The only Englishman to ever play for Ajax: I bet you’ve never heard of him

ray clarke ajax There have been many famous players to grace Ajax of Amsterdam. Johan Cruyff, Ruud Krol, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Frank Rijkaard, Jari Litmanen, Johan Neeskens. There’s also been many a top player from England to play abroad. John Charles, Jimmy Greaves, Kevin Keegan, Ray Wilkins, Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle to name but a few. However, none of those ever wore the iconic red and white shirt. In fact, only one Englishman has ever done, and I doubt you’ve heard of him, as he was never capped for his country. His name was Ray Clarke.

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He only spent one year at the De Meer Stadion but he won the double. Quite an achievement for someone who became more famous in Netherlands and Belgium than he was at home. He certainly played for bigger clubs abroad than he did here in England. Such was his impact on the club, fans drove for miles to beg him to come back after he was sold.

Clarke had one important quality about him. He could score goals.

Born in 1952 in Hackney, Clarke was spotted at the age of 15 by legendary Spurs manager Bill Nicholson. He told the Tottenham Hotspur website

“The funny thing is, I grew up supporting Arsenal, as did my father,. But one afternoon, Bill Nicholson asked my headmaster for permission to come to my school to speak to me. Bill asked if I could leave school at an early age to sign for Spurs as he felt I had a chance of making it as a professional footballer. The fact he took time out of his busy schedule to talk to me swung my decision to join Spurs over Arsenal.”

He was a prolific goalscorer in the youth and reserve teams at White Hart Lane. His 45 goals in 53 games helped the club with the FA Youth Cup, London Youth Cup and Southern Junior Floodlit Cup in 1969-70. Playing alongside Graeme Souness, Mike Flanagan, Steve Perryman and Barry Daines, they won virtually every competition they took part in.

155 goals in 228 matches soon lead to a First Team appearance when he came on as sub for Alan Gilzean against Leicester City in April 1973.

Gilzean became a major reason Clarke’s future was away from North London. He and Martin Chivers were the regular strike force at Tottenham and it was obvious Clarke was going to have to wait to ever get the chance to oust them. Nicholson knew this and knew Clarke just wanted to play. The club accepted an offer from Swindon Town and off Clarke went down the M4 to Wiltshire.

Unfortunately for the player, a broken ankle restricted his appearances and his record at the County Ground is far from impressive, with 2 goals in 14 matches. But he had talent and the new Mansfield Town boss, Dave Smith. The Stags were the first club to offer Smith, a former coach at Newcastle United, a managerial position. He needed someone to score goals and Clarke was his man.

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If Stags’ fans were a little underwhelmed by the acquisition it didn’t take long to change their mind. He scored in his second game, a 1-0 win away at Scunthorpe, then in the next game as they beat Rochdale 2-0 at home. October saw him score eight times in nine appearances as the club were soon top of the table.

Clarke had started his career at First Division Spurs, dropped to the Third Division with Swindon and was now ripping up trees with Mansfield in the Fourth. He played every game as they won the title, scoring 28 goals. He scored twice in the title-clincher as they hit Scunthorpe 7-0. He also starred in an FA Cup run which took them all the way to the Fifth Round. All in all, he hit 30 goals and was an instant fan favourite.

In 2007 when reflecting on his move to Mansfield, he told the Times;

“Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to move two steps forward. It was the best thing I did. From day one it just clicked and because I was playing in the first team regularly, I had a lot of confidence. Mansfield almost sold me twice in my first season. They turned down an offer of £35,000 from Grimsby and £60,000 from Wolves. We were a good side and very attacking.

I scored 99.9% of my goals from inside 12 yards. I had an instinct for scoring’”

The following season he hit a further 24 goals during a real Jekyll and Hyde season. At the end of February, they were rock bottom of the table. Remarkably they then went on a 19-game unbeaten run and finished mid-table. Clarke played a crucial part in this, scoring in 10 of those matches hitting a total of 14. He scored three times in a League Cup run which took them to the Fifth Round, losing to Manchester City. In the Third Round, he fired them in front after just 70 seconds against Coventry City.

