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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McGuinness

Dubliner Clarke Helps Alter U.S. Soccer Landscape

I sat down with U.S. soccer coach and proud Irishman Dave Clarke to talk growing up in Dublin, the dominance of women’s soccer in the U.S. and earning his coaching stripes at English football clubs in the 90s.

Dave Clarke’s command of history and rapid fire recall of events over the past 50 years is intimidating. That he’s had a ringside seat for some of the defining moments relating to Irish, English and U.S. soccer is not lost on him. Our conversation is punctuated by some of the more transformational moments in his life - his Dublin upbringing, the experience of coaching in three countries, and soccer's evolution in his adopted homeland.

Clarke has seen firsthand the inexorable rise of soccer in the U.S. since the mid-1990s and is effusive about why the grassroots and elite games have turbocharged soccer’s standing in America’s sporting pecking order. “The game is huge here,” he says. “It will never overtake football but it could pass baseball. Baseball is to the Americans what hurling and gaelic football is to the Irish. There is an establishment element to baseball that will not let it die. Soccer at its core is diverse - there’s room for everyone. When Mia Hamm scored for the U.S. at the 1999 Women’s World Cup at Giants Stadium it became one of the seminal moments in U.S. sport. In turn, Landon Donovan’s goal at the 2010 Men’s World Cup helped solidify the fanbase. Each event is testament to the growth of soccer in the U.S.” 

Dave Clarke in the U.S. camp

Formative Years in Dublin

The boy who grew up in Donaghmede, north Dublin in the 1970s describes how life was back then. “There were no cars in Donaghmede,” Clarke says. “All the children were on the road. Our lane was one (soccer) goal next to another family, the Wilson's. Across the road you had Keoghs and Byrne’s. We played typical street football, laneways, curbs. It was a great upbringing. I can relate to The Commitments (the book trilogy by Roddy Doyle and subsequent movie) from growing up there.”

As Clarke tells, outdoor play amongst children was effectively the backbone of communities across Ireland in the 1970s, especially in built up parts of Dublin. “There was no infrastructure,” he says. “Parents and children got together and set up street leagues. The parents weren’t educators or coaches. You played on a team with kids you grew up with. It was a formative time. I was on the ball all the time. Everything for me revolved around soccer. Even when I played gaelic football I would drop the ball and dribble.” 

Clarke attended school at O’Connells in the north inner city, a school whose alumni includes  Hollywood actors Barry Keoghan, Colin Meaney, Luke Kelly of the legendary Irish band The Dubliners, and the great Irish poet, Thomas Kinsella. That didn’t make it for the fainthearted. Authority and discipline gave the teaching corps an air of invincibility. Clarke had his moments but conceded O’Connells was more good than bad. “There’s a great book to be written about O’Connells and the contrast that existed in the school between the hard core inner city Dublin kids and those from leafier parts of the city. I was on the chess team and one day I was pulled aside by a teacher and asked: ‘How does a boy from Donaghmede know how to play chess?’ We gave a pass to some of the mental and physical abuse we received. Yes, I got a fantastic education there and it opened up the world. That mindset of the teacher posing whether you should go to college - it leaves a mark. It was hard not to rebel against that authority. I was lucky that I also come under the tuition of the likes of Conor Flood, Joe Rice, Mick Finucane - teachers who put everything into their students.”

O’Connell’s and even more importantly, Clarke’s local soccer club, Belvedere, opened the door for him to coach. A combination of injuries and a spell in hospital in his teenage years pushed Clarke towards coaching. 

“I started playing for Belvedere in 1976,” Clarke says. “Vincent Butler was the manager of the team, assisted by Noel O’Reilly. What I liked about Belvedere, as they do at Barcelona, was the younger team always stayed on to watch the older team. At the time it wasn’t the big club it’s become. I have great memories of Vincent Butler driving out to Finglas, then Donaghmede to bring players to training in the Belvedere van. The time in the car talking to and learning from Vincent and Noel was invaluable.” 

