It would be fair to say that none of the Aston Villa players should hold their head up high after what has been a disastrous season for the club, but the pain and anguish of relegation will certainly hurt Ciaran Clark who has experienced many highs and lows during his time at the club.
The Republic of Ireland international has been at Villa Park since the age of eleven and risen through the ranks to become an honest professional, who despite some criticism, gives his all when he pulls on the shirt for club and country, and while others have looked uninterested and unwilling to fight for the cause when the chips were down.
Clark will have been left hurting by Aston Villa’s demise, especially having signed a new five-year deal last year, although you’d expect him to stay at the club despite rumours of a £5m release clause, as most Premier League clubs perhaps wouldn’t consider him as a starter.
His pain was reflected in comments made in late March when the defender highlighted the complete contrast in atmosphere at club and country – an honest thing to say at a time when the mood at Villa Park was at an all-time low. It remains to be seen whether bookies fancy Aston Villa’s chances of bouncing straight back up to the Premier League under new owner Tony Xia, but while Clark is likely to play a prominent role in Villa colours next season, the 26-year-old’s first priority will be to prepare himself as part of the Ireland camp ahead of Euro 2016.
Being a part of Martin O’Neill’s 23-man squad for Ireland will come as a delight and relief to Clark who may have feared for his place, particularly after missing the friendly against the Netherlands with the same ankle injury that kept him out of the final league game at Arsenal. He did, however, recover fitness in time to start in Ireland’s disappointing 2-1 defeat in Cork against Belarus, playing the full 90 minutes and nearly putting his name on the scoresheet on three occasions, with a second-half header which was saved right on the line being the best chance.
Clark is likely to face a straight fight with Richard Keogh to partner John O’Shea in France, although regular appearances during the qualifying campaigns and friendlies (Clark scored the only goal of the game in Ireland’s win against Switzerland in late March) may provide Aston Villa with their only player to watch at Euro 2016.
Ireland are not expected to pull up any trees this summer, particularly after the draw was rather unkind to them. It will be a tough ask to qualify from Group E which contains Belgium, Italy and Sweden, but participating at a major international tournament can only enable Clark to test himself against some of the best players in Europe and progress as a footballer.
The defender will undoubtedly enjoy being in a much more relaxed and buoyant dressing room, even if Betway odds do not expect Ireland to pull off a feat on a similar scale to Leicester winning the Premier League. Progressing to the knock-out stages would be considered an excellent achievement, and not doubt help pencil Clark into new Villa boss Roberto Di Matteo’s plans for next season.
Playing alongside a vastly experienced defender in O’Shea can only be of great benefit to Clark, as the Villa centre-back could also be playing in front of former team-mate Shay Given who, despite at the age of 40, is showing no signs of decline in what is likely to be his final major international tournament.
All three are likely to play important roles in a defence that must remain strong if Ireland are to have any chance of upsetting the odds and making it past tough opposition and keep the passionate Green Army in France longer.
From a Villa point of view, it’ll be interesting to see if the number of players representing the club in the next Euros in four year’s time will drastically increase. It will certainly be an indication of whether or not Mr Xia has made a success of the club.
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