Ciaran Clark’s Aston Villa progress is stalled by an injury at the worst possible time

Before signing Phil Jones in the summer, there was speculation linking Manchester United with a move for Aston Villa’s reigning Young Player of the Year Ciaran Clark. Like Jones, Clark could be regarded as amongst the cream of his club’s academy graduates, can function in a variety of different positions and appears destined for a very bright future. With Ashley Young bound for Old Trafford, a swoop for the pair was mooted but eventually failed to materialise.

Clark remains at Villa Park and his continued progress has been one of the few positives for Villa fans this season. Under a manager they never wanted in the first place Villa’s season is unfolding against a backdrop of fan unrest, relating to a meagre six wins in 25 Premier League games.

Prior to Sunday’s 1-0 defeat against Manchester City, Clark had appeared in Villa’s previous 10 games, after featuring infrequently towards the start of the season. With Richard Dunne and James Collins the favoured pairing at the heart of the Villa defence, Clark played in only four of the first 18 games this season, having made 22 appearances in all competitions last term under Gerard Houllier. In recent games, Clark has filled in at full-back and in central midfield to great effect, and will be hoping his versatility will result in regular first team football for him to stand any chance of earning a place in the Republic of Ireland Euro 2012 squad.

Having captained England at U19 and U20 level, Clark was approached by officials from the FA of Ireland in September 2010 and decided to switch his allegiance, eventually making his debut against Wales last February. Omitted from recent squads, with Giovanni Trapattoni favouring Dunne, John O’Shea, Stephen Kelly, Stephen Ward, Sean St Ledger and Paul McShane, Clark is in competition with the likes of Marc Wilson, Darren O’Dea and Kevin Foley as an outside bet for inclusion.

Although his adaptability has proven to be a strength thus far, like Jones he will need to feature in a set position on a regular basis if he is to fulfil his undoubted potential. On Sunday, Clark missed the opportunity to line up against Gareth Barry, who in many respects is his Aston Villa prototype, starting out at centre-back, before moving to the left and eventually establishing a role as a deep lying midfield enforcer.

Having damaged knee ligaments in training at the weekend, he is facing a lengthy absence at the worst possible time. Dunne injured his shoulder on Sunday and is also likely to miss the foreseeable future. Had Clark been available, a sustained run in his favoured position may have ensued and he would have been in with a shout of deputising for his club teammate in the upcoming friendly between Ireland and the Czech Republic.

The loss of both Dunne and Clark compounds Villa’s current predicament. Having slipped to 15th in the table, a group of supporters gathered before Sunday’s defeat to demand McLeish’s departure. The manager responded by praising Villa’s performance in a close contest and asking fans to get behind the team, regardless of their feelings towards him. If Aston Villa are to salvage their season, they will need everyone to pull in the same direction. A change in luck would also appear overdue.

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