It was an early August evening in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, when almost 13,000 chanting, vuvuzela-blowing boricuas watched with amazement and jubilation as an unheralded second-division club ousted the vaunted Los Angeles Galaxy from the 2010 CONCACAF Champions League.
Nearly three years after being unceremoniously dispatched as a manager from Major League Soccer, Colin Clarke and his Puerto Rico Islanders, composed of chancers and cast-offs, shocked the North American soccer establishment by humbling the top division's crown jewel—a team that, then as now, features Landon Donovan, the United States' best player in a generation, along with the global superstar David Beckham (who did not play in the two-game series).
"It was a good night ... pretty special," recalls Clarke, a rare air of wistfulness entering his voice.
That season, the Islanders won both the Caribbean Football Union Club and USSF-D2 Pro League Championships, the first such trophies Clarke had collected in more than 30 years of playing and coaching soccer.
Just 15 months after vanquishing the Galaxy, however, Clarke left Puerto Rico to become head coach of the Cary-based Carolina RailHawks. Despite a winning record at each stop along his managerial course, it's the first time Clarke exited a coaching job of his own volition.
Clarke's journey to Carolina is the latest chapter in a footballing life spanning two continents, five different decades and a series of lofty heights and ignominious setbacks. Like his birthplace in Northern Ireland, Clarke's history is one defined by upheaval and revival.
Born in 1962 as the third of four siblings, Colin John Clarke was reared in Newry, a trade town at the southeasternmost point of Northern Ireland. Situated at the entry of the "Gap of the North," Newry is flanked by the Mourne Mountains to the east and the Ring of Gullion to the southwest. It's bisected by the Clanrye River, which today runs through the center of town. Newry's strategic locus has long made it a flash point in the many wars for control of Northern Ireland, dating back to the 12th-century Norman invasion and the razing of the town by the forces of King James II during the Williamite War in the 16oos.
As with so many youngsters of his day, Clarke's upbringing revolved around sports, particularly football and field hockey. "That's what your entertainment was," Clarke remembers. "There was no Xbox, computers or any of that. You went to school and you kicked the ball around; you came home and you kicked the ball around until you were called in for tea."
Clarke's first exposure to organized football came as an 8-year-old playing for the Millvale Swifts in the local Carnbane League. A lanky kid with tousled flaxen locks, Clarke found success as a forward, the position he would play throughout his playing career.
In the early 1970s, Newry again became an epicenter for violence. "The Troubles" was the name given to the period of ethnopolitical unrest that gripped Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the U.K. for more than three decades. Shootings and car bombings became a way of life in the struggle between Irish republicans and Ulster loyalists.
"Newry is on the border of north and south, so it was always a hot spot," says Clarke. When pressed for details, Clarke only responds, "I'll leave it at that," perhaps still harboring the reticence that Belfast playwright Bernard MacLaverty famously referenced when he described the Troubles as "the elephant in our living room."
Against this bloody backdrop, Clarke's family left Newry when Colin was in his early teens for the seaside town of Lowestoft, the easternmost point in England. Lowestoft was a mere 45 miles from Ipswich Town Football Club, where Clarke would go in 1978 to become an apprentice footballer at age 16. It was a heady era for Ipswich, which in the 1980-81 season won the UEFA Cup and finished runner-up for the English league title under celebrated manager Bobby Robson.
"That was a very, very special team back then with [Mick] Mills, [Frans] Thjssen, [John] Wark, [Terry] Butcher, [Russell] Osman, [Eric] Gates, and Paul Mariner," Clarke remembers. "We were lucky enough as apprentices to play our games in the morning and be able to rush back to watch the first team play every Saturday afternoon at three o'clock. They were unbelievable."
After finishing his apprenticeship at Ipswich, Clarke signed his first professional contract in 1981 with Peterborough, a club then wallowing in the fourth division. Clarke spent three seasons with The Posh, scoring 18 goals.
"I was still a young kid, still learning, making mistakes and trying to find [my] way in the world," he recounts. "It was a time I matured, grew up a little bit, ended up getting married and having children early in my life. It was a learning curve at Peterborough, when I look back on it now."
Tranmere Rovers signed Clarke in 1984, and it was there that he found his footing, netting 22 league goals in 1984-85 for the fourth division side. The next season, Clarke moved to third-division Bournemouth, where he scored 26 goals for Harry Redknapp, today one of the Premier League's top managers. His value skyrocketing, Clarke was sold in June 1986 to the first-division side Southampton, where he spent three seasons.
"We had a good squad of players," Clarke says. "It was a tough place for people to come and play at The Dell, as it was known. We were very much a team and it was a fun place to be."
A falling-out with manager Chris Nicoll eventually contributed to Clarke's departure. The longest time Clarke ever spent with any club as a player was three seasons; he was good enough to always be wanted, but not great enough to be indispensable.
