IT became the most depressingly familiar sight of last season: the short, muscular figure of Trevor Clarke going through a workout on the AESSEAL New York Stadium pitch around an hour before kick-off.
There were no teammates with him and the left-back had just head of player development Ross Burbeary or another member of the fitness staff for company as he completed a series of running and passing drills.
It meant Clarke hadn’t made the matchday squad. So often, he was the one to miss out while Rotherham United were fighting in vain for their Championship survival.
Game after game, he’d head back to the dressing room for a shower and a seat behind the dugout in the West Stand as his teammates were coming down the tunnel the other way to warm up for the real action.
The genial Irishman left the Millers this week, a new challenge and more game-time awaiting him at League Two Bristol Rovers.
He had a year left on his New York deal but couldn’t see a path into manager Paul Warne’s first team after only a handful of starts in two frustrating years in South Yorkshire.
Unproven in England, he cost only around £50,000 when he arrived, aged 21, from Shamrock Rovers in late July 2019. Worth a punt, thought Rotherham, after he’d been named Young Player of the Year in the League of Ireland and had attracted the attention of Premier League Southampton.
Soon he was being introduced to the media, but not in the way he expected.
Warne was holding court with journalists during a pre-match press conference at the Roundwood training complex when Clarke suddenly appeared at his shoulder.
The boss continued talking for a few seconds before he suddenly twigged. “The players have told you to come out and be interviewed, haven’t they?” he said. “You have my permission to go back in there and tell them to f*ck off. They’re bad people, Mate.”
Tricky Trev took it all in good heart, giving the first indication of what a lovely, unassuming lad he was. He was as open and straightforward as they come, with no edge to him at all.
No-one knew at the time that he would go on to make just six starts and 14 substitute appearances in a Millers shirt.
Clarke flew in from Ireland as an attacking full-back with a reputation for flying into a tackle as fast as he flew down the flank but never threatened to remove Joe Mattock from his mantle as first-choice left-back.
Indeed, he did relish a 50:50, sometimes recklessly so, and he was a gutsy competitor who could be neat on the ball. However, while he wasn’t slow, talk of searing pace turned out to have been exaggerated, and his lack of height worked against him.
The player saw himself as a left-back yet Warne said publicly, when questioned on the continued omission even when Mattock was injured, that he regarded him more as a winger.
Maybe that was the manager’s way of deflecting attention from the fact he didn’t believe the Irishman quite had what it took to be a defender in a side going for promotion in League One or fighting for their lives in the division above.
Ben Wiles, a midfielder, was chosen ahead of Clarke to deputise for Mattock before a switch last term to 3-5-2 saw full-backs ditched for wing-backs, a role for which the Dubliner didn’t have the engine.
Meanwhile, from the press box last year, a long time before kick-off, I’d watch and feel sorry for a solitary figure being put through his paces on the far side of the pitch.
He was easy to identify with that distinctive straight-armed, short-stepping scamper, driven by the whitest legs in football. Empty seats all around the closed stadium must have added to his sense of loneliness.
Warne hated doing it to him and was made to feel worse by Clarke taking it like a true pro.
“He handles it brilliantly,” the boss said. “He just says: ‘Okay, Gaffer, I understand you have to do what you have to do’. It kills me.”
Clarke accepted his disappointment, or if he didn’t he hid it well. As the games passed by without him, he remained bright, engaging company.
I contacted him to wish him well and ask for his thoughts on his time with the Millers and was disappointed to not even receive an acknowledgement. He’s better than that.
Living in Wickersley, he could be spotted having a coffee with a teammate or out and about with his girlfriend in his white Mercedes. He liked his sports gear and I never saw him in anything other than high-end trackies and trainers.
His time with Rotherham couldn’t have got off to a worse start: a serious knee injury suffered 20 minutes into his first training match at Roundwood before his signing had even been announced.
As news of his arrival broke on social media, he was laid out on a stretcher in ashen-faced discomfort and receiving oxygen as he was gingerly transported into an ambulance.
The player healed quickly and less than three months later came his best day in a Millers shirt as he came on as a half-time sub against Doncaster Rovers in the Football League Trophy.
He won a penalty and scored the winner in a 3-2 New York victory, ripping through the visitors’ defence with a run even straighter than the parting in his squaddie’s hair and despatching the ball into the far corner.
Two weeks later, in his first start, he played a full and gritty part as Rotherham dismantled Ipswich Town in the wind and rain at Portman Road to give October notice that they were going to be serious promotion contenders.
