Goalkeepers are a special breed and a good one is worth their weight in gold. No top football team is complete without a reliable and safe pair of hands between the sticks and as the last line of defence they’re often the difference between winning and losing, success and failure. They can be heroes or villains, and an incredible amount of mental toughness is required to play in what is the loneliest position on the football pitch.
A man who has all of the attributes required to be considered a top ‘keeper is St. Johnstone’s Zander Clark. The 25-year-old has risen through the ranks at McDiarmid Park and over the past few seasons he has battled with Northern Irish international Alan Mannus for the right to be the club’s number one. His eye-catching performances have even led to the towering shot stopper being touted for a potential Scotland call-up.
For Zander, it’s been a long journey and he’s had to overcome injury struggles and cut his teeth in the lower leagues to get to where he is now. It’s a far cry from the self-confessed “podgy young lad” who loved going to the park with his brother and his friends, playing the game he loves for hours on end.
“We’d always be having a kickabout in the park,” he said, “I’d just go down with my brother and our friends and it was always great fun. It’s fair to say I liked my grub a bit too much when I was a kid and that meant I kind of fell into the goalkeeping position because of my build!
“From there it just progressed and I went on to play for the local boys’ club and was playing a couple of age groups above myself. One or two of the lads who played for the team were scouted by Celtic and it was actually one of their parents who recommended me to the coaches there. I got invited for a trial and ended up joining the youth set-up and that was my first steps into the professional game.”
After a couple of years within the Parkhead club’s youth ranks, Zander made the switch to bitter rivals Rangers and trained at the old Murray Park facility before ending up at Hamilton. It was at Accies – a club renowned for producing talented players – that he began to dream of a career in the game. It was there where he was able to get a real insight into what it would take to make it as a footballer but despite enjoying his time at New Douglas Park it wasn’t to be, and following his release and a bad injury it looked like his hopes of becoming a professional was beginning to slip away.
“When I was at Hamilton I was obviously that bit older than I was at Celtic or Rangers, so I was beginning to get a taste of what it was like to make it. I was seeing the first-team training and playing and I was feeling like it was going to be a natural progression for me to get to that level. I loved my time there it was a great experience for me. I applied for apprenticeships and was facing the reality of having to give up my hopes of playing football for a living.
“Unfortunately, I ended up being released by the club and a few weeks later I dislocated my shoulder. So, there I was, without a club and with a bad injury to try and battle back from too. At that point I thought it was all over and I started to pursue other interests. I applied for apprenticeships and was facing the reality of having to give up my hopes of playing football for a living.”
With things looking bleak for Zander, an opportunity arose and he was able to grab it with both hands. St. Johnstone’s then Head of Youth Development – Tommy Campbell – was urgently looking for a goalkeeper for the club’s U17 side and he was pointed in the direction of a 16-year-old free agent who had recently recovered from injury.
“It came out of the blue,” Zander told me, “it was one of my old Hamilton teammates who had ended up at St. Johnstone. The U17s had just started their season and there was a bit of an emergency with regards to their goalkeeping situation.
“My ex- teammate had recommended me and I got the call from Tommy asking me to come along to training so that Derek McInnes and Tony Docherty could take a look at me. I ended up being there for a three-week trial and at the end of it Del and Doc offered me a short-term contract.
“It was a great opportunity and one that I knew I had to take. We had a fantastic squad and I joined about a quarter of the way through that successful season. I think we only lost one or two matches that year – and when I look back at the class throughout that squad I’m sad that so many of that team haven’t made the grade.
“We had Stevie May and Stephen Reynolds up top and they both had a knack of scoring goals. You could always see Mayzo had something and I’m not surprised he’s done so well for himself. Reynolds had bags of talent too but it was the loan spells that made the difference. Mayzo’s were a lot more successful and it helped him to kick on to the next level.”
And, just like Stevie May, loan spells would prove crucial to Zander’s development as well. First he would head north to Elgin City to play for then-manager Ross Jack, before two successive seasons in Dumfries playing in the Scottish Championship for Queen of the South.
Looking back on his loan spells away from McDiarmid Park, the lofty ‘keeper believes that the experience gained from playing in a competitive environment has helped him to raise his game and become a first-team player at St. Johnstone.
“It was a new experience for me as I’d always been involved at youth team level. I’d played a couple of games for the reserves but to be coming up against men playing competitive football with a meaning to every game, that really made a big difference.
“I was only 19-years-old when I went there and I was coming up against grown men who may not have been technically as gifted as the top-level players but were tough and took no prisoners. It was a real eye-opener!
