FeatureBig expectations, wondergoals and sub-zero cold: Leighton Clarkson’s Aberdeen adventure so far

Published 13th January 2023
By Scott Fleming

Leighton Clarkson had a big decision to make last summer.

After a testing spell at hometown club Blackburn Rovers last season, the young Liverpool midfielder had to consider his next loan move carefully in order to continue the impressive development that once saw him branded ‘one of the biggest talents in our club’ by Jürgen Klopp.

He chose to do a reverse Calvin Ramsay and sign for Aberdeen, and given the Scottish Premiership’s reputation as a fast-paced, physical environment where English imports often aren’t the automatic successes they’re assumed to be, it might have seemed a risky choice.

But less than 24 hours after the England U20 international stepped off the plane at Aberdeen Airport, it became obvious to all parties concerned that it was the right one.

“I spoke to the gaffer the day before I came up, and at first I wanted to drive up with all my stuff and take my time,” Clarkson recalls. “But the club were adamant they wanted me on the bench [for the following day’s game at home to St Mirren], and the quickest way to do that was fly.

"So I landed about nine o’clock and was taken straight to the training ground for all the medical stuff. I didn’t leave the building until 11 or 12. I thought, ‘They’re going to stick me on the bench just to see what the league’s about.’

"But in football, you never know what’s going to happen, and you need to be ready.”

Following an injury, Clarkson was subbed in with just 12 minutes played. At that point he barely had a grasp of his teammates’ names, never mind manager Jim Goodwin’s tactics, but none of that seemed to matter half an hour later when he found the top corner from all of 30 yards, or post-match when he received Player of the Match honours for running the show in a dominant 4-1 home win.

“Coming away from your debut with a goal, a chance created, 92 touches and an 88 per cent pass-success rate, winning 75 per cent of tackles and recovering the ball six times, is highly impressive for a midfielder,” read an article in The Scotsman newspaper shortly afterwards.

"Even more so for one who is just 20 and only joined the team the night before.”

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Since that explosive August debut at Pittodrie, the now 21-year-old has run his own personal Goal of the Season competition, been remodelled as a No.10 and emerged as one of the most exciting attacking midfielders in the Scottish Premiership; good going in a league renowned for nurturing young talents, from Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk and Ramsay through to Ryan Kent and James Maddison – the England midfielder who also spent time at Pittodrie in his youth, and whom Aberdeen fans were quick to liken Clarkson to once the Liverpool loanee’s flair and set-piece ability became apparent.

When Liverpoolfc.com caught up with Clarkson recently, he was content with his form and with life in Scotland’s third-biggest city, and looking forward to taking on Rangers – now managed by his old friend from the Academy, Michael Beale – this Sunday in a League Cup semi-final, before pushing onwards in the Premiership to try to consolidate a top-four finish and European qualification.

There was only one problem.

“Oh, mate, it’s freezing!” he laughed. “Obviously I got warned about it when I came up and was thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, I can deal with a bit of cold’, but it is actually freezing. I look outside the apartment and all I can see is white.”

The interview took place during a particularly cold snap when temperatures dipped below zero in Aberdeen, but even at the best of times the winds off the North Sea can make Pittodrie one of the coldest grounds in the UK.

The locals’ passion for football is, however, red-hot, and though trophies might be harder to come by for The Dons nowadays than in their 1980s heyday (when they famously beat Real Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup final), a level of pressure and expectation remains which makes Pittodrie a perfect proving ground for a young player aiming to eventually graduate to English football’s top level.

“Whatever club I play for I want it to be a good atmosphere, and right before I signed I was sent a video about Aberdeen and their fans, and as soon as I saw what it was like, I really wanted to come,” said Clarkson, who has made three first-team appearances for Liverpool, including 90 minutes away to FC Midtjylland in the Champions League two seasons ago.

“I’ve got to grips with some of the songs here, and the crowd always get involved, especially the ‘Red Shed’ as they call it, which is like the Kop end at Anfield. They’ve got an ultra group who sing right the way through whether it’s good or bad, and they get a good 15-20,000 regularly, which is a lot of people.

“I think Aberdeen have sold out every allocation away from home, even though all the clubs other than Dundee United are two hours or more away. So the following has been really good, it’s a city that is mad for football. If we don’t do well then fans can say whatever they want, that’s the same at every club, but fortunately I’ve only had good things said about me so far.”

Scottish football has at times felt like one big Kirkby reunion in recent years. When former Liverpool U18s manager Steven Gerrard took the Rangers job in 2018, he brought a host of ex-Academy players and coaches with him, including Kent and Beale.

Ben Woodburn had a spell on loan at Heart of Midlothian last season, Morgan Boyes and Shamal George are currently on the books at Livingston, while Luis Longstaff is playing for Cove Rangers in the Scottish Championship.

So Clarkson certainly wasn’t short on people he could turn to for advice when the Aberdeen move appeared on his radar.

“I probably spoke most to [ex-Academy goalkeeper] Andy Firth, although because he’d played for Rangers, he wasn’t a fan of Aberdeen! But he said it would be good for me, that it’s a high standard and if you do well up there then you never know what can happen afterwards.

