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'It was like living in Las Vegas' - the Dubliner, the Bundesliga and clubbing with Pat Kenny in Berlin

Journal.ie logo Journal.ie 29/03/2020 Eoin O'Callaghan
a person posing for the camera

THE KALLIN GOLF COURSE – about 40 minutes outside Berlin’s city centre – offers tutoring for anyone wanting to perfect their game and boasts three expert pros to assist.

One of them has been there for over 25 years and has quite the story, though it’s only sometimes when Alan Clarke’s previous life bubbles to the surface.  

In recent years, he’s become something of a collector’s item and some fanatics have desperately sought him out.

“It is a bit incredible after all this time,” he begins. 

“A guy from Leeds sent a picture here to the golf club and asked for it to be autographed. He enclosed money so I could sign it and send it back. I think they get me mixed up with the other Allan Clarke, to be honest. But I sent it off to him regardless.

“But in the 1980s, you had some sticker albums for the Bundesliga – there’d be the Bayern team with Jean-Marie Pfaff or Lothar Matthaus and Stuttgart with Jurgen Klinsmann. All of those high-profile guys were easy to get. So now, all of a sudden, these avid collectors are saying, ‘F**king hell, who’s this guy Alan Clarke? He’s missing from my album’. So I still get some stickers sent to me every few years to sign. It’s amazing, to be honest.” 

Growing up in Lucan, Clarke was part of a special Home Farm underage group and both he and Ronnie Whelan left for England at the same time. While Whelan took the first steps to becoming a Liverpool legend, Clarke joined Leeds United at seventeen, where he was involved with an excellent youth side that also featured David Seaman, current Republic of Ireland assistant manager Terry Connor and a familiar face in his former Home Farm team-mate Steve Balcombe. But his first season was interrupted by a broken ankle suffered in a collision with John Lukic. It was a bad one and he was momentarily unconscious. Inevitably, he missed the bulk of the campaign but battled back, though the first-team always seemed slightly out of reach.

By the summer of 1982, Elland Road was in his rearview mirror. Under the management of his aforementioned namesake, the club’s former striker Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke, Leeds had struggled badly and suffered an ignominious relegation from the top-flight. What followed was a mass exodus.

“We had a great youth team – Seaman, Martin Dickinson, Terry Connor – but after the senior side were relegated, lots of us were let go, even the winger Peter Barnes who they’d spent almost a million quid on,” Clarke says. 

“You were young and naive enough not to worry about getting released. I probably should have been worried but I was too busy enjoying life. And there was that thinking of, ‘Well, I’ll have no problem finding something else’. As it turned out, I had met an agent when we’d won a youth tournament in Bellinzona in Switzerland and got back in touch with him. And it all went from there. He mentioned Germany and when I got there first I actually went down to Eintracht Braunschweig, a club I had no idea about. They were in the Bundesliga and were owned by a guy called Gunter Mast. I met this fella in his oak-panelled office and I only found out later that he was also the owner of Jaegermeister. The guy was a legend in Germany and they made me an offer.”

“I actually flew back to Ireland afterwards and while I was there my agent called. He said that a team called Blau-Weiss 90 in Berlin had doubled the offer – the salary, the signing-on fee. Initially I told him, ‘Look, I’m not playing in East Germany’ because I wasn’t on the ball regarding half of Berlin actually being in the west. So, I ended up flying into Tegel Airport and went to the club to look over the contract. I was over the moon with the offer and, funnily enough, a few years later I was playing in the Bundesliga while Braunschweig were going in the opposite direction. There are so many different tracks you can take as a footballer.”

a group of people playing football on a field: Alan Clarke third from the left lines up for Blau-Weiss 90 Berlin at the city's Olympic Stadium. Alan Clarke third from the left lines up for Blau-Weiss 90 Berlin at the city's Olympic Stadium.

Blau-Weiss spent the early eighties in the lower divisions of German football but by 1984 had made it to the second tier, sitting alongside local rivals Hertha. But Berlin was an unusual football environment – a big city devoid of a big club. With the wall a constant and imposing reminder of division, the place existed in a cocoon.     

