Matt Healey continues the series .
Dean Clarke was born in Hereford on the 28th July 1977. He started playing local football for the Lads Club and every so often the Hereford United youth team coach John Layton would pop by to watch the progress. Clarke also played for the Herefordshire Soccer School.
He impressed enough to be offered a two year YTS apprenticeship at Edgar Street. Clarke told me “It was a great education, we would be cleaning boots and doing jobs around the ground, at the time you hated it, but it was a great way of learning responsibilities that doesn’t happen now”
At the age of 16 Clarke would make his Hereford United league debut, coming on as a sub in a 1-0 defeat at Doncaster Rovers on the 7th May 1994, in the last game of that season “It was great, I was one of the youngest players to ever play for the club, me and my son Lewis have a bit of banter as he played for Hereford FC at a similar age in a Herefordshire FA Senior Invitation Cup match when I was assistant manager at Merthyr in 2016, we have a bit of banter around who was the youngest out of the pair of us to make their debut”
The start of the 1994/1995 season Clarke would be a second year YTS at Edgar Street, he was part of the squad that toured Scotland that pre-season. Hereford played against Bo’ness and Hamilton.
“There were a lot of new faces at the club around that time, the likes of Nicky Cross, Gary Pick, Dean Smith and Richard Wilkins. We stayed in a university for the tour, Luton Town were there too as I saw David Pleat” (Luton Manager)
The first game of the 1994/1995 season was a home game against Doncaster Rovers. The squad had heavy investment and optimism was high. Clarke would come on as a 2nd half sub. “I don’t remember that game, but I do remember the match away at Scarborough a couple of weeks later”
Hereford would visit Scarborough on the 30th August 1994 “I knew I would be starting and was nervous in the hotel before the game. It was a combination of excitement thrown in too”
The game didn’t go according to plan “After about 20 minutes our goalkeeper Tony Pennock got sent off, the manager had to bring on the sub goalie Chris MacKenzie and it was me that had to make way . It wasn’t ideal, but I had to accept the manager’s decision”
Clarke didn’t appear in the first team again until the 17th April 1995 and 0-0 home draw with Mansfield Town. It was a bittersweet moment “My good friend Rob Warner broke his leg, it was a really bad injury, I saw him on the stretcher and it was a bad break. I came on as sub for him” (Warner was out of the game for 16 months)
Clarke started in a 4-0 loss at Hartlepool on the 22nd April 1995.
He also played in a 3-2 win over Barnet in the last game of the season on 6th May 1995.
The former Wolves and Aston Villa manager Graham Turner would then take over from John Layton for the 1995/1996 season.
“I had a bit of a run in the first team the start of the season. We went to Plymouth and Neil Warnock was the manager, they were the favorites for promotion and they had spent a lot of money on new players, there was a big crowd that night, we were the underdogs but won 1-0, Steve White got the goal”
Clarke started the next match on the 2nd September 1995 which was a 2-1 loss at Chester City. His cross set up Tony Pounder’s goal.
Clarke made three more starts that month against Preston, Gillingham and Wigan Athletic.
“I was doing well, but Graham Turner bought in Darren Evans at right back and then I didn’t play again, I was still part of the squad and remember going to Holme Lacey House in preparation for the Tottenham FA Cup game”
Clarke would leave Hereford at the end of the season. I was only 18, nearly 19 and the vibes I was getting off Graham Turner was I would be offered another deal, but he said he wanted to take the squad in a different direction, so I was released”
It was a former Hereford United player who gave Clarke a chance at Cheltenham Town as a part timer “I got a job as an electrician and Chris Price got in touch, he was assistant at Whaddon Road and I had a year there, we won promotion to what is now the National League. It was great for me, I was playing men’s football every week. Even now I say to players to get that experience, academies are great, but you just don’t get that experience that you do by playing week in week out”
I asked Clarke to summarize his time at Hereford. “It was great, it helped that I was a local lad so didn’t need to get digs. I remember “Sheff” Andy Brownrigg didn’t’ get a look in until the end of his YTS and within a couple of months had been sold to Norwich in the Premier League. Mark Hibbard is my best mate and I still keep in contact with the likes of Rob Warner, Gareth Davies and John Brough. I would love to see Dean Smith again, especially as I’m a huge Aston Villa fan”
Hereford United/FC Club Historian has confirmed that Dean made his debut aged 16 years and 281 days, whereas Lewis was 17 years and 18 days, both are 5th and 6th respectively as the youngest players to appear in a competitive game for Hereford United/FC
Clarke is currently assistant manager at Merthyr “I had about three spells there as a player, going down the heads of the valleys road twice a week for training, then I became assistant manager to Gavin Williams, we have paused this season due to the Covid-19 situation, the Welsh government had different rules regarding crowds, but the Southern League were kind enough to let us pause and hopefully we will go again next season when things hopefully go back to normal”
Clarke is a regular player in the Hereford Vets League
Main photo supplied by Ron Parrott