Cork striker Billy Clarke on the harsh realities of life in the lower leagues

'I moved back down to London and my wife and kids remained in Bradford. That’s the part of football people don’t understand...'
Cork striker Billy Clarke on the harsh realities of life in the lower leagues

Bradford City's Billy Clarke celebrates after scoring during the FA Cup match at the Valley Parade. 

HE HAS turned down opportunities to play for Cork City and Shamrock Rovers, but Bradford City striker, Billy Clarke, has not ruled out playing in the League of Ireland.

The Cork man has had a very successful career in the UK, since leaving Maymount United in 2003, and is open to returning home.

“I spoke to Stephen Bradley, Shamrock Rovers manager., probably around 2019, about the possibility of joining Rovers, but I just wasn’t ready then,” Billy Clarke said.

“I was 31, and still wanted to stay in England and ended up signing for Plymouth that year. Then, after Covid happened here, with lockdown, there was still a bit to play in the League of Ireland. 

Neale Fenn actually rang me and asked, ‘Do you want to go back to Cork City?’

“But, again, I had an offer from Bradford, and I was living in Bradford, and I always wanted to come back to the club, so I ended up signing for Bradford again,” Clarke said.

“I wouldn’t rule out going back to Ireland. I would keep everything open; it would be really nice to go back and play in front of my family.

“I’ve sacrificed seeing every one of them for the last 17 years and to go back there and play would be nice.

“Obviously, I’m 33 now, so, at the same time, as much as I would like to go back someday, I don’t know how long I have left and how much of a signing I would be.”

Having a long career as a footballer cross-channel often means several transfers.

Moving clubs, for a player, can be exciting, but can also come at a cost. As a father, Clarke knows too well the sacrifices a player and his family make throughout his career.

“When I was with Ipswich, I had a newborn and then, within three weeks, I signed with Blackpool, and that’s a big move to make,” Clarke said.

“My wife is from Ipswich, so we left, and it was the three of us that went up there. Then, I moved to Crawley, so we had to move to London.

“It wasn’t really until the kids started school that it became difficult. When the kids were in school — and I had two at the time — I moved from Bradford to Charlton.

Billy Clarke in action for Bradford.
Billy Clarke in action for Bradford.

“I moved back down to London on my own and my wife and kids remained in Bradford. It would have been unfair to pull them out of school again.

“That’s the part of football that people don’t understand. The higher up a player plays, it’s easier to relocate.

A player can afford to have a second house, or whatever, or afford to commute, but down in the lower leagues, you sign for a team and, three months later, you could be gone again. 

"It’s a cutthroat business and you have to prioritise your family.

“If I thought a move would be detrimental on one of the boys, then it wouldn’t be done. It’s the kids’ school, and where their friends are, that you need to think about before making a move.

“So, when I went down to Charlton, they stayed in Bradford and then I came back to the club. I went to Plymouth after that and again my family stayed in Bradford. It was just a case of me getting back whenever, and as often, as I could to see them.

“Playing masks an awful lot when you stay away from your family,” Clarke said. “If you’re playing every week, it does help. I was down in Charlton, playing every week — it’s a huge club, everything is top drawer — I was playing — playing well — the team were doing well, and everything was rosy. 

"I was down in London, living with my friend, who was playing for Wimbledon. The manager at the time was great. He would let me go back a lot.

“Any northern teams we played, I would go back to Bradford straight after games; I would just go back in on the Monday or the Tuesday. Then, I got injured and done my cruciate in December and that’s when it became so clear that I was away from my family because the minute I finished training, I was getting on a train to go to Bradford and I was getting back on the train 24 hours later.

“Even when I was at home, I was clock watching, because I was thinking about what time I had to go back to London, but, like I said, when you’re playing and you’re heavily involved in the games, it covers an awful lot.”

At 33, Clarke knows that he doesn’t have long left in his playing career and has already started to prepare for life afterwards. 

“I’m currently doing my A licence for my coaching badges. I’m the support coach in the Bradford academy for the U15s and 16s. Coaching is definitely something I want to do. I’ve obviously got my B licence and, hopefully, this time next year, I’ll have my A licence.

“I loved working in the academy and being involved and it gives you a different look at the game.

“Playing and coaching at the same time can be tough, but it has been very rewarding and something I’m enjoying.”

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