“In West Germany, you always had so many players to choose from, particularly in places like Dortmund or Schalke,” Clarke says. 

“But because Berlin was so isolated, you had a small number of players available and so you had to buy. But players didn’t want to leave the west. And there was also no industry in Berlin, compared to Hamburg or Bavaria or Bremen. So that added to the struggle a little.”

But Clarke settled quickly into his new setup. A left-sided midfielder, he was struck by how different things were in German league football. It may not have been the top tier but players seemed more diverse and well-versed. For the most part, the approach was based on technicality rather than physicality, which was a huge bonus for a kid who idolised Liam Brady.    

“When I went to Leeds United, Elland Road was a state-of-the-art stadium,” he remembers. 

“You had your own locker with various pairs of boots in it, there was a drying room for the boots, the kit was waiting for you, the tea was ready after training, the bath was full. In Germany, it was a completely different story. They weren’t up to that standard. But they played a lot better football. In England, it was kick and rush. The ball was never actually on the ground. And there were all of those big centre halves and big centre forwards like Joe Jordan who’d take their teeth out and put them in a plastic bottle in the dressing room before a game.”

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: The Blau-Weiss 90 Berlin team in the mid-1980s with Alan Clarke in the front row third from the left. The Blau-Weiss 90 Berlin team in the mid-1980s with Alan Clarke in the front row third from the left.

“It was more skilful in Germany, which suited me as a bit more of a technical player. That was a big difference over here. In England, you’d wear metal studs in training every day. And the amount of injuries…At Leeds, between the first team, reserves and the junior side, you’d have about ten guys in the physio room every week. Tackles were just flying in. But when I got to Germany, I couldn’t believe it. They didn’t allow metal studs in training – only rubber ones – so you weren’t injuring your own players. And it was still ex-army guys in England – the pre-season training was running up the dales in Leeds. Over here, they were doing tests when you were on the running machines to see how much oxygen was in your blood.”

Off the field, the transition wasn’t too difficult. The communication barrier was overcome swiftly because the majority of the team didn’t speak any English. It was sink or swim and without really knowing it Clarke added a second language to his repertoire pretty quickly. With a thriving Irish community in the city too, he made friends instantly.

“The team’s sponsor had actually brought about eight of us in at the same time and we were all staying in the same hotel in the city centre. You ate together, went training together and that was quite fortunate,” he says. 

And there was also the biggest Irish pub in the city about 300 yards down the road in the Europa Centre. The owner was a guy called Paddy Scanlon, who’s my oldest friend here now. I remember RTE sending Pat Kenny over to do something on the Irish community at one stage. After a game, we ended up taking him out to a club called Tolzafanz until about five in the morning. But Berlin was a great city and it was like living in Las Vegas because you were closed in by the wall. Everyone had to join the army here and do their two years except if you lived in Berlin. And you also got extra money. I think it was two or three percent on top of your base salary because you were based here. So it was an isolated island, surrounded by East Germany. It was buzzing and just a great place to be.”    

By 1986, Clarke had settled in and made a proper home for himself. It helped that the side were doing well and he managed four league goals during the season as Blau-Weiss finished as runners-up to ensure promotion to the top-flight. It had been years since a team from Berlin had played in the Bundesliga so it was a special moment for the city. Celebrations were inevitably excessive and it genuinely meant a lot to supporters. To commemorate the achievement, Clarke was also roped into something pretty unique.

“We were riding a wave over here,” he says. 

Clarke challenges Karl-Heinz Riedle during a Blau-Weiss training session. Clarke challenges Karl-Heinz Riedle during a Blau-Weiss training session.

“It was a huge thing in Berlin and we had a record in the charts with a famous singer called Bernhard Brink – ‘Wir sind heiss auf Blau Weiss’ – and after we got promoted we did a week’s holiday in Majorca as a bonus from the club. He was on tour there so we went on stage with him for two or three nights. I was mimicking playing the saxophone because nobody else wanted to do it so I was stuck with it for every performance.”

