BRIGHTON’S early season form in their first ever season playing in English football’s top tier prompted thoughts of an automatic return to the Second Division.
The status earned so memorably via that 3-1 win at Newcastle on 5 May 1979 was but a glorious memory once the new season had kicked off.
Buried 4-0 by Arsenal in the opening game, the glimmers of hope were few and far between and Peter Ward, the talismanic striker who had been scoring goals for fun in Divisions Three and then Two was struggling to find the back of the net.
Help was soon at hand though in the shape of an Englishman who had been a sensation in Holland. Only the season before, Ray Clarke had been carried shoulder high by the fans of Ajax of Amsterdam for his goalscoring exploits.
The striker was anxious to bring an unhappy five-month spell at new club Bruges to an end and a £175,000 fee saw him reunited with his old Tottenham teammate Alan Mullery.
In Matthew Horner’s excellent biography of Peter Ward (He Shot, He Scored, Sea View Media), Clarke says: “I’d been playing abroad but was looking to come back to England because my wife wasn’t very well. I nearly signed for West Ham but then I heard that Brighton were interested too.
“I had been at Tottenham when I was younger and Alan Mullery was the captain then. So when we met it didn’t take long to tie up the deal.
“When I joined, the team had played 14 games but had only seven points and were bottom of the table.
“Wardy and I got on really well: he was sharp and quick and I could get him the ball. He was a good finisher and a great lad.”
Clarke replaced Teddy Maybank, who was sold back to Second Division Fulham for £150,000. The new man up front scored Albion’s only goal in a 4-1 home defeat to Liverpool but after that unlikely 1-0 win at Nottingham Forest on 17 November (ending the European champions 31-month unbeaten home record), gradually the fortunes began to change — and, crucially, Ward found his scoring boots again. He notched 18 by the season’s end, Clarke himself weighed in with nine, and the Seagulls finished a respectable 16th of 22.
In He Shot, He Scored, Ward said: “Ray was a good player — not at all flash, just a sound, straightforward, target man.
“I hadn’t had a regular partner since Ian Mellor in the Third Division and it helped to have some consistency.
“When I played alongside Ray, I probably played the best football of my Brighton career — it was a shame he left so soon.”
It was from an excellent Dutch website, football-oranje.com, that I discovered what prompted Mullery to sell Clarke to Newcastle at the end of that season. I had always thought he was simply making way for the £400,000 arrival of Michael Robinson from Manchester City.
However, football-oranje.com reveals: “In July 1980, following a visit to a specialist, Clarke was sold to Newcastle for £180,000. The news from the specialist had been grave; his hips were in a poor condition and his career could be over in either 12 months or four years. The ramifications for club and player were immense. At that time, Clarke was uninsured and Brighton would not receive a penny if he broke down whilst on their books. After playing only 14 matches for Newcastle United in the 1980-81 season, Clarke was forced to retire aged just 28.”
The website’s Hall of Fame piece about Clarke is fascinating, if too detailed to repeat at length here.
Clarke joined Ajax in July 1978 and, in spite of having to step into the striking boots of Ruud Geels, who had been sold to Anderlecht after being the Eredivisie top scorer for four consecutive seasons (30, 29, 34 and 30 goals respectively), he stepped up to the plate and netted an impressive 26 league goals for the Amsterdam club, six in the Dutch Cup and six in the UEFA Cup.
When the Ajax board controversially decided to sell him to fund the arrival of new players, their legendary former player Johann Cruyff, no less, had this to say: “Those people who wanted to sell Ray Clarke don’t understand that Clarke could take away two or sometimes three defenders on his own because of his vision. The board should have seen Clarke as a goalscorer or a playmaker. He made sure that Tahamata and Ling could play well – and he still scored 30 goals in one season.”
Hackney-born Clarke was spotted by Spurs playing in Islington schoolboys football and was part of the north London club’s 1970 Youth Cup winning team which included Steve Perryman and Graeme Souness.
It took them two replays to overcome a Coventry City side who had future Aston Villa European Cup winning captain Dennis Mortimer in midfield and, in goal, David Icke, who became a BBC TV sports presenter then professional conspiracy theorist.
Clarke scored bucketloads of goals at youth and reserve level, but with Alan Gilzean and Martin Chivers blocking his path to the first team, he only managed one senior appearance, as a substitute.
Manager Bill Nicholson sold him to Swindon Town for £8,000 in 1973 but he played only 14 times for the Robins, scoring twice, before he moved on a year later to Mansfield Town in the old Fourth Division.
In Mansfield’s league title winning season of 1974-75, Clarke scored 30 goals in 53 matches alongside Terry Eccles, who got 20. Clarke continued rattling in the goals at the higher level, finishing the Division 3 season with 29 goals in 58 appearances.
Then, at 23, he hankered for a return to higher level football and Mansfield made a major return on their £8,000 investment by collecting a £90,000 fee from Sparta Rotterdam.
After two seasons at Sparta, and Clarke’s scoring ratio being close to a goal every other game, Ajax took him north to Amsterdam where, to refer back briefly to football-oranje.com, he earned club icon status.
“Although Ray Clarke may not have been the highest goalscorer in Ajax history or even their greatest striker, what endeared Clarke to Ajax fans was the importance of his goals,” the website says. “Clarke was a player who never went missing in a big game and his performances were the key to ensuring trophies for Ajax.
“One of the most memorable examples of this took place on June 4th 1979, when Clarke scored the only Ajax goal in the 1-1 game at AZ ’67 that would secure Ajax the Eredivisie title. The moment was preserved in a famous photograph of the aftermath of this match, with the Ajax fans carrying the Englishman up on their shoulders.”
When Clarke’s playing days were brought prematurely to an end, he built a new career in football as a renowned scout, including working under Gordon Strachan at Celtic and Middlesbrough, and also for Portsmouth and Blackburn Rovers. His LinkedIn status says he is currently technical director of Cypriot team Omonia Nicosia.
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At the end of Albion’s first season in the top division, Argus sports reporter John Vinicombe brought out a book, Super Seagulls, An Account of Albion’s First Season in the Top Flight. The first two pictures are from that book and show Clarke eyeball to eyeball with Arsenal goalkeeper Pat Jennings and squeezing the ball past Derby County ‘keeper David McKellar to score his second Albion goal. Also pictured are Clarke from a Tottenham team photo and in a Swindon team line-up.