How Max Clark has found happiness
First-team football with City was all that Clark had been working towards since his talents were spotted as a 10-year-old turning out for Barham Boys, but the “emotional” decision was eventually taken to leave in pursuit of something very different.
A new challenge in a new country, with all the comforts stripped back.
Clark’s move to Vitesse Arnhem in the summer of 2018 had the makings of a career-defining moment and happily for the boy from East Hull, there has been no cause to regret a leap of faith into Europe’s Lowlands.
Clark is now the first-choice left-back in a Vitesse side that occupies fifth spot in the Eredivisie, Holland’s top-flight. The 23-year-old has started all but one game this season and was part of a side that held Ajax, last season’s Champions League semi-finalists, to a 2-2 draw.
And the City academy product has not been there to make up the numbers. Sky Sports recently selected Clark alongside Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mason Mount and Timo Werner in an XI of Europe’s best performing youngsters this season, before judging him ahead of Ben Chilwell as England’s most in-form left-sided defender.
There is a bashful smile when Clark is reminded of those rave reviews on a weekend visit back to his home city. “When I first saw that I honestly thought it was the boys winding me up and they’d changed the names,” he laughs.
Clark is not afraid to admit he misses Hull, his family and friends leading a “lonely” life in Arnhem but the personal rewards offer the compensation.
“When it first came up I saw it as an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and develop as a player,” said Clark, cradling a green tea after retreating from the bitter cold of Hull marina.
“That chance to play in a different league was something I wanted to do. Sometimes you’ve got to take a chance and thankfully I don’t regret a thing.
“It was a big risk when I made the choice (to leave Hull City), a big shock to the family. That wasn’t nice leaving everyone behind and if I’m honest it took a while to settle in. Maybe three months to find my feet.
“There was a lot of changes to my life but I’ve never been afraid to take a risk.”[Max Clark scores for Vitesse Arnhem]
Clark has only been gone for just over a year but there is a noticeable change in his character. There is a maturity now, comfort in his own skin.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” he adds. “It’s given me time to think about myself as a person. It can be hard when you’re lonely so I’ve looked for things to study. I’m reading a lot more than I ever did before. I’m not sure I ever opened a book at home.
“I’ve turned into a man. I was in a comfort zone living in England. I was happy being around my family and my friends, going out to Nandos, the normal things you do.
“Over in Holland it was up to me to find a different routine, doing different things, like taking myself for walks. I’ve got used to my own company a lot more but I’d say I’m mentally stronger for that. I think my family have seen me grow into a different person in the last year.”
The one stumbling block has been the grasp of a new language. “I tried, I really did, but two months down the line I had to give in,” he says with a grin. “I wasn’t learning anything. All I know is a few words but most people speak very good English.”
Football, though, is the reason Clark has embarked on his own journey of discovery and the success he has enjoyed with Vitesse enhances a belief he made the right call in leaving City.[Max Clark, pictured in October 2012, was on Hull City's books for almost a decade.]
Since making his debut in the Europa League last season, the former Malet Lambert pupil has racked up 35 appearances in the Dutch top-flight. Vitesse finished last season in fifth spot but hopes are high for improvement as they sit just a point adrift of PSV Eindhoven in third. Until a recent dip, they were just three points behind league-leaders Ajax.
“I’m enjoying it,” added Clark. “I’ve got a different routine that I’ve set myself with no distractions.
“Since I’ve been over there I’ve realised that you learn a lot about yourself. As a footballer you have to develop technically because it’s a very competitive league. I’d tell any young lad to give it a go over here.
“I never thought I’d leave England as a footballer but coming to Holland has made me a better player. My fitness levels have gone up and I feel like I can deal with situations better.
“People can forget how good the Dutch league is. Playing away to Ajax, who reached the Champions League semi-finals, PSV, another team in the Champions League.
“Then there’s Feyenoord, AZ Alkmaar, Utrecht. There’s a lot of good teams. Sometimes you’re running out in front of 50,000 and that can be scary but playing against the best players can only help you develop.”[Max Clark with Leonid Slutsky at Vitesse Arnhem]
Another individual helping Clark’s development is the head coach that handed him a City debut away to Aston Villa on the opening day of the 2017-18 Championship season.
Leonid Slutsky has always had a fondness for the defender he called “Maxi” and made the young Englishman one of his first signings when appointed Vitesse boss.
“When he called me he made it clear how much he wanted me there,” said Clark, who also boasts Nouha Dicko as team-mate at the GelreDome. “To have that feeling of someone wanting me so much was great. He always showed that belief and trust in me so he was a big key to me going over there.
“He backed me from the first game of that season at Aston Villa and that was the best feeling inside. It made me want to work hard for him.
“He’s a great guy and a great manager. He’s helped me a lot. Everyone will know from his time at Hull that he a big character and when someone like that has shown trust in you, you keep working hard.”
Talk of the 2017-18 season that began with such promise cannot ignore how it reached such a disappointing end.
Despite making 30 appearances for City, including 28 starts, the 1-0 defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday eventually stood as his final game in black and amber. The contract proposed by vice chairman Ehab Allam was rejected, leaving City to bank £500,000 in compensation once a move to Vitesse was concluded.
“It was difficult to leave,” said Clark, who was a season pass holder in the East Stand when growing up.
“I’d never lie and say it was easy. It took me a while to think about what I wanted to do. The hardest thing was the fact I’d been here for so long with that dream of playing for the first team.
“It was quite emotional at the time because I didn’t think I’d ever go away from Hull. That was all I knew.
“People on the coaching staff wanted me to stay but in the end I got a different opportunity. I loved my time there. From coming up through the youth team under people like Billy Russell and Neil Mann, going through to the first team. All the staff were great with me.
“There’s no bad blood against anyone there. You’ve got to move on in football and in life and that’s what I’ve done.”
The bonds forged during a decade on City’s books are not easily broken. “Even now I’m still following every result,” he adds.
“We might have a Saturday evening game and during our pre-match stuff I’m looking on my phone for updates of City’s result. That won’t change.
“There’s no bitterness about leaving. That’s football and that’s just the way it was.”
Clark’s new life in Holland affords little time for looking back.