Thankfully, someone was smart enough to upload a TV show recording of Brink and the squad performing ‘Wir sind heiss auf Blau Weiss’ to YouTube and it really is something. With the verse melody unceremoniously nicked from Whiskey In The Jar, the intro from Like A Virgin and also featuring the decade’s standard musical gimmick: a sax solo, it’s an ’80s pop spectacular and well worth a watch. Clarke is at the back, sporting an impressive moustache and singing along to his heart’s content. 

However, the team’s displays the following season weren’t as memorable while Clarke also had to deal with the two-foreigner rule restricting his contributions. Still, the Dubliner got to play alongside a developing star in new signing Karl-Heinz Riedle and battle some of the game’s biggest names. And despite Blau-Weiss only managing three wins in the entire campaign and leaking seven goals on two occasions, there were a dozen draws. Perhaps with a bit more nous, the team could have survived.          

“We beat Gladbach 3-2 in injury time,” Clarke remembers. 

A corner from me and a winning header from Karl-Heinz Riedle so that was a special one. I remember another game against Bayern and at one stage the ball was in midfield and bounced up. Myself and Matthaus went for it and clashed heads. He was taken off but I was able to continue. Later, I was substituted and one newspaper report said afterwards, ‘Clarke’s best move of the day was knocking out Matthaus’ – basically, I’d played so badly that it was was the only good thing I’d done.”

“Sometimes in the second division, when you’d play Rot-Weiss Essen and it was hailstones, you had to roll the sleeves up and fight to the death. But in the top-flight, you had more time on the ball and it was more skilful. Guys were sharper and not just physically quicker but mentally too. There was more football being played. I’m not the tallest in the world but I remember playing against Matthaus and being amazed at just how tiny he was. You had these compact midfielders that were very hard to get close to. Facing the likes of Brehme, Buchwald, Klinsmann, Matthaus – like, West Germany had one of the strongest teams in the world at the time – and seeing how good these guys were…But, y’know what? You could compete with them. That’s not saying we were as good as them but we could play at that level and compete on the day too. Sadly we weren’t up there long enough, so you couldn’t say you had a decade of taking them on but it was good to play against them and see how capable we actually were.” 

Blau-Weiss also played at the Olympic Stadium so despite struggling their way through the season, they could still count on some incredible attendances. 

“That was a blessing because it was fantastic pitch,” Clarke says. 

“The year we got promoted we had massive crowds for some games. And the year we got relegated from the Bundesliga, we had one of the best averages. There hadn’t been a Bundesliga team from Berlin in quite a few years so we benefited enormously from the sense of goodwill. We were a good, technical group but a bit wet behind the ears in that we’d lose games 4-3 or whatever but we always had that reputation: no nil-nil draws for us.”

It was a remarkable thing, an Irishman mixing it with German football’s elite. Only Noel Campbell, who enjoyed an excellent time with Fortuna Koln in the seventies, had done it previously and Clarke wondered if he was playing well enough to garner some attention from his country. But with him never having built a reputation in England – unlike someone like John Devine who moved to Le Havre in 1988 and remained involved in the Irish setup – there was never any call from Jack Charlton.  

  a man standing in front of a wall: A spontaneous moment between Alan Clarke and an East Berliner before the wall came down. A spontaneous moment between Alan Clarke and an East Berliner before the wall came down.

“At the time, you did have guys in the Irish team who were playing in the Second Division in England, sometimes even the Third Division,” he says. 

“But there was nobody coming over to look at you, which was a little frustrating. Jack took over in ’86 but there wasn’t even a call to come to a training session. Still, those were the cards you were dealt.”

Then one day in November ’89, the wall came tumbling down. And the landscape in Germany was irrevocably altered.   

“I was driving down the main drag here – essentially our O’Connell Street – and there were just bottles everywhere,” Clarke remembers. 