March 1976 saw him bang in form as the Match of the Day cameras turned up for their meeting with Peterborough United at London Road. He scored twice in a 3-0 win. Two days later he scored his third hat-trick for the club at home to Southend United.

30 goals in his first season was followed by 29 in his second. But Clarke was getting restless. His career just couldn’t handle another season in the English third tier, so he shocked the club with a transfer request just three days after the end of the season.

He loved his time at Field Mill and often spoke fondly about it for the rest of his career and afterwards.

“Mansfield was the making of my career in many respects.”

But he was ambitious.

Third Division champions, Hereford United, were the first club to make an offer but Mansfield eventually received a bid for £90,000 from Sparta Rotterdam and it was far too good for the club or the player to turn down. The Dutch club had approached Wolves boss, Bill McGarry but he turned them down. When they asked him to recommend a goalscorer he had no hesitation in giving them Clarke’s name.

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In the Eredivisie, he hit 16 goals in his first season and was once again his club’s top scorer. He endeared himself to the club’s fans when he scored in a 3-1 win at Ajax. Sparta improved on their seventh place finish with a fifth-place a season later. Clarke hit 19 this time with only Ruud Geels and Kees Kist scoring more

Sparta was managed by Cor Brom, who’d had spells at Vitesse and Fortuna Sittard. After two years in Rotterdam, Brom came to the attention of club officials at Ajax. He was chosen to succeed Tomislav Ivic. The Croatian had won the title in his first season, but a second place finish a year later saw him move on. Not only did the manager move on, but their star striker also took his leave. Ruud Geels was the top scorer in the Netherlands for four successive seasons, regularly scoring 30+ goals.

Brom’s solution to the massive goalscoring hole in the Ajax side was to bring Clarke with him. The Englishman seemed less than overawed at his famous new home. This was just five years after they won their third successive European Cup, but the likes of Cruyff and Neeskens had moved on. Despite winning the title in 1976 the club was struggling to rekindle the good times. PSV and Feyenoord were gaining strength and it looked like they were no longer top dogs. They had some talented players such as Ruud Krol, Piet Schrijvers and Dick Schoenaker. Added to that were some promising youngsters such as Simon Tahamata and Tscheu La Ling, as well as two exciting young Danes, Soren Lerby and Frank Arnesen. Ajax fans were desperate for a new hero. Clarke fitted the bill perfectly.

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“Everything about Ajax was totally new to me. One problem was that the quality there was so much higher than anything I’d been used to before.”

“Everything that was done at Ajax – the way they trained and played, the fitness levels, technical ability, mental application and of course the culture of ‘Total Football’ – was on a different level to any other club I had been a part of previously. I was playing with some unbelievably good players like Ruud Krol, Frank Arnesen, Soren Lerby.

He scored in the opening minute of his debut in a 7-1 win away to NAC Breda.

“It took me a few months to settle in, but by the November I felt I’d really adapted to the style of football at Ajax,”

In the UEFA Cup, he scored twice in the First Round as they came back from a 0-2 aggregate loss to beat Athletic Bilbao. Another brace against Swiss side, Lausanne-Sport saw them into the last 16. He scored in both legs against Honved, but it wasn’t enough to stop them from going out.

“When you’re a striker, you get judged on your goals. Not only was I lucky to score a good amount that season, but I also scored some important goals. I scored in the Dutch Cup Final against FC Twente. In fairness, Twente should have won that game as our performance wasn’t very good at all. But it went to a replay and I scored again as we won 3-0. A few days later, I scored a late equaliser against AZ 67, which was enough for us to seal the Eredivisie with one match still to play.”

At Ajax, he came under the influence of Cees Koppelaar. The Dutch athlete was working with the team as a trainer. He trained Cruyff and years later, Marco van Basten.

He taught Clarke how to run properly and how to use weights to build his explosiveness.