“It built my mental strength though and it benefited me massively. We had a successful season and finished in the playoffs, plus it gave me a good platform to progress in my next loan spell at Queen of the South. I was initially signed on a 28-day emergency loan as cover for Callum Antell but I managed to impress them enough to extend the deal. I could never have imagined just how well it would work out.
“I went back the second season and there was so much focus on the Championship – probably more so than the Premiership – because Rangers, Hibs and Hearts were all in the league. To be under that spotlight and do well did wonders for my career and we had a great season, finishing in the playoffs in such a strong division. After that season I knew I was ready to step up again and fight for my place here.” Alan Mannus has done magnificently for the club - I’m delighted I get to come in everyday and work with him and the goalkeeping coach, Paul Mathers.
That’s exactly what Clark did and in the following season he made his debut against Tayside rivals Dundee United in a 2-1 win in September 2015, coming off the bench after Alan Mannus was sent-off. The following week he was part of the side that won 5-1 at Pittodrie, and the imposing youngster was beginning to stake his claim for a regular place in the team.
Over the course of that season and into the next, Zander continued to push the experienced Alan Mannus for the number one spot and since then, both have enjoyed spells as the manager’s preferred choice. The fact that the club effectively has two first-choice goalkeepers is a massive bonus to Tommy Wright, and Zander thinks that the competition is healthy and is helping to improve him as a player.
“It’s great because I’m learning all the time. Alan Mannus has done magnificently for the club and he’s an international-level goalkeeper so obviously he’s a great player. I’m delighted I get to come in everyday and work with him and the goalkeeping coach, Paul Mathers. I feel like Alan and I push each other every day and it can only be a good thing for the team.
“When I got into the team last season, I felt like I had to be at my best every single week because just one mistake could put me out of the team for the foreseeable future. I’d like to think that Alan feels the same about having me as competition too.
“There’s only one place in the team up for grabs and I think the battle brings out the best in us both. The future looks bright as well because the younger ‘keepers at the club are extremely talented too. Mark Hurst, Ben McKenzie and Ross Sinclair all have bags of potential and it won’t be long before they’re knocking on the door as well.”
After a strong 2017, Zander’s performances led to many within the game talking up his chances of making the Scotland squad. His manager Tommy Wright – a former goalkeeper who was himself capped 31 times at international level for Northern Ireland – has been one of the most vocal about his ‘keeper deserving to be in the discussion when it comes to international recognition.
And for the very humble Zander, while it remains a dream for him to represent his country he’s not looking too far ahead and wants to keep his focus squarely on what he’s doing at club-level with Saints.
“I’ll be totally honest with you it’s not something I really think about too much,” he told me, “and I’ve never felt hard done by when it comes to not being selected for Scotland. My focus is purely on St. Johnstone and I want to do well here and secure my place in the team.
“If I put in the performances that I know I’m capable of then who knows where it might take me but that’s something I’ll think about if that situation ever arises. It would be a dream come true for me and it would be very special for my family and friends too. It would be a dream come true to represent Scotland and it would be very special for my family and friends too.
“It’s nice to know that people within the game think that highly of you, and especially when it comes from the manager because he’s played at international level and knows what it takes to get there. To hear those words is pleasing but the focus for me is making sure I continue to do well for my club first and foremost.”
We’re now heading into the final stages of the 2017/18 season, one that has been frustrating for the club and for Zander himself. He’s hoping the team can pull together for a strong finish and while the top-six looks to be a stretch too far he still believes the side can climb up the league table.
From a personal perspective, the 25-year-old has now been at the club for nearly a decade and is under contract until at least May 2020. He’s now hoping he can make the number one spot his own and remain at McDiarmid Park in the years to come.
“It’s been a difficult season but we’re still in a reasonable position and we just need to take each game as it comes. I know that sounds cliché but if we can put in the performances everybody knows we’re capable of and get back to the team that’s hard to beat, then I’m sure we’ll climb up the table before the end of the season.
“It’s going to be tough to break into that top-six but you never know. All we can do is try to get as many points as possible on the board, make sure we’re safe from the wrong end of the table, and then wait and see what happens.
“I absolutely love it here and I hope I’m going to be around for a long time to come. I feel like the club took a chance on me at the very beginning and gave me an opportunity to prove myself. If you’d said to me all those years ago – when I first signed that short-term contract – that I’d still be here now, I probably would have laughed and said no chance. It’s been amazing and it’s worked out great for me at St. Johnstone.”
With Alan Mannus currently enjoying a run in the first-team, Zander will be hoping to reclaim the number one spot before the end of the current campaign. And if his performances over the past 18 months are anything to go by, there’s every chance that Saints could have a future Scottish international goalkeeper in their ranks.
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