It was like there’d been a massive party through the city. But for the first month, people that came over were so afraid to go back so they slept in shopping malls. And you couldn’t buy a banana or an orange for weeks because they were all sold out. The same went for Coca Cola. They had never seen this stuff before. There were articulated trucks selling bottles out of the back of them. Even when it came to cars, they had to wait about 10 years – if they were lucky – to buy a Trabant, which was a piece of s**t. And they’d pay a huge price for it. But the day the wall came down, they could come over here and buy – for the same price – a 5 Series, second-hand BMW that was three years old. So the prices here for second-hand cars went through the roof. There were queues outside all of the big stores, the banks. The roads were jammed. It was absolute chaos. But incredible for the people.”

Around the same time, Clarke left Blau-Weiss and the club disappeared not long after. There was a brief stint with another team in the city – Tennis Borussia – but it was a chance conversation with a new friend that radically changed his post-football career.     

“I actually went to Blackburn Rovers for a few days and Frank Stapleton – who was in the latter part of his career by that stage – was there at the same time,” he says.  

a person smiling for the camera: Clarke stayed with Blau-Weiss until the end of the 1980s before his post-football career went in a radically different direction. Clarke stayed with Blau-Weiss until the end of the 1980s before his post-football career went in a radically different direction.

“They wanted me to go on tour with them but I had an offer from a third-tier side here – Tennis Borussia – who paid quite well. And after being in Berlin so long, that kinda turned the decision for me. In football, you really don’t know what’s going to happen when your contract finishes and you could end up anywhere. But in Berlin, everything just seemed to happen for me. Towards the end of my football career, I had started to play golf again. A friend of mine was in charge of a military golf club here and I could get onto the base and play in the afternoons. I met a guy who was a PGA pro from England and I’d help him some weekends if I could because he didn’t speak a word of German. We became good buddies and he persuaded me to do my PGA apprenticeship, which takes three-and-a-half years. I would never have dreamed of doing it – not in a million years – but I kinda fell into it.”

“I had got down to a handicap of two over here and was enjoying myself. I went on a golf trip with him to Portugal and it was such great people and the timing was perfect. The wall had just come down. Beforehand, there was no room for courses to be built. So it all fell together. You bump into somebody and it happens. It wasn’t a massively thought-out plan. I was a bit worried about doing such a long apprenticeship at my age but I passed, which is quite tough considering the amount of people who don’t get it.”

But even during his reeducation, Clarke couldn’t quite shift the shadow of his former life, as he found out during a spell on the west coast of Scotland. 

“Three times a year, you would go for a week’s stint to do your studies and some exams,” he says. 

“The first year, we were very busy in the summer at our golf club here so I couldn’t make it to The Belfry. The only other place I could go was Inverclyde, which is out past Glasgow and where there was only sheep and hills. I turned up, an ex-professional footballer, with my corduroy trousers and my lambswool sweaters and aged 33. I was surrounded by 19-year-olds with spots on their faces. There was four of us to a room, no bar, the toilet was outside. And the only thing they had was an astroturf pitch so the local lads had all brought their football kit with them. I didn’t think we’d be socialising by playing football so I had no gear with me whatsoever. So, I’d just stand up front in my cords and my lambswool and the boys would be kicking the s**t out of each other. But you had to bring your CV with you when you came over and at the end of the week, one of the tutors took mine out of the pile – probably because I was the old one – and he started to read out – ‘Ex-Leeds United and Bundesliga’ and the cat was out of the bag. The lads had been wondering why I was getting five or six goals every night on the astro.”

It’s creeping up on forty years since Clarke first arrived in Berlin. And yet, there are no complicated questions of identity. He’s grateful for what his adopted country has given him but he’ll always be Irish first. 

“Thank God, the people that went before us had such a good reputation around the world,” he says.  

“You’re welcomed wherever you go. I’m very grateful for Germany and it’s been a great country for me. But I consider myself absolutely Irish and I’m incredibly proud of it.” 

Gallery: The 50 best football shirts ever (FourFourTwo)


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