Within months Cruyff arrived at the club ahead of his testimonial match. The Dutch master had turned his back on his country and was playing in NASL. But returned for one last hurrah;

“He trained with us for six weeks. He talked to me about movement, getting into certain positions, seeing things a little bit earlier.”

“I used to go round his house. It gave me amazing confidence, more than anything.”

He scored 26 goals in the league as they lifted the title. His five goals in the KNVB Cup helped them win the double. Add to the six goals in the UEFA Cup and he’d banged in 37 in his first season.

He considered Arnesen and Krol to be the best players he played with.

“I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate just good he(Krol) was until you played with him.”

In an interview a few years ago he explained how proud of his record he was

“I thought I’d cracked it. I fitted the system and I was accepted by the fans.

They used to stick things up behind the goal such as ‘Ray Clarke, King of Ajax’ – that kind of stuff. To be put in the same category as people like Cruyff, Krol and Johnny Rep was a bit humbling really.”

In an interview with Dan King, he explained how he was taught a valuable lesson about the Dutch psyche.

“On one occasion he was playing down his ability to reporters after scoring five goals in two games. Assistant manager, Bobby Haarms,

‘If I hear you talk like that again, I will have you in training every single day, morning and afternoon. When people ask you how you played, you tell them you are the best striker in Holland. You don’t say you did all right’. The Dutch have got this little bit of arrogance. It’s a fine line.”

The fans loved him. When he scored the late-minute winner against AZ, which confirmed the title win, he was carried off the pitch on their shoulders.

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During his time in Amsterdam, he came to the attention of England manager Ron Greenwood. In those days players could often find leaving the country took them out of sight. But Keegan was now making waves in Hamburg so things started to open up. Unfortunately, Greenwood’s interest in the player didn’t go down well with the Ajax board who refused to release him. That’s as near as he ever got to an international cap.

Life was good. Clarke signed an extension to his contract and looked forward to the new season. He was not prepared for what happened next.

In a manner similar to his shock announcement at Mansfield when things were going so well, Ajax Chairman, Ton Harmsen, produced his own bombshell by putting the player on the transfer list. The fans protested in vain and Clarke was off to Bruges in Belgium.

“A new chairman arrived at Ajax at the end of that season and I ended up being sold. It was a big period of change for Ajax and lots of big players were sold not long after I left, like Krol, Arnesen, Simon Tahamata. In hindsight, I should have dug my heels in a bit more in order to stay.”

He arrived in Belgium to a club just 12 months after their appearance in the European Cup Final.

Normally the player carried many things in his stride, but the Ajax exit really affected him. Even Cruyff came out publicly and blasted the board. Fans even drove all the way from Amsterdam to Bruges to deliver 400 letters begging him to stay.

He admitted years later he just didn’t kick on in Belgium. He only made eight appearances before he was making his next move. This time back home. However, the decision was completely football-related as his wife, Cindy, was diagnosed with a heart problem.


Former Tottenham player, Alan Mullery was keen to secure his services at Brighton. John Vinicombe recalled what happened in ‘Super Seagulls’, a book about the club’s first season in the top flight;

“The arrival of Clarke was a vital injection and his cheerfulness did much to cast off the blues. He was a fresh mind looking at Albion’s situation, and reminded despairing fans: ‘It is ridiculous for people to write Brighton off at this stage. I remember in my second season at Mansfield the team was bottom after 26 games with only 16 points, but in our last 20 games we won 15 and drew five and finished sixth (sic: 11th) from top.’ That was the sort of fighting talk people wanted to hear on the eve of a second meeting with Arsenal”

He arrived at the Goldstone Ground to a club struggling in the First Division having come up the previous season. Ironically also on the south coast was his former Spurs teammate, Chivers but the two never played in the same side for the Seagulls.

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Clarke made his debut at Highbury in a 0-3 defeat to Arsenal at the beginning of November 1979. Brighton were bottom of the table after 13 matches. He scored his first goal for the club in his home debut a week later when Liverpool visited. He lined up alongside Peter Ward for the first time and the two soon developed a good understanding of each other.

