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Peter Clarke, fine wine, and the art of staying relevant

In the history of professional English football, only three non-goalkeepers have ever surpassed 1,000 senior appearances: Tony Ford, Graham Alexander and Scott McGleish. At Tranmere Rovers right now, however, one man – one snarling, belligerent leader – can see that landmark on the horizon, and only a fool would say he cannot reach it.

Peter Michael Clarke, the captain of Birkenhead’s finest, has made 841 senior professional appearances in a 22-year career. Just 99 of them have come in the fourth division, with the rest at higher levels, a token of Clarke’s pedigree. An Everton youth in a previous millennia, Clarke will turn 40 in January, but he shows few signs of diminished ability. In fact, rather like a fine wine, the towering defender just keeps getting better with age, mastering the art of staying relevant. He is still the first name on the teamsheet, all these years later, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

This season, his third with Tranmere, Clarke has already scored three goals, including two in one game against Crawley, taking his lifetime tally to 70 - quite incredibly. The ancient rock is currently Rovers’ joint top goalscorer, and his contributions have been crucial in transforming a lukewarm start to the campaign. Tranmere currently sit in fifth place, with signs of synergy shooting throughout the squad. It took a while, but Micky Mellon is finally putting his stamp on this Tranmere iteration, and that stamp orbits Clarke, the reliable sage who loves a scrap. 

Peter has amassed more than 73,000 minutes, or 1,200 hours, on a football pitch in his senior career. That equates to 50 whole days – growling and elbowing his way to supremacy. Last season, Clarke played every minute of every league game for Rovers, a stunning achievement, and he is often the fittest player on any given pitch. We should really celebrate his outstanding professionalism more, because what Peter Clarke is currently doing – performing this well, at this level, at this age – is exceedingly rare. It takes a certain blend of guts and guile to stick around for this long, and Clarke continues to prove the doubters wrong.

Ultimately, Peter is a master of the dark arts, bodychecking his way through life like a B&M Chiellini. He tells ballboys to slow things down in the dying embers of Tranmere victories. He tells teammates to maintain their focus when all about are losing theirs. And he tells referees to f*ck off, an endearing trait that has seen him receive 128 cards of various colours as a professional. You can only applaud the guy’s obstinance. It is a pleasure to behold.

In many ways, therefore, Clarke is the quintessential Mellon player. Peter is the kind of mountainous foundation upon which Micky tends to build dynasties. You know the kind – head on a stick, mouth on legs, a soldier wearing shinpads. Tom Davies has also been terrific in this mould alongside Clarke, but there is no doubt as to the identity of Mellon’s on-field commander. Peter fills the role with inimitable enthusiasm, and Micky will have to peel the jersey off his back before he retires.

Indeed, if ever a footballer exhibited symbiosis with his surroundings, it is Peter Clarke at Tranmere Rovers. Sure, he spent the bulk of his career with Huddersfield, Oldham and Southend. And yes, he also played for Blackpool, Bury and Fleetwood. But Birkenhead is a poetic manifestation of his style – brutalist, no nonsense, a melting pot of broken noses and burst lips. It took Clarkey two decades to find his home, but he is here now, and we must savour his excellence before it dwindles away.

Aside from the goals and assists, the blocks and the tackles, the fights and the headers, I’m most astonished by Clarke’s indefatigable passion for football. He is hooked on the buzz of competition, of crossing that white line and battling for three points like a gladiator. Barely a game goes by where Clarke does not square up to an opposing striker or hurl himself in front of a ferocious shot. If you look up ‘defender’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, there should be a picture of Clarkey pasted as the definition. After all, there is no finer exponent of the craft currently plying his trade in League Two.

Earlier this season, one moment perfectly encapsulated Clarke’s continued brilliance: the iconic 60-yard run he embarked upon against the startled youths of Leeds United in the otherwise forgettable Papa John’s Trophy. The mere fact that Clarke even played in such a game is incredible enough. Peers of his vintage typically sit at home with their slippers on when these banal, annoying fixtures roll around. Not Peter Clarke, though. No, he played the full game, which was illuminated by his up-field rumble. You try telling him to take it easy.

Like an 18-wheeler chugging through the gears, Clarke slalomed up the pitch, swatting kids aside, crushing their sweet dreams of playing gnarly men’s football, and eventually played a lovely ball through to Nicky Maynard, who promptly scored. The phenomenal run and assist accentuated Clarke’s infectious joy de vivre on the pitch while highlighting his work as a study of exemplary human spirit. He lives for this, quite simply, and so do we, his adoring public.

Peter is far from perfect, I’m sure we all agree, but that just makes us appreciate him even more. His distribution from the back can occasionally be an uncomfortable adventure, and there are times when his lack of pace can be fleetingly exposed, but those are universal truisms of the lower league defender writ large. More broadly, there are few signs that Clarke has been doing this since Ian Rush was still an active player. Another season, perhaps two, at this level is not beyond the realms of possibility, giving Clarkey an outside shot at topping the 1,000-appearance threshold. The odds may be long, but you would not put it past him.

As such, it is incredible how Clarke has stayed relevant through the most transformative epoch in football’s sprawling journey. When Peter signed his first professional contract, back in 1999, the news was conveyed via Ceefax – News in Brief, p323 – and AOL dial-up broadband. That his exploits are still being celebrated via Twitter gifs and TikTok compilations is a testament to the guy’s resilience, dedication and approach. As football has changed beyond comprehension – shaped by data analysis, dietary cohesion and exotic philosophies – Peter Clarke has remained a steadfast constant, a footballing Hilbre Island, distinguished by a refusal to be washed away.

In quieter times, then, I often daydream about Tranmere having had Clarke, Steve McNulty and Ian Goodison together in a central defensive triad during their respective primes. Undoubtedly, such hypothetical delirium is a symptom of the sickness we call fandom, but I struggle to see how any team outside the Premier League would have penetrated such a staunch unit. It might have been our ticket to the Promised Land.

Regardless, these are the kinds of people we need to keep around long after they retire. This is the calibre of hunger we must nurture at Tranmere Rovers, inculcating it into our DNA. And this is the merging of skill and substance we should extrapolate across our operations, creating a lasting legacy of what it means to don that shirt and represent these fans.

The sands of time are, of course, inexorable, and they will eventually catch up with Peter Clarke, just as they did with McNulty, Goodison and all our bygone heroes. But if Clarke can delay nature for another year or two, and perhaps win a trophy along the way, he will etch his name in Tranmere Rovers folklore. We will have another rugged messiah ensconced in our pantheon, to be remembered for eons hence. If only we got him when he was 25. There is no telling where we may have ended up.

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