“He’s a really fiery individual and he’s really intense,” that’s Eric Gehrig's response when I ask him to tell me what teammate Steve Clark is like. The defender’s brief yet vivid description is given prior to a long discussion I have with the goalkeeper in which he delivers on both fronts.
Yet unlike so many strong characters, Clark’s intensity does not stem from the way he projects his voice, but rather in his choice of words and and other subtle nuances that ultimately leave a lasting impression on those he meets.
He’s been keen to make an impression wherever he’s been. That’s because for a large portion of his early soccer career Steve Clark was without a contract, a trialist - has boots, will travel.
“I was just a kid from Oakland University and scouts were pretty cold on me,” Clark explains when I ask him about his early career. The Columbus Crew is not his first taste of Major League Soccer; that came via a brief stint with Real Salt Lake after his time spent as a walk-on player at Oakland: “I was there for six weeks and I got cut on the last days before the roster deadline.”
And so began an uncertain period of his career. He arrived at Real Maryland, but they decided to opt for a rival goalkeeper, prompting Clark to bounce around the country in what he describes as ‘essentially the fourth division of U.S. Soccer.'
In 2009, Clark took a bold step and set sail for Europe. His journey began in Bradford, England. A city that lies directly west of Leeds, a place many consider to be a cornerstone of English soccer, it was an interesting first exposure to life in English football.
Training with the League 2 club Bradford City in England’s fourth tier, this was a level of soccer where the crowds were modest and the facilities were humble, but Clark has never been one for flashy equipment or gimmicks.
While in college he spent several months camping in a nearby forest, a story he willingly regales to me: “I didn’t have a scholarship and my Dad told me I would have to pay my own way through school, so I made it [the camping] a little fun thing for myself,” he explains with a matter-of-fact tone, letting out a small laugh as he does so.
Impressing during his trial at Bradford, Head Coach Stuart McCall wanted Clark to play in a reserve team game. “I remember being in the hotel after the first week and I got a call from the manager basically having a go at me, telling me I needed to be on the bus,” Clark reveals.
“I had to tell him I didn’t have a work visa and so I couldn’t play in their reserve matches and he hung up.”
The lack of a work permit was a problem that former Crew goalkeeper Brad Friedel had encountered when he attempted to move to England with Newcastle United in 1994.
However, although his time in West Yorkshire may not have earned him a professional club, it did deliver a healthy dose of validation. Here was a club in England’s professional pyramid that was eager to sign him and thus make his professional dream a reality.
Reinvigorated, he set off with his backpack, a handful of money, and a willingness to stay in hostels if it meant he could achieve his dream.
The next stop on his journey through Europe was Norway. Organizing his own trials, Clark admits he benefitted from the friendliness of Norwegian culture: “It’s a small country which means that everyone there picks up their phone when you call,” he says with a laugh.
Cold-calling any club he could find contact information for, Clark unashamedly describes his approach as ‘persistent’ and ‘annoying.'
“You’ve heard ‘no’ so many times it doesn’t mean anything to you, it's just the next stop.”
Eventually those calls paid off. Clark had a trial with Norwegian club Stabæk, who at the time housed future U.S. International Mix Diskerud. A small but proud club in the town of Bærum, near Norway’s capital, Oslo, it represented a chance to play in the Europa League if he was successful.
Walking out on to training pitch, it was once again a less than grand setting with which to display his skills. His first obstacle was a beep test -- a punishing drill in which players are expected to run between two cones before they hear the next bleep -- the time allotted decreasing as the drill progresses.
“I end up almost winning a beep test, and they kept inviting me back until I got to play in a friendly,” he enthuses. Hopes were high, the medical formalities had been completed and Clark thought that he was soon to be a member of Stabaek Fotball.
Stay tuned for Part II coming next week.