His introduction to life back in England was a real baptism of fire. After the trip to Arsenal and the meeting with league champions, Liverpool, they were off to the City Ground to take on Nottingham Forest, the current European champions. Forest were currently on a 49-game unbeaten run at home since they’d been promoted to the First Division in April 1977.

In a result which shocked the country, Gerry Ryan’s goal won it for the Seagulls. It was a famous win and it turned the season around. They went on a run of just one defeat in their next 10 matches. They ended 16th, six points clear of the relegation zone. Clarke hit nine goals in all competitions with Ward banging in 18. Ward especially benefited from Clarke’s influence, as Vinicombe explained;

“Clarke’s strength and selfless play had a profound effect on Peter Ward. Before partnering up with Clarke, Ward was finding it hard against First Division defences. He had only scored twice in twelve Division One matches. Supported by Clarke’s hold up play and service, Albion’s star player transformed into a striker that hit around one goal every two games in Division One, quite a useful asset to have to get Albion climbing up the table.”

One moment Clarke had to endure was a trip back to his old stamping ground at Field Mill. Brighton were drawn away to Mansfield Town in the FA Cup Third Round.

After Clarke had left, Mansfield went onto win the Third Division and their one and only season in Division Two. By the time the two met up again the Stags were back in the third tier and struggling a point above the drop.

The side contained just three players Clarke had played alongside, Rod Arnold, Kevin Bird and Barry Foster. After a goalless first half Ryan put the visitors in front. Then after 79 minutes the moment everyone had been waiting for came as Clarke side-footed the ball home at the far post after being left unmarked.

As Stagsnet reported, after the game he said;

I felt really sick when I put in that goal, although naturally I was delighted for Brighton. I’ll always have a soft spot for Field Mill. I was very happy here, and it is such a happy family club. I would have no hesitation in returning if it was ever possible.”

In Matthew Horner’s biography of Ward ‘He Shot, He Scored’, Ward says;

“Ray was a good player – not at all flash , just a sound, straightforward target man. I liked playing with him and after he joined and Teddy (Maybank) left, we played every game together. I hadn’t had a regular partner since Ian Mellor in the Third Division and it helped to have some consistency. When I played alongside Ray I probably played the best football of my Brighton career – it was a shame that he left so soon.”

By now Clarke must’ve really been dreading the summer. He seemed to be sold during every one. July 1980 was no exception. He was shipped off to Second Division Newcastle United.

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Vinnicombe speculates this was fitness related. He had seen a specialist who explained his hips were disintegrating. He might have 12 months left of his career, or he might have four years. Brighton hadn’t insured him so it would be their loss if he got injured playing for them. Mullery replaced him with Michael Robinson. But Ward was never the same player again.

Clarke had been fairly free from injury during his career, other than that spell at Swindon. But now he struggled at St. James’ Park. Manager Arthur Cox started him alongside Bobby Shinton in eight of the first nine games of the season. Clarke found the net just once.

After missing the whole of October he returned for five matches without scoring. He would be seen just twice more in a Magpie shirt. He scored in his first game back in a 2-1 home win against Bolton. A week later his final match was in front of over 20,000 fans at St. James’s Park when Chris Waddle scored his first professional goal to beat QPR.

By 7 February 1980 it was all over, although he didn’t necessarily know it at the time. By the end of the season he knew. He was 27.

Initially he struggled to get a job in the game afterwards, so he went into the restaurant business. He later moved in scouting after a chance meeting with Souness. He became reserve team coach at Southampton before joining Coventry.

He is fondly remembered by Mansfield Town and Ajax. Not many players can ever make that claim.

Perhaps the last word should belong to Cruyff. Remember he was incensed at the board for shipping Clarke off after one season. In 1980 he gave an interview;

“Those people who wanted to sell Ray Clarke don’t understand that Clarke could take away two or sometimes three defenders on his own because of his vision. The board should have seen Clarke as a goalscorer or a playmaker. He made sure that Tahamata and Ling could play well – and he still scored 30 goals in one season.”