“I want to encourage everyone, though, especially him, to keep their feet on the ground because there is a long way to go. He is definitely a good player and he will have games like this but what he cannot do now is stop being humble and look to learn from his teammates and coaches.”
As much as he was happy to praise Jahmari Clarke for his match-winning brace at Birmingham City on Saturday, Veljko Paunovic was also keen to temper expectations. That’s no surprise - after all, there are few better ways to send everyone’s expectations sky-rocketing through the roof than two well-taken goals in front of the away end to seal a crucial away victory.
As someone who’s never got close to playing football on an amateur basis, let alone a professional one, let alone spending a decade developing at a club, I can’t imagine how scoring those winning goals felt. Suffice to say that Jahmari Clarke must have been absolutely buzzing.
His brace capped off what has so far been a rapid rise through the ranks. At the time of Pauno’s appointment in August 2020, Clarke was a 16 year-old plying his trade in the under-18s. It wasn’t until late November that he’d made the first of his two cameos for the under-23s that season. I’ll admit not knowing his first name when he made his senior debut, coming off the bench in the League Cup at the start of this season.
A never-ending injury pile-up since then has kept the door open for involvement in the first team, with Clarke being included in each of the 16 Championship matchday squads since that Swansea cup tie. However, while George Puscas’ inability to find the net has led to an increasing clamour for Clarke to get more game time, Pauno has distinctly ignored those calls. The youngster has been handed 10 appearances off the bench, with all but two lasting 5-14 minutes. Clarke’s only extended Championship appearances have been the 45 minutes at St Andrew’s and 27 at Derby County.
That’s a modest amount of first-team involvement, but it’s huge when you put it in a broader context. This is a player who was given just 11 league minutes for the under-23s across the entirety of the 2020/21 campaign. He’s already on 143 for the senior side, and we’re only a third of the way through the season.
The logical next step is that, fitness permitting (more on that later), Clarke will start for the first team after the international break at home to Nottingham Forest. He clearly deserves that for his performance against Birmingham City, and that’s before you get to Puscas’ poor form in front of goal. Not starting Clarke next time out would feel illogical and harsh. And what about beyond that? Has Clarke now decisively leapfrogged Puscas in the pecking order, at least until other striking options return from injury?
There’s a risk that all of us - player and fans alike - get ahead of ourselves. It’s hugely exciting to see a young player announce themselves on the big stage with a performance that demands attention, and thoughts naturally turn to what he’ll do next. Maybe he’ll burst into excellent form, perhaps he’ll net 20 goals and fire us to the Premier League. That brace at St Andrew’s proved he can score goals - why shouldn’t he immediately kick on?
Let’s take a step back for a minute. Clarke was an under-18 player last season, has been fast-tracked through the ranks since then and eased into first-team involvement, culminating in an excellent 45 minutes at St Andrew’s. He’s far from the finished product or even close to it - no one at his stage of development is.
Clarke will have much tougher games than he did against Birmingham City. Sometimes he’ll be bullied out of the game by street-wise veteran centre halves, other times he won’t get the service he’s crying out for, and on some occasions he’ll simply have an unlucky afternoon. That’s to be expected of experienced strikers, let alone one who only turned 18 just over a month ago.
He may also have better games than that - whether in scoring himself, setting others up or leading the line as a target man who links the play and acts as a vital outlet. Perhaps he’ll even now kick on and do all of that on a regular basis. But expecting that of him would be unfair, likely setting the bar too high.
As Pauno said in the quote up top, everyone needs to keep their feet on the ground. So what does that mean in practice for us as fans? After all, supporters have a large influence in how we act towards players - whether on social media or on match day. That influence can be more profound on a younger player who’s not used to being in the spotlight.
- Don’t be too disappointed if things don’t come off for him. If he has a poor overall performance, makes a mistake or misses a chance, that’s fine. Those moments are common for younger players, and he’ll learn from them.
- It doesn’t mean being a miserable sod (as I may look in writing this piece) and not being excited at all. Far from it - positivity and support will be vital, especially if he’s going through a more difficult patch.
- Be understanding when Clarke isn’t being played - whether he’s left out completely or not being used as much as you’d like.
This last one says a lot about the context in which Clarke’s coming through. It’d be easier to understand him being used sparingly if Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite were both fully fit and scoring freely, but Puscas’ extended poor form gives a sense of immediacy to Clarke’s development. After all, Clarke has scored and Puscas hasn’t, so on the face of things it’s pretty easy to work out who should be in the team.
It’s at that point when we risk getting carried away. Clarke has scored more goals than Puscas, therefore he’s better, therefore he needs to play all the time, therefore he needs to perform to first-team standard... and so on. That’s a lot of pressure for a player who, remember, wasn’t even a regular in the under-23s before breaking into the senior side.
Making that kind of jump successfully - and then sustaining it - is rare for a young talent. It’s tempting to think fondly of Michael Olise’s development, given how well he was performing at a young age, but it still took an extended period for him to transition from academy to Championship standard. First a few appearances under Jose Gomes in 2018/19, then being eased into the first team under Mark Bowen who played him more regularly in the second half of 2019/20, before truly coming good last season.
In the immediate term, we’re pretty much looking at a question of ‘Clarke or Puscas’ for the first team. Clarke will probably start after the international break - which would be deserved for his outing at St Andrews. That’s assuming he’s fit to do so, which may or may not be true after it emerged that he wore a protective boot after playing 45 minutes for the under-23s last Monday night. At this stage though, without confirmation Clarke is out, or even information strongly suggesting any medium/long-term injury, I’ll assume he’s fine and the boot is just a precaution.
Hearing that it’s true, Jahmari Clarke has been wearing a walking boot #ReadingFC— Eddie Wallbank (@EddieRFC7) November 12, 2021
If it is a case of ‘Clarke or Puscas’, Pauno would still be wise to make use of Puscas. Going back to the Olise comparison, Pauno managed the youngster last season by bringing him in and out of the side to keep him fresh and reduce the pressure on him - rather than playing him as much as possible. The need to do that for Clarke, who is at a huge earlier stage in his development, is even clearer. So it would make sense if Clarke and Puscas are swapped in matches - continuing Pauno’s habit of subbing one for the other this season - and rotated in and out of the starting XI.
While that approach is geared towards taking care of Clarke, instilling an element of real competition to start up front may have the added benefit of bringing more out of Puscas. He did after all seem to perform that bit better when subbed on at Blackburn Rovers - having been dropped for Femi Azeez in the original starting line-up.
Really though, the question of ‘Clarke or Puscas?’ has a distinctly short shelf life. It won’t be long before other candidates for first-team action return to the scene: false nine Hoilett will hopefully be back after the international break, Femi Azeez’ injury shouldn’t be a long-term one, and Nahum Melvin-Lambert’s loan spell at St Pats is due to expire this month.
And ultimately, the priority with Clarke was and still is his long-term development. The question is not how many goals he’ll score this season or how high up the pecking order he is, but how good he’ll be in a few years’ time. There’s no need to rush him.