“Welcome to African football,” said one of his coaching staff, a stench of sabotage in the air.
Lee Clark had just returned to his new home of Omdurman with two-thirds of his Al-Merrikh squad after a farcical third game in charge of the Sudanese club – a Champions League game against the Tanzanian Simba – when he received the news that the eight players left in Dar es Salaam after positive Covid results were subsequently tested negative on the eve of kick-off.
‘We had had Covid tests on Thursday because we left early on Saturday morning. Everyone was tested negative and that meant that all players and the entire staff could travel freely, ” explains Clark.
Former Newcastle midfielder Lee Clark was announced this month as Al-Merrikh’s new boss
Clark addresses his players in one of three games he’s led to date
Tournament rules say that once you are in your opponents’ country you should be retested and that should actually be done by CAF, which is the equivalent of UEFA.
‘That didn’t happen, so we had to go to a local hospital that only had one lab. We waited five hours for each individual player and staff member to be tested and then did not get the results back within the allotted 24-hour timeframe.
“ We’ve done all of our tactical and technical work, and just before my last team meeting at 1:30 pm prior to a four-hour kick-off, I was told eight players had tested positive, six of them from the starting XI.
We had to rip everything open and it was a matter of fitting many round pegs into square holes: players who shouldn’t have played so early in their comebacks from injury, a winger on right back, two midfielders in the center of defense. .
‘The players who tested positive had to stay in Tanzania to be retested when we flew home and unsurprisingly they all tested negative. They all returned within a few days and started training again as usual.
The 48-year-old is getting used to the heat in Sudan after a surprise move to Africa
Al-Merrikh is the champion of Sudan and shares Manchester United’s nickname ‘Red Devils’
‘Negative three days before the match, negative the day after. Read in it what you want. Our legal department has sent a letter to CAF. ‘
Aside from that 3-0 defeat, Clark has enthusiastically embraced a return to the dugout in unfamiliar surroundings. While he hasn’t seen much outside of hotels, he has won two of the two domestically and has a say in the matter Sportsmail from a week-long training camp prior to this weekend’s visit to Al Ahly in Egypt.
‘This is going to be a difficult game, make no mistake. They are the equivalent of a Real Madrid or Bayern Munich in European terms. They’re the powerhouse as nine-time winners of the competition, but if I can pick my strongest team, we might be a little shocked. ‘
Clark had never been to Africa when he took on the challenge of becoming the head coach at Manchester United in Sudan – they share the nickname of the Red Devils – after suffering some setbacks in a management career that started with a record 43 unbeaten games in the Football League. Huddersfield in regular season football, but has since had relegation fights, successful and unsuccessful, with Birmingham, Blackpool and Bury.
Clark made a name for himself as a player at Newcastle (L) and impressed as Huddersfield manager (R)
“ I’ve always said I’d love to work abroad, I didn’t set any conditions as to where that was, ” continues the former Newcastle, Sunderland and Fulham midfielder, after taking his role as director of football at the ambitious non- League team has left Newcastle. Blue Star to take up the challenge.
‘When people contacted me about certain positions, the answer was always yes when it came to working in another country. My attitude has always been that I would be willing to listen to anything.
So when an agent I knew while in charge of Birmingham City contacted me, I saw it as an experience to put in the tool bag. No coaching course can match these kinds of things. ‘
During his Zoom interviews, Clark was sold for the 40,000 full houses for continental collision – outside of current Covid restrictions – plus the intense city rivalry with Al-Hilal, who leaves Al-Merrikh three points behind with a game in hand: There is incredible support for these two clubs. We are literally neighbors. They are just across the road, it’s a similar situation to Dundee and Dundee United. ‘
Clark has won both of his league games since signing a one-year contract with the club
Despite the language barrier, the ex-Birmingham boss is shouting instructions from the sidelines
And so 48 hours after Ricardo Formosinho, a former assistant to Jose Mourinho at both Manchester United and Tottenham, was taught about the Al-Ardha divide, Clark became the first Englishman to join the football ranks in Sudan, a country according to the Islamic law for 37 years until it became a secular state in 2020.
There won’t be a post-game glass of wine after the two face off in this season’s still-to-be-contested derbies, as alcohol was only recently made legal again for non-Muslims and Clark respects the culture of a country ‘where people can’t do enough for you ‘.
Although he has a car, he has chosen a driver because ‘it’s like the crazy races on the roads’ and another thing you have to get used to is temperatures of 40 degrees a day. “It is the first time in my coaching career that I have worn a cap,” he says.
Due to the heat, training sessions are regularly held at 6am or late afternoon, sometimes both on the same day, but the 48-year-old immerses herself in a country looking to make a mark on the continent’s football map.
Clark, pictured, putting his contract on paper, will soon be hiring his own assistant
The former Blackpool and Bury boss gets used to his new life and gets to know his team
Last weekend, he was brought in with the staff behind closed doors at the Red Castle, which also serves as the national stadium, to watch his midfielder Saifeldin Malik Bakhit score the opening goal in a 2-0 win over South Africa that broke Sudan. to the final of next year’s African Nations Cup, with Bafana Bafana sentenced to third in the group and elimination.
There is a long-term plan to start an academy in Al-Merrikh and forge links with English clubs; a shorter period of time to call in his own assistant manager. For now, he is grateful to strength and conditioning coach Islam Gamal for interpreting messages and instructions between him and his players.
This latest job offer coincided with the death of his mentor Glenn Roeder, who offered Clark his first steps as a coach at St James’ Park.
It was an incredibly sad news story, but what made me proud and laughed a lot was all the fantastic messages, not just from Newcastle fans, there was so much positivity all over the country, even from those who had only met him for a fleeting time, Clark says.
Clark stands next to Glenn Roeder after he got the chance to coach Newcastle in 2006
As Newcastle captain and manager, he became an adopted Geordie and is someone who always puts other people first. I spoke to him via text six weeks or so before his death and he just wanted to know how I was doing and how the family was doing. That was typical Glenn.
‘I first knew him when I was a schoolboy and Willie McFaul was going to bring me in over the holidays to train with the first team. We were always in touch and years later he hired me when he was a manager and when he took the job in Norwich he asked me to go as his assistant.
“Moving from the Premier League to the Championship and to a completely different part of the country is not something I would have done for other people.”
In retrospect, it also seems to have sparked a new philosophy: “I love football and I don’t pigeonhole myself to work at a certain level or somewhere.”