It’s strange that Ray Clarke seems almost a forgotten striker in Brighton’s history. Fans waxing lyrical about the late 1970s speak in high regard for the Peter Ward-Ian Mellor striking partnership that terrorised Third Division defences in 1976/77. They also talk glowingly of Michael Robinson’s swashbuckling centre-forward style and, of course, Gordon Smith’s famous chance in 1983.
But where is the praise for Ray Clarke, the striker that helped turn Peter Ward from a struggling top flight striker into a force in Division One?
Clarke’s 28 goals for Mansfield fired the Stags to the Fourth Division Championship in 1974/75 and his 24 goals the following campaign contributed immensely to keeping the side in the Third Division. This led to a remarkable £80,000 transfer to Sparta Rotterdam in Holland in July 1976, where he was top scorer (with 16 and 24 goals) in each of his two seasons there.
In Marshall Cavendish’s Football Handbook Part 59, there’s a fascinating piece about Ajax in the late 1970s under coach Cor Brom, as the new generation struggled to gain recognition while living in the shadow of the ‘Total Football’ side of Cruyff et al, plus this magnificent photo of Ray Clarke, looking for all the world like a ’70s fashion king in his Ajax get-up.
Londoner Ray Clarke, the player Brom had brought with him from Sparta of Rotterdam, was also the target of criticism inside the club. Clarke, once rejected by Spurs, is a strong and unselfish striker with an excellent scoring record. Last season he finished as Ajax’s top scorer with 38 goals – 26 in the league, six in the cup, six in the UEFA Cup – but during the summer they sold him to Bruges for £200,000.
Clarke spent only one season with Ajax… and early on he had problems adjusting. ‘One problem was that the quality here is so much higher than anything I’ve been used to before,’ he said. ‘Ajax have some fabulous players – Rudi Krol, for example… I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate just how good he is until you’ve played with him. It was only in the last three or four months that I started to play the way I know I can.’ Clarke’s 26 league goals put him second only to European Golden Boot winner Kees Kist of Alkmaar in the Dutch League.
He spent only five months with Bruges and admitted that it had been a mistake not to go straight back to England. ‘It was quite an upset then for me to leave Ajax. I had heard a whisper they wanted to buy some new players and that they intended to raise the money by selling me. So I thought that if that was their attitude, I might as well accept the offer Bruges had made me.’
Before Clarke’s arrival at the Goldstone, Brighton & Hove Albion were finding life tough in the top flight, bottom after twelve matches, having recently shipped four goals at home to Norwich City. However, as Vinicombe continues:
The arrival of Clarke was a vital injection and his cheerfulness did much to cast off the blues. He was a fresh mind looking at Albion’s situation, and reminded despairing fans: ‘It is ridiculous for people to write Brighton off at this stage. I remember in my second season at Mansfield the team was bottom after 26 games with only 16 points, but in our last 20 games we won 15 and drew five and finished sixth (sic: 11th) from top.’ That was the sort of fighting talk people wanted to hear on the eve of a second meeting with Arsenal.
Ray Clarke made his Brighton debut in a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, but scored a consolation goal against League Champions Liverpool in the next match at the Goldstone in November 1979. Then came the match that was the turning point of the season. Albion travelled to City Ground to European Champions Nottingham Forest more in hope than expectation, and pulled off a sensational result, winning 1-0. See the picture on the right for Clarke having a shot under the watchful eye of Viv Anderson and Martin O’Neill. It was Forest’s first home defeat in Division One since they were promoted to the top flight in April 1977.
Clarke’s strength and selfless play had a profound effect on Peter Ward. Before partnering up with Clarke, Ward was finding it hard against First Division defences. He had only scored twice in twelve Division One matches. Supported by Clarke’s hold up play and service, Albion’s star player transformed into a striker that hit around one goal every two games in Division One, quite a useful asset to have to get Albion climbing up the table. By the end of the season, in the games playing alongside Clarke, Peter Ward scored fourteen times in only thirty First Division matches, an exceptional tally in a team in the lower half of the table. Clarke himself weighed in with eight League goals as Brighton finished in sixteenth position, comfortably safe from relegation. He even managed to score against his old club Mansfield in the FA Cup, something that he finds bittersweet.
‘Ray was a good player – not at all flash , just a sound, straightforward target man. I liked playing with him and after he joined and Teddy (Maybank) left, we played every game together. 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 that he left so soon.’
Here’s an example of a chance Ray Clarke fashioned for Ward:
Clarke was sold to Newcastle United in July 1980, perhaps as an outcome of seeing a specialist. As an interview with Spencer Vignes in the Brighton v Preston programme from 2004/5 says: ‘The specialist told him it was his hips which, to cut a long story short, were disintegrating. He might have four years left, or just 12 months. It was hard to tell’ and to make things worse Clarke was uninsured so Brighton would not receive a penny if he broke down while with the club. Maybe that is why he was sold so quickly. Perhaps Mullery was determined to buy Michael Robinson anyway. What is clear, however, is that without Clarke as a striking partner, Peter Ward went back to a low scoring rate in the First Division. Partnered with Robinson, Ward got one goal in eleven League matches at the start of 1980/81 before being sold to Nottingham Forest where, again, he was far from prolific. Neither did he hit a rich scoring vein on his loan spell back at Brighton in 1982/83 when he scored just two goals in 16 Division One matches. As for Clarke, his spell at Newcastle was over when he broke down with injury after only fourteen matches in 1980/81. He was just 28 when his playing career ended.