The Irish Women's soccer team with Noel King and Dave Clarke

At 15, Clarke found himself in hospital with a medical condition. While there, his Belvedere friends and mentors were incredible, delivering magazines and game plans. Belvedere found a role to keep him there in a coaching capacity. Being out injured Clarke concedes was the best thing to happen to him. “I went to the Belvedere game where one of Ireland’s great players, Roy Keane, was ‘supposedly’ discovered by Noel McCabe, a scout for English side Nottingham Forest, who ultimately signed Keane. Contrary to folklore, Noel wasn’t actually at the game which we drew 2-2 against Cobh Ramblers. Noel only came to the game when we beat them 3-0 in the replay in Fairview Park. Keane was the best player.” 

Clarke’s father, who had served in the British Army in Palestine, was able to provide his son with the direction on how to go about building his career in sport, even if his medicine was blunt. “I was a football fanatic in huge part due to the influence of my Dad. He left without an education and told me that I wasn’t leaving school. He said I wasn’t going to make it as a player but that I had other options within soccer including being a referee, an administrator or coach. I knew I couldn’t be a fan.”

The Education of the Coach

While it might have been the aspiration of so many young soccer players in Ireland to move to an English club, Clarke is philosophical about making a living in soccer and the misnomer that making it with an English club is be all and end all. He adds that you don’t have to play for the hallowed 92 (English league clubs) to have a great career in the game. 

Still, an early spell in coaching in England didn’t hurt him. Part of accepting a scholarship in the U.S. meant committing to a series of coaching secondments. Clarke checked the small print and asked around: there was nothing stopping him logging that time in England. 

“I did a series of observations while I was undergoing coaching courses,” he says “Because my Dad worked in CIE, that pass gave free travel all over England. I spent time at Manchester United and with Alex Ferguson before he became ‘Fergie’, one of the great managers. I know more about what Fergie did on the field (overseeing practice). Now if I could go back I'd ask him questions and learn about his strategy. The mindset as a young coach is the activity. Now I care about the bigger picture.”

Clarke with former Ipswich Town, England, PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona manager and icon, Bobby Robson

Clarke’s stories from his time at another English club, Sheffield United, on the coaching staff under manager Dave Bassett are even more revealing. After star striker Brian Deane was called up to the England squad and on the cusp of joining Leeds, Clarke was the only one left at Bramall Lane after the first team left for a holiday in Fort Lauderdale. His job every day before Deane left for England camp was to send crosses in for the striker to get on the end in preparation for his England debut. During his time at Sheffield United, Clarke fell foul of the bad boy of English soccer and subsequent actor, Vinny Jones. “He used to go after me in practice because I was Irish”, Clarke says. “He cleared me out of it in the tackle. After I elbowed him in the face, never again did I hear the derogatory words - Paddy, Mick, Fenian.” 

A feature of his career in the U.S. has not just been making his mark as an elite coach within international soccer but also in the college ranks. His decades’ long tenure at Quinnipiac University, where his children have also represented the college with distinction, has delivered an outstanding winning record on the field. By nature, Clarke is happiest on his pasture with his players, as his 25 years at Quinnipiac, the private liberal arts college in Connecticut, attest. In addition to his achievements at the NCAA level (college), international coaching recognition has come leading him to assist the Irish National Women's Soccer Team under head coach Noel King and support a series of underage U.S. teams at World Cups and CONCACAF Championships. 

This Sporting Life

Clarke is adamant that the passion and drive that propelled him into coaching as a teenager remain. Many in his position might be happy with their accomplishments and contemplating life after soccer. It's not in his DNA. He reminds me that he is a tracksuit coach and a deep thinker about the sport. He’ll stay involved as long as the right opportunities keep presenting themselves. 

Besides, once you’ve worn the tricolor of Ireland, the stars and stripes of the U.S. and presided over a major college soccer program for a quarter of a century, life after soccer is not a straightforward concept.  

Maybe one day he’ll take up Spanish lessons to enable him to scout in Latin America. Clarke admits relationships with parents and fellow coaches are not quite as cordial or friendly as they once were. For one who cares deeply about his players and assistant coaches this has been an adjustment. 

And #MeToo has shifted the dynamic in women’s sports, in some respects for the better. Coaches and administrators have in turn had to adapt to the changing order. Overall, he’s proud of how men’s and women’s soccer have a diversity that sets a standard of performance for other major U.S. sports.

Emma Hayes, one of the most influential managers in soccer, has just left an astonishingly successful spell at Chelsea to take over as head coach of the U.S. Women’s soccer team. She would do well to have Dave Clarke on speed dial for his expertise.



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