PICTURE by The New Saints FC/Brian Jones.
THE latest interview on the blog features a player who has been a real revelation for the JD Cymru Premier league-leaders during the 2020/21 campaign.
Before the season was put on hold due to Covid-19 restrictions back in December, Ben Clark had been in fine form for The New Saints (TNS) and was, for me at least, one of the division’s best young players. After spending the last couple of seasons out on loan at other Welsh clubs; Llandudno and Caernarfon Town, the 20-year-old midfielder has now established himself as a starting eleven player within Scott Ruscoe’s side and has really looked the part in Wales’ top-flight.
Asked about how he thought those loan spells away from Park Hall helped him develop as a player, Clark told AFE: “Both loan moves helped develop me in different ways. For Llandudno, we were bottom of the league scrapping for survival and so to be a part of a struggling team really helped me grow as a footballer.
“I was only 18 years old and playing in the Welsh Prem and that experience there was the opposite to what I’ve experienced as a TNS player. Despite that, I really enjoyed Llandudno as the lads were a great bunch to be around and I grew in confidence being there.
“At Caernarfon on the other hand, we were “overachieving”. To be part of a team like the Cofis was great as the fans were fantastic. Sean Eardley gave me a chance to play every single week despite my age and I enjoyed being that versatile young player that could play in other roles if needed.
“Playing every week for the club was a huge help as I became a more consistent player. I loved my time at Caernarfon and i made some good mates whilst playing there too. I helped the team get to the Welsh Cup semi-final but unfortunately the rest of the season was cancelled due to the pandemic.
“Overall both loan moves have helped hugely for me to get to where I am now – which is playing much more frequently for TNS.“
Born and raised in Chester, Clark trialled with Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton’s academies before signing for Crewe Alexandra Football Club aged around eight years old. At age 14, he was released by the club and went on to play for Chester’s youth team for a season before deciding to switch to TNS’ academy as he thought this was ‘a better fit to develop my football abilities’ and knew they had a great set up having previously played against them for Chester academy..
At Park Hall, he signed a pro contract when he was 16 – a moment he described as ‘surreal’.
Clark added: “I never thought I would be in and around the first team at such a young age to be honest. My highlight playing for TNS so far in my career is definitely making my debut in the Europa League, despite the result (the Saints lost 5-4 on penalties to Faroe Islands-based B36 Torshavn following a 2-2 draw). It is something i can hold on to for the rest of my career.
“It was an unbelievable experience. I’ve travelled all over Europe with TNS; Croatia, Kosovo, Denmark and the Faroe islands but I’ve been on the bench quite a few times so to actually play was a great experience for me especially at such a young. It is my proudest achievement so far in my career.
“My dad thought it would be better for my development to move to TNS and 5 years on I’ve got to agree with him!”
Clark, a player who is now a confident, calm and driven presence in the TNS midfield told AFE he has ‘loved football for as long as I can remember’.
He adds that his father always wanted him to get into the game as he enjoyed both taking him to the matches and watching them once they got there. On the field, he refers to Barcelona’s legendary Spanish midfield duo of Xavi and Andres Iniesta as his heroes, as well as Manchester United great Paul Scholes.
He said: “They all had a great football brain which allowed them to compete at the top level as they weren’t gifted with height or strength which helps for a lot of things within the game. Getting older, I feel as though I have similar attributes to them sort of players.“
In the JD Cymru Premier, Clark says the player he has looked up to the most during his time with TNS is fellow Saints player Jon Routledge.
He added: “He plays in the same position as me and I learned a lot from watching him play week in week out and from how consistent he is. Also, whenever I made a mistake he always encouraged me rather than get frustrated with me.
“On the flip side, the toughest player I’ve come up against is Henry Jones (Bala Town) – just due to the fact he’s very tricky on the ball. So, when I’ve played against him whilst playing at full-back, I’d say he has always been the hardest person to play against.”
This season has undoubtedly been Clark’s finest to date. The midfielder has racked up five goals in just 14 games in the JD Cymru Premier and has received rave reviews for his efforts in the middle of the park.
TNS themselves are looking in great form. Despite losing 2-0 to last season’s champions, Connah’s Quay Nomads, who brought the Saints’ era of title-winning dominance to an end following a season called off due to the coronavirus pandemic, the club are currently top of the table. They’ve won 14 of their 17 matches – scoring 49 goals (10 more than any other team) and conceding just 10 goals.
Clark is proving to be an important player in the club’s form and that’s probably, mainly, down to the fact that he’s enjoying regular football in the top-flight.
He told AFE: “Personally, this has been my most enjoyable season. I feel as though I’ve found my most natural position playing further forward and effecting the game more and doing my part in helping my team to win as many games as possible.
“Playing virtually every week has allowed me to play as well as I have this season so far. I’ve surprised myself managing to score 5 goals this season.”
“This season, I’ve seen a real hunger from all the players to reclaim the league title and results have shown so far this season that we want to get that league title back to where it belongs at Park Hall.
“So far, we have had a great season as a whole only losing one game and we are going to continue that good form into the rest of the season after a long break away from league games.”
It may be the likes of the prolific Greg Draper or the talented Adrian Cieslewicz who normally steal the limelight for TNS but, in my opinion, Clark is certainly one to keep an eye on in seasons to come as he’s shown plenty of promise and a great desire to improve his game.