game appeared to be improving the longer the match went on. My nemesis Helder continued to infuriate the bench as Liverpool inspired by Barnes, McManaman, Collymore and Fowler threatened to run riot. In an often-used tactic shamelessly aimed at showing my enthusiasm to the manager, I took myself off for another warm-up and during my absence Fowler – a former England Under-18 team mate of mine – bagged two further goals to claim his second hat-trick against the Gunners. I kept glancing to my left, appearing eager and energetic. Surely I would get the nod now? But the whistle never came. Big John Hartson was called over instead to replace Helder and that was that.
Miffed that Bruce Rioch seemingly didn’t have enough faith in me to come on in a dismal 3-1 defeat I trudged back into the dressing room feeling just as low as the players who had been handed a lesson by my 21-year-old compatriot. If I couldn’t get a game today, when will I get a game? That’s all I could think about on the long coach journey home.
Luckily I didn’t have to wait too long for my answer.
Three days on and with a hearty Christmas dinner inside me I drove down to Highbury with my parents from our Suffolk home, wondering if I’d even make the bench for our midday kick off at home to Queens Park Rangers. At training on Christmas Day we’d gone through the motions with a warm up and a quick five-a-side but aside from the usual list of 16 players pinned up on the wall opposite the London Colney treatment room I’d been given no inclination that I would be involved at all. I was disappointingly relaxed with low expectations for the afternoon ahead.
Then the moment I’d been waiting ten and a half long years for suddenly arrived out of nowhere. Ever since scout Steve Rowley had handed his business card to my dad after the Stanway Villa five-a-side tournament in Colchester in the summer of 1985 I’d dreamed of being named in the starting line-up for Arsenal. And there it was, neatly typed out on a sheet of paper and stuck to the tactics board above the jar of jelly babies I’d gone over to raid. Wow.
Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Keown, Adams, Merson, Jensen, Platt, Clarke, Dickov, Wright. Subs: Linighan, Hartson, Helder
Several senior players came over to shake my hand and wish me well while Ian Wright characteristically chose instead to beam his biggest gold-toothed grin and shout ‘Yes, Reverend! (it’s a long story)’ with such joy that I could have been his own son.
Rioch himself was keen not to make an unnecessary song and dance about my selection which suited me fine. After all I wasn’t exactly a kid, I was 21 years of age. The initial team talk barely afforded me a mention but the adrenalin was roaring through my veins and while many of the others had barely started to glance at their copy of the match programme I was already kitted out in the warm-up gear, lacing up my boots.
Not wanting to be the first outside I patiently waited for Lee Dixon to grab a ball (he was always the first to make a move), and as soon as he did I was quickly on his shirt tails. On my way down the tunnel I glanced to my left as we passed the ‘halfway house’ players bar and saw familiar faces smiling back at me in their suits with a mixture of pride and envy. Understandably my fellow reserves wished they could swap places but equally they knew that if I could make it to the first team, so might they.
The sun was shining, the air was crisp and I was bouncing around like a bunny in a spring meadow as we kicked the ball around on the Highbury turf before kick-off. The club didn’t have a photograph of me to use on the big screen so I was ushered to the side of the pitch to pose for a ‘still’ on camera, which was beamed out live accompanied by a tannoy announcement declaring, ‘And on the big screen there is Adrian Clarke who will be making his first start for the Gunners this afternoon. Give him a big round of applause to wish him well.’ All of a sudden the moment felt very real.
Back inside the marble floored dressing rooms time whizzed by as I made my final preparations. I was so excited that I didn’t even have butterflies. It was bizarre.
I wasn’t pulled aside for a chat by Rioch before he made his final address, which as was customary, ended with him going through the room one by one shaking hands firmly with each player while looking them in the eye and pronouncing ‘Play Well’. Simple and straight to the point was always his mantra.
Then it was off down the tunnel where we came face to face with Queens Park Rangers, who included veterans Ray Wilkins and Mark Hateley in their line-up on that particular day, while Ian Holloway was on the bench. I’d made this same journey at least 50 times previously for reserve and youth games but this time, and arguably for the first time I knew that this was a match that actually mattered to Arsenal Football Club.
After a deep breath we entered the field of play to the customary roar and as was tradition back then we trotted straight the centre circle to applaud all four sides of the ground. Having watched the very same scene from the player’s paddock so often before, I felt as if I was an imposter but I lapped it up nevertheless.
The game itself flashed by in a complete whirr of excitement and my memories are patchy at best. I’ve got the video (on VHS) but still haven’t converted it to DVD or watched it back but I know I played well. Various cuttings from the national newspapers confirm as much with marks varying between 7 and 8 in all publications.
Kicking towards the North Bank in the first half I do recall enjoying a lovely early touch, flicking the ball over England fringe player David Bardsley’s outstretched leg as he dived in to make a heavy early reducer on the exuberant young debutant he was assigned to mark.
The rest of the half is a blur but I was constantly fed by Nigel Winterburn with countless perfectly weighted passes to my feet which allowed me to grow in confidence. I took players on, I kept the ball and I swung over plenty of crosses too.
An Ian Wright goal on the stroke of half-time gave us a well-deserved lead at the break, and it gave us the platform to score two more goals – both from Paul Merson – in the second half as we took complete control.
Keen to impress the manager I recall one or two showy touches in front of the dug-out, a nutmeg and a flick over somebody’s head but aside from that my recollections of the match itself are fuzzy. Why I don’t know but it’s true.
Afterwards the elation of victory coupled with the knowledge I’d contributed towards it left me on cloud nine. The manager patted me on the back with a smile and whilst sat in the bath next to Martin Keown I received a line of praise that I’ve never forgotten.
Staring at me with those fierce burning eyes Martin said “Fucking hell Clarkey, you’ve just destroyed the best right back in England. Well done son.”
Once dressed and eager to find out what my parents thought I rushed outside to the marble halls, only to be dragged upstairs by a member of the Capital Gold radio team. Ushered into the press box I suddenly found myself sat next to Jonathan Pearce who did his level best to paint a picture to his listeners that mine was a name that would soon be on everybody’s lips.
Busily chatting about the match on our car journey home with Five Live (or was it Radio 2 back then?) playing out Sports Report in the background I vividly remember the conversation pausing as we passed through Stoke Newington as David Platt came on air to give his post-match thoughts.
Asked about the little known youngster who had excelled in the number 29 shirt Platty didn’t let me down. “Errrrrrr….the boy was outstanding today….errrrrr….Adrian is a real talent and I think he showed that in his performance….errrrr….he’s a player that looks to have a very bright future in the game.”
Unfortunately Platt’s final prophecy wasn’t destined to come true.
Four more starts and two substitute appearances followed but by March 1996 I’d played my last first team match in an Arsenal shirt, a 1-1 draw at home to Coventry City. I’d never play in the Premier League again.
I’ll forever be disappointed that I couldn’t achieve more highs in an Arsenal shirt but at least no one can ever take that debut display away from me.
Even today my friends joke that I still dine out on that brief spell in the limelight and I cannot disagree.
But then again why shouldn’t I? I played for The Arsenal. Not many people can say they did that.