Clarke spent the next year with Queens Park Rangers, followed by a transfer to Portsmouth in 1990. He speaks with pride at playing for both Portsmouth and Southampton, longtime bitter rivals along England's south coast. "Not too many people have done it, or done it successfully," says Clarke. "They don't like each other. The dynamic between those fans is second to none. They truly hate each other."
Clarke's success at Bournemouth led to him being tapped for Northern Ireland's 1986 FIFA World Cup side, where he scored a goal in the team's 2-1 loss to Spain. Over the next seven years under manager Billy Bingham—"the best manager I ever played for," says Clarke—the burly, 6-foot striker would tally 38 caps and 13 goals for Northern Ireland, then a national record.
"International soccer was great," says Clarke. "It's sad to see how it's gone in a lot of ways. In some countries, players don't seem as willing. There's not as much pride in pulling on the jersey as there used to be."
Since entering the coaching ranks, Clarke has expressed interest in managing Northern Ireland on at least two occasions: once in 2007 and again last fall after the departure of Nigel Worthington. "Any time that job becomes available, everyone will ask me if I'm interested, and the answer will always be the same," Clarke states with conviction. "The chance to manage your national team is an opportunity I would never give up, and I'd love to do it one day."
In late December 1992, midway through Clarke's first year at Portsmouth, he was playing in a midweek reserve game against Charlton at Fratton Park. "I was back defending a corner and someone was having a shot at goal and I slid in to block it," Clarke recalls. "It was a wet night and I slid into the goalpost with my left knee."
The impact tore multiple ligaments and chipped bone off his femur. Despite months of rehab, Clarke never played another competitive football match. At age 30, his playing days were over.
During his time at Portsmouth, Clarke began to lay the groundwork for a possible future in coaching, obtaining his FA Preliminary Coaching Badge. However, the opportunities he hoped would come his way never materialized.
"Before the injury, I had sort of mapped out of what I was going to do down the line," he says. "I had a great affiliation with Bournemouth, and I [was hoping] an opportunity was there to possibly go back as a player-coach to end my career, and that didn't happen."
Instead, Clarke "just went in a different direction." Over the years, he spent much of his free time indulging two of his favorite pastimes: golf and horse racing. He moved to Lambourn, a pastoral parish west of London known as the horse racing capital of England.
There, Clarke owned and operated the Queen's Arms, a hotel/ restaurant. Admitting he was "a little bit" down on football, Clarke threw him into running "the pub" full-time for two years, at personal and professional expense. Many of Clarke's old connections inside football grew stale, and he went through his second divorce.
In 1995, Clarke took a two-week holiday to Greece to serve as best man in a friend's wedding. The friend lived in Richmond, Va., and sensing Clarke's yearning for a change in scenery, floated the idea of visiting him in Richmond. That October, Clarke took him up on the offer and moved to the States.
"I had my troubles and problems in England and moved away from them," Clarke says. "It was a time when a new start was good for me."
In Richmond, Clarke met Dave Amsler, who founded the Richmond Kickers soccer club in 1976 and was the dean of Richmond's youth soccer scene. Working with Amsler, Clarke rediscovered his passion for the game, coaching youth soccer and working in the area's camps and academies.
In late 1997, the Kickers—then a member of the second-division USL A-League—were looking for a new head coach. Curt Johnson, the club's general manager, had arrived in Richmond only a year earlier; when his coaching search started, Amsler and others suggested he speak with Clarke.
Johnson knew little about Clarke's background and nothing about the man, but after the two met at a Bruegger's bagel shop and sat outside talking for almost two hours, Johnson knew he had his coach.
In 1998, Clarke led the Kickers to the Atlantic Division championship with a 21-7 record; they lost in the second round of the playoffs. Already showing a keen eye for talent, Clarke recruited a 20-year-old Dwayne De Rosario—who was playing in lower-division Germany at the time—to the Kickers in 1999. This was also when Clarke found love with Gwenn, a Pittsburgh native and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University; they'll celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary next month.
Richmond opened the '99 campaign with a 14-2 record but later slumped, losing nine of 12 games. They finished 17-11 and were beaten in the first round of the playoffs. After the season, Johnson became general manager of the Kansas City Wizards in MLS. Soon after, the Kickers fired Clarke.
Johnson remains bewildered about the decision to this day. "I was shocked in terms of [Richmond] letting him go after what he had done in his first two years managing a team," says Johnson. "Not just the results but also the promise he had as he evolved as a head coach."
Clarke went to the San Diego Flash but left after one season with the club teetering on the brink of insolvency. He was hired in March 2001 as an assistant coach with the Dallas Burn in MLS, eventually being elevated to interim head coach in late 2003.