Warne’s men duly went on to seal their place in the Championship but Clarke remained on the fringes of the squad, never letting the Millers down but neither presenting an unanswerable case that he should be in the team.
He was hooked at the interval at home to Fleetwood Town in a 2-2 draw when a wing-back outing didn’t work out and featured only once more that season.
Last term, he made the starting line-up only once, at QPR, and was used for only 15 minutes in that crazy, Covid-induced run-in when it was all hands on deck during a spell of 12 matches in 37 days.
Player and club both knew then that a parting of the ways was coming.
Cruelly, he’d become that lad at school who always gets picked last. His signing had been a worthwhile gamble, one that didn’t pay off but also one that didn’t hit Rotherham too hard in the pocket.
Clarke was ready to go; he had to go for the sake of his career. The farewell is amiable and there will always be a warm welcome at New York for a character who won the respect and affection of everyone in the Millers camp.
League Two could be his level and hopefully the Memorial Ground will be where he re-discovers himself in English football.
No longer is he a kid with everything still in front of him. He’s 23 and has two stalled years to make up for.
What he needs more than anything is to be on a pitch at 3pm, not an hour before.
WARNE: 'I LET HIM DOWN'
MANAGER Paul Warne reflected on Trevor Clarke’s two-year spell at AESSEAL New York Stadium and said: “I let him down.”
The left-back parted company with Rotherham United last week to join League Two Bristol Rovers after failing to nail down a first-team spot with the Millers.
He made just a handful of starts following his 2019 summer switch from League of Ireland side Shamrock Rovers.
“It didn’t go as well as he would have liked,” Warne said. “I let him down. I didn’t put him on the pitch as much as he wanted me to, but I have to make tough decisions. I have to pick a team that I think can win the game.”
The 23-year-old Irishman decided to accept Rovers’ offer of a one-year deal to drop down a division in search of more match action after a meeting with Warne.
“I had Trev in my office. I think the world of him,” the boss said. “He just didn’t feel like this was a club where he felt he would get the game-time that he wanted.
“It was an honest, candid conversation. You can’t keep players just for the sake of keeping them. It’s not fair on them. It’s their career.
“If he doesn’t feel like he’s going to get the game-time and I can’t win him over then it seems common sense to let him go. I’m not saying he didn’t want to be here. He’d have stayed if I’d guaranteed him a start.”
Warne is now looking to bring in a replacement as Rotherham gear up for their League One campaign and an assault on a third successive promotion from that level.
“Joe Mattock is here but I’m going to have to sign another left-back,” he said. “I wish Trev all the best and I have no doubts he will rip it up with Bristol Rovers.”
Clarke’s chances in his first year with the Millers were hit by knee damage suffered on the day of his arrival while last season Warne used the loan market rather than turn to the Republic of Ireland youth international.
“He was unlucky that he got that bad injury, then in his second season when there was a chance to play him I got in Ryan Giles,” the manager said.
“I brought ‘Gilo’ in when Trev thought that would be his chance to play. Gilo was a great addition.
“It’s my job to try to keep the culture right and play the best team. Unfortunately, with that there are always losers in every football squad.
“I do think I let Trev down. He didn’t get to show the fans what he had. I hope he does that at Bristol Rovers.”
TREVOR ON HIS ROVERS SWITCH
“I’m looking forward to getting in with the lads and hitting the ground running.
“The gaffer has rang me and told me about the way he wants to play and what they’re doing as a club, what he expects from his players and what he has in mind for me.
“It didn’t take long to convince me to come here and I’m buzzing to be here now. Hopefully I can chip in with a few goals and a couple of assists.
“The main aim is getting the club back to where it belongs, getting promoted back up into League One.
“It’s big to play under the manager (Joey Barton). He’s had a great career and getting the opportunity to play under him is unbelievable.
“I’m dying to get going. Over the past two years I haven’t got much game-time but I’m looking to show the fans at Bristol Rovers what I can do and what I’m about.”
Boss Barton said: “We are delighted to secure the services of Trevor. It’s important to recruit players on ability and character and he’s a great addition in both areas.
“His legs and high energy will be vital to our team and it’s a bonus that he joins us early in pre-season so he can quickly get acquainted with us.”
League One: four starts, four sub apps
FA Cup: one start
Football League Trophy: one sub app, one goal
Championship: one start, eight sub apps
FA Cup: one sub app