"I used to see Michael around the building at the Academy, I was in the U18s and he was managing the U23s, and he was a really good coach, I’ve been coached by him quite a few times. Funnily enough I saw him at the Rangers-Aberdeen game in October, he was still QPR manager at the time, but we had a chat for five minutes, then next thing you know he’s Rangers manager.

“Obviously in Scottish football you hear about Celtic and Rangers, but I knew about Aberdeen, Hibs, Hearts – they’re probably the main five up here. It’s a club with big expectations, last season they didn’t do well, but then the gaffer came in and changed things, and it was a new start for the whole club.

"I thought it could be a new start for me as well; obviously the Blackburn loan didn’t go as well as I wanted it to, so I just wanted to go to a place with good ambition where I could thrive. The manager has been brilliant, he’s quite young and I didn’t know much about him, but the way he spoke to me before I was even at the club, the way he came across, was probably the main reason I wanted to come to Aberdeen.

"It’s also a different experience, coming and living on your own, life skills and all that comes into play. I’m 21 now, I needed to start learning things off the pitch as well! It’s a lovely city as well, when my family come up they love it. It was a no-brainer, really.

“People from Liverpool check in now and again, I still speak to the U21 coaches and on the physio side of it you hear from the doctors about health and injury concerns. You know there are always people watching, so when you’re on loan you just need to go out and do your best, and see where it takes you.”

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The young Lancastrian contributed four goals and two assists for Aberdeen before the month-long hiatus for the World Cup, but it’s the quality, rather than quantity, of what he’s produced that’s really caught the eye.

A fortnight after his strike against St Mirren, he converted a spectacular match-winning free-kick away to St Johnstone, revealing afterwards that his technique had been honed in specialist training sessions with Gerrard when they worked together at Liverpool U18s.

In November’s 4-1 rout of Hibernian, he rounded the goalkeeper and beat a host of defenders that were scrambling back onto the line with a backheel so cheeky Roberto Firmino would have been proud of it.

He even kept it up during the World Cup break, volleying another long-ranger into the net direct from a corner, when Aberdeen beat Atlanta United 1-0 during a brief trip to the United States. Not bad for someone who’s been thought of as a neat and tidy sitting midfielder for most of his career to date.

“I’ve enjoyed playing further forward, I feel like I can play anywhere in our midfield so that’s a good trait to have,” stated Clarkson.

“In this system at the minute, we’ve got one sitter who does the dirty work and then there’s me and Connor Barron, who’s a similar stature to me and technically good as well, and we’re just free to go and play: score goals, assist goals and feed our two strikers, who are both bang in form.”

Pittodrie regulars have seen plenty of other young players come on loan from Premier League clubs and fail to live up to billing, so the sparkling form of their new No.20 has been a pleasure to watch.

“You’re always a bit wary when players like Leighton come on loan; you expect them to light up the team when they come from such a high level, but often it doesn’t happen,” explains Sean Wallace, chief football writer for Aberdeen paper the Evening Express.

“It’s certainly happening with him so far – I would say the James Maddison comparisons are spot on. He’s got the same spark of magic, and his free-kick against St Johnstone was basically a carbon copy of the one Maddison famously scored against Rangers in 2016. When I interviewed Leighton afterwards, he said that funnily enough he’d watched the Maddison one the night before on YouTube.

“You can see he’s been brought up in a certain culture where you’ve got to show your confidence and leadership qualities. It’s quite a physical league and Leighton is obviously not the most powerfully built of players, but he’s holding his own, coming up against tough defenders and midfielders and not shirking challenges.

"He’s settled into that role just off the strikers and he’s a class act there, he has such intense game intelligence and every time he’s on the ball you get a sense of anticipation from the fans. Obviously he’s got ambitions to go back and make an impact at Anfield, but he’s enjoying himself for now, he seems like a player that’s loving his football and is high on confidence. It takes a lot of guts to come on in your debut and slam in a 30-yard screamer on the run!”

Clarkson has started every game but one for Aberdeen since their return to action in December, a frustrating spell that has seen them perform well against both Celtic and Rangers at Pittodrie but come away pointless on both occasions after conceding late winners.

In the Rangers game, the youngster added to his collection of worldies with a 25-yarder that temporarily put the Dons 2-1 up.

In the main, though, he is simply focused on making sure that when spring comes around and his new hometown heats up a little, both his own ambitions and those of Aberdeen will have survived the thaw.

“It’s about just trying to do as well as we can, get as many points on the board and see where that takes us,” he said. “If it’s a case of trying to chase Rangers [in second place] then we’ll obviously aim to do that, but we also know there’s a lot of teams in and around us that are also capable of finishing third or fourth.

"The league is a bit like the Championship was when I was at Blackburn, anyone can beat anyone, you’ve got the top two who will always be up there but every other team has a chance of finishing third.

“The goal is to get into Europe, to start with, and to try to win a trophy. I believe – and we believe – that we can achieve that.”

Published 13th January 2023