(Photo by Jon Buckle/The FA via Getty Images)
by Matt Badcock
JESS CLARKE is used to overcoming obstacles.
After all, with her mum out working hard to keep her daughter’s football dreams alive, Clarke could only get to training on a 40-minute bus ride across Leeds.
So intent on making her own way and not asking for help, she would wait around after training until her team-mates had gone before jumping on the bus back home.
And when she had a scholarship at Loughborough University, she would go home at the weekend to wait tables in a hotel in order to pay for driving lessons.
She says it’s only now, when people point it out, they seem like hurdles. Back then it was the norm and it’s that work ethic – instilled by mum Carol Stapleton – that has propelled the 26-year-old to the top.
“It probably wasn’t the easiest path,” says Clarke. “I come from a one-parent home and my mum had me at a really young age.
“She sacrificed a lot of her dreams so I could have my own. I fell in love with football in primary school and took it from there.
“In high school my teacher, Lindsey Munro, really put her arm around me and organised trials for me. She took it on herself to take me to training in Leeds and I got through the trials.
“But she actually left the school so I had no transport to get to football. All I wanted to do was play football. I lived, ate, slept football. I remember in school being on the computer looking at Nike football boots – I wouldn’t even do my work because I was thinking about football constantly.
“I’d get the bus to training. Because I was a kid, I didn’t really want to ask for help. I’d wait until everyone had left and then I’d get the bus back home.
“There was nothing that was going to stop me from playing football. I did everything in my power to get there. I built up through the age groups and eventually I had the confidence to get lifts with people – and then mum learnt to drive! But we didn’t have lots of money, so even once she passed she couldn’t take me.
“Then I got a scholarship to Loughborough and that was a blessing because everything was paid for. I was there for four years.
“I’d be there in the week and come back at the weekends to work in a hotel to get some pocket money.
“During that four years I saved up enough money to have my own driving lessons. Passing my test was massive for me. Especially when you’re playing football, because you’re travelling the country and, ultimately, you need a car.”
Clarke is battling away again. Left out of England’s World Cup squad, the 49-capped forward watched the Lionesses roar in Canada on TV.
Although proud of what the team achieved, she doesn’t hide the fact that missing out came as a blow.
“It was a real kick in the gut, I’m not going to lie,” she says. “For any player you want to be playing on the world stage. At the time, and especially the season before, I felt I was in really good form.
“To not get selected was difficult. But it’s one of those things you’ve got to learn from. It’s those set-backs that spur you on to be the best player you can be. It’s how you bounce back.
“You’ve got to go out on the pitch, work hard, and prove a few people wrong I suppose.
“As a person I’ve always been like that. That’s the way football is. I’ll take the criticism and go out and work hard.
“At the time I was really disappointed and it did take me a couple of days to get my head around it. But I still had a job to do at Notts County so it was about getting back to reality and playing well for my club.”
Clarke knows getting back into Mark Sampson’s set-up will only come if she performs on the pitch. Notts County is her only focus.
Lady Pies boss Rick Passmoor says she brings “gold dust” when on song and on Wednesday night she fired in her first ever hat-trick as they beat Oxford United 6-1 in the Continental Tyres Cup.
The treble took the former Leeds Carnegie winger to ten for the season – not that she knew the match ball protocol.
“I wasn’t sure how it worked,” she laughs. “I didn’t know whether I got the ball handed to me, or if I had to go and get it – so I just toddled back off to the changing rooms! I was just happy to get the three goals.”
Following on from the disappointment of losing the FA Cup final to Chelsea at Wembley, there is a determination at the club to get hands on silverware.
The midweek win sees them top of their Continental Tyres Cup group with three wins from three and then there is the matter of the WSL1 title race.
Although six points off the top, they play Manchester City this afternoon, while Arsenal take on Chelsea on an important day.
“It’s a big game,” Clarke says. “Manchester City are tough opposition, they are playing really well.
“But for us, we’ve got that self-belief that we can go and do it and take the three points.
“We’ve been doing everything we possibly can on the training pitch to rectify what we’ve learnt in the previous games and to become better as a team.
“It’s been about confidence, especially in front of goal. We did that in the week and are getting used to putting the ball in the back of the net.
“Going forward we are very dangerous and we create a lot of opportunities. It’s about being more clinical in front of goal because that wins you games.
“If we can get that right in the game against City then I think it’s there for the taking.”
*This article was originally published in The FLP on 23 August 2015