Jthere is unlikely to be a dry eye in the eighth minute at Wembley on Saturday. Mansfield Town have invited their supporters to applaud their former No.8 Darrell Clarke, who spent more than a decade at the club but will be in the opposing technical area to manage Port Vale in the League Two playoff final, after experienced close family bereavement this year. “It’s very, very touching and a big thank you for that, and a big thank you for the love and respect that everyone has shown me during what has been a difficult time for me and my family,” said said Clarke. “We have to get up. I want to make the rest of my family proud and continue to do a job that I love.
Vale players more than once warmed up to T-shirts bearing the words ‘Thinking Of You Gaffer’ in February and Clarke thanked the League Managers Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association for their support after taking six weeks off of compassionate leave before a phased return, which culminated in a dugout return for the final game of the regular season at Exeter, where Vale picked up their first win in four games and a playoff berth. “I came back because I felt I was ready,” Clarke said. “I was going to bed slowly. There were a lot of dark days and there will be in the future but I felt ready to be able to lead my staff and my players.”
Clarke’s assistant Andy Crosby managed the team in his absence, supported by coach Dean Whitehead and the rest of the first-team staff. After the win at Hartlepool last month, Clarke, who was watching from the stands, took to the pitch and pointed to Crosby several times before the fans outside chanted Crosby’s name. “Andy was picking the team and doing everything and did an amazing job. They’re my staff, they’re my players, but the work Andy and the team did while I was away gave me time to recover – I’ll never fully recover – but gave me this time to be able to be strong enough to give back.”
Clarke, whose five-year contract extension was announced on Thursday, is particularly grateful for the support of Vale owners Carol and Kevin Shanahan, who have revitalized the club since completing its takeover three years ago. “You know management is a pressure job, but when you work for good people, you want to do it more for them than for yourself. Carol comes to away games, on overnight stays, and she has close ties with the players. At many football clubs you don’t see the owners – or only the managers do. Carol and Kevin have that personal touch that makes it a special place.”
Clarke grew up on a municipal estate in Mansfield and he and his older brother, Wayne, who still lives in the town, would go to games at Field Mill with his grandfather, Dave, who worked as a turnstile steward. He lived his dream, playing over 150 games for the club after joining aged 10. Another slice of history Clarke has with Mansfield provides an unwanted memory. Mansfield forgot his kit when visiting Clarke’s Bristol Rovers on the final day of the League Two season in 2014, borrowed Rovers’ away kit, won 1-0 and relegated Rovers. Clarke restored the club to the Football League at the first attempt, via a final penalty shoot-out victory at Wembley. Now, once again, 11 months of hard work comes down to one game.
The links between the clubs don’t stop at Clarke, with Mal Benning, Aidan Stone and Harry Charsley joining Vale from Mansfield in the past 12 months, while Vale director of football David Flitcroft spent the 2018 season -19 in charge of Mansfield, who are now managed by Nigel Clough. “Fate has a strange hand to deliver certain things, doesn’t it?” says Clarke, who along with Flitcroft revamped the team last summer. All 15 out-of-contract players were released and three others were put up for sale, but local pair James Gibbons, who joined aged 11 and remembers collecting buckets outside Vale Park when the club took over in 2012, and Nathan Smith, who recently celebrated 300 games for the club, remain key pillars of the team.
As Clarke descends to resume preparations, Carol and Kevin head in the opposite direction, to the meeting room for local radio interviews. Clarke and Carol wonder after each other before sharing a hug. “Every home game, one of the lads’ families is invited into the conference room to have a really good meal and watch the game from there, which is probably unheard of in the world of football,” explains Clarke. “Players love her to bits because she really cares. For Carol, it’s not just footballers, it’s people and that’s how she runs the football club. This is how she wants to run the club and this is how she wants me to run. I think that’s why we’re perfectly suited.
Vale players will spend half an hour inspecting the stage at Wembley on Friday, 24 hours before getting a taste of the real thing. “I think it’s a good idea to eliminate all photos because I don’t want to see phones and people taking pictures on game day,” Clarke says. He knows he’s going to be flooded with emotion on Saturday but insists he needs to temper that if Vale is to win. “You put on your mask,” he said. “I have a job to do, I have to perform, which I will do. There will probably be a lot of emotion after the game, but I’m a football manager and I want to lead the troops, and you can’t do that if you have too much emotion. I will be professional in my mindset to try and get us into Ligue 1.”