It was a season that started in inauspicious fashion for Leon Clarke.
No goals in his first three games, in his fourth against Barnsley he picked up a red card for violent conduct and missed the next three.
In his sixth game of the campaign, however, he announced his arrival back in the Sky Bet Championship. At Hillsborough, in the Steel City derby, of all places. Clarke struck twice in a 4-2 win at rivals Sheffield Wednesday, then netted both goals in a victory over Wolves three days later.
It then took more than a month and five barren games for Clarke to strike again, but he did so in emphatic fashion with four against Hull, and he followed that up with one at Burton and then another hat-trick against Fulham – albeit in a 5-4 defeat.
Eight goals in his last three games, Clarke has scored one more hat-trick in his last three appearances than he managed in his previous 430 games. He is in the form of his life, and has already smashed his previous best second-tier tally of eight for the season, which he managed in 29 games for Sheffield Wednesday in 2008/09, and we haven’t even reached December.
Clarke feeling the love
But what has caused the Clarke revolution? And is it just a purple patch or his form here to stay?
“There’s a lot of things happening with Leon,” said his manager Chris Wilder. “He really enjoys working for us, he enjoys being in our dressing room and being a main player for us. The respect between the supporters and himself goes two ways, they see what he does and he appreciates the support he gets.
“Any other bits and pieces you’d have to ask Leon, but you can’t get away from the fact he’s scored 12 goals now, which is an outstanding effort, and he doesn’t look as if he’s going to dry up any moment [soon].
“I’ve always said that the goals don’t move and sometimes players become better through experience as they get older. Leon is at the top of his game and playing arguably the best football of his career.
“I imagine he’s looking past [his previous record for a season of] 15 before he has his Christmas dinner!”
Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Sheffield United and Fulham. The nomad finally settles
Clarke has made quite the journey around the Football League. When he joined Sheffield United last summer it was his eighth permanent move to his seventh different club.
That would be enough for anyone by the age of 32, but Clarke has also gone out on loan on 11 different occasions in that time. And Don Goodman believes that finally feeling at home at a club is behind his current form.
“He’s always been a bit of a nomad in terms of the amount of clubs he’s played for, and I don’t know if he’s been revered and loved by the fans at many other clubs, at least not in the way he is now,” said Goodman.
Sheff Utd vs Birm’ham
November 25, 2017, 5:15pm
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“He scored some important goals at the end of last season, but it all started snowballing the minute he banged in a couple against Sheffield Wednesday. Now his confidence has gone through the roof.
“He’s also playing in a team of genuine promotion contenders who have carried on their form from League One. They’re a real danger to the rest of the Championship and Leon is the spearhead of that.
“He’s a good all-round striker in many ways, but I’m sure he won’t be offended to say most people didn’t have him down in the category of being a ruthless, clinical finisher.
“But the team plays to his strengths and that helps your confidence as a striker, and when you hit a goalscoring run like he has you just feel like you can’t miss. I had periods like that but I don’t think I ever scored eight times in three games!”
Currently listed as a 10/1 third favourite heading into the weekend, behind Leo Bonatini (3/1) and Britt Assombalonga (5/1), Clarke was 150/1 at the start of the season to top the rankings.
His 12 goals in 15 games so far have fired him ahead of both in the rankings, with only one man (Kieffer Moore has scored 13 at Rotherham) being ahead of him.
But can he keep it up? You wouldn’t bet against him again.
Don’t miss the Sky Bet Championship clash between Sheffield United and Birmingham on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Football from 5.15pm