He remained manager of the rebranded FC Dallas for the next three seasons, finding success with the help of such talented players as Oscar Pareja, Jason Kreis, Eddie Johnson and Carlos Ruiz. Wins and attendance increased each season, and the club moved to a soccer-specific stadium in 2005. In 2006, FC Dallas finished the regular season with the best record in the Western Conference.
But after two consecutive seasons of losing in the opening round of the playoffs, Clarke was sacked after the 2006 season by general manager Michael Hitchcock. Steve Morrow, Clarke's assistant coach, was hired to replace him. Morrow was Clarke's former Northern Ireland teammate, and when Clarke became Dallas' full-time head coach, he had hired Morrow as his most trusted advisor.
"Colin and I are very, very different coaches," Morrow told ESPN.com after being named Dallas' manager. "I want to be judged on my own right as a coach. ... Over the coming months, my qualities as a coach and my style will become very, very apparent."
"If it doesn't work out," Hitchcock said at the time, "I should be held accountable."
Of all Clarke's professional disappointments, this one left the bitterest taste. "We won the West; I thought we progressed and were moving in the right direction," he recalls. "We improved every year. The excuse that was given to me was that we didn't win the playoffs; we lost twice on penalties [shootout], which is very disappointing. They wanted to move in a different direction, and for the next four years they did ... it was just downward."
After a season and a half of declining wins and attendance, Hitchcock fired Morrow in May 2008. After the 2009 season, FC Dallas ownership declined to renew their contract with Hitchcock. Today, Hitchcock is president of the San Antonio Scorpions, an expansion franchise making their debut in the NASL, where they will compete against, among others, the RailHawks.
"I don't hold any grudges," claims Clarke. "I think there was someone that was in a job he shouldn't have been in and made wrong decisions."
In May 2007, Clarke was hired to coach the Puerto Rico Islanders, where he spent the next five seasons. In 2008, the Islanders won the USL-1 regular season title and advanced to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Ironically, Clarke's finest hour as a manager might have been his only losing season as a coach. In 2010, he marshaled resources and personnel through a swath of regional cups and international commitments, sacrificing regular-season accolades to win the team's first ever CFU Club Championship and advance to the CONCACAF group stage, beating the Galaxy in the process. After squeaking into the USSF D2 playoffs as the eighth and final seed, the Islanders went onto win the league title, knocking off Martin Rennie's RailHawks in the finals.
In 2011, the Islanders finished second in the NASL's regular season. Nearly a dozen international call-ups crippled the Islanders' chances to both catch the RailHawks for the regular season crown and make another playoff run. "We had gotten close to Carolina and knew they were going to struggle," Clarke recalls, "because they started to lose games and had some characters that probably would find it tough to pull themselves out of that. And we were moving in the right direction and then, boom, internationals. We should have won the league."
Still, Clarke says the international opportunities open to the Islanders are paramount to their status in the soccer landscape. "It's a blessing," he says. "Why do you know about Puerto Rico Islanders? Why are Puerto Rico Islanders known in Spain? Why are they on ESPN Deportes and mentioned in different places throughout the world? That's CONCACAF."
Then why leave that perennial opportunity for a rival U.S. club in the same league?
"I just felt it was time for a change," Clarke responds. "A lot of little reasons, not one in particular. Some of them I'll keep to myself. I just thought it was time for me to go. I wanted a new, fresh challenge, and obviously Martin [Rennie] was leaving here and this is a club I always respected and has great facilities."
It helped, also, that Curt Johnson—who had given Clarke his first head coaching gig 15 years earlier in Richmond—was now president of the RailHawks.
"Early on it was clear Colin knew the game," Johnson observes about Clarke's early days in coaching. "He was a good evaluator of talent; he was very good at putting together a game plan, executing it on the field and getting a win. How he's evolved in the last 10 years is ... the off-the-field stuff: managing a budget, interaction with media and fans, and just being more himself. He's evolved a lot as a manager and not just a head coach."
A two-hour conversation with Colin Clarke is akin to a history lesson covering the last quarter-century of English and American soccer. And after class, he'll regale you with yarns not unlike the ones he likely once spun near closing time back at the Queen's Arms in Lambourn.
It's a gregariousness that belies an often volcanic on-field temperament that earned Clarke the moniker "El General" in Puerto Rico. Perhaps that's just Clarke's personality. Perhaps it flows from his childhood in Newry, where Clarke recently returned after the death of his 81-year-old father. Or maybe it's a fire that still burns inside a man who knows fortune is fleeting and, therefore, is something to be cherished.
"I demand a lot from my players," Clarke says. "I demand that they work hard—there's no excuse for not working hard. They're very, very privileged and lucky to be playing a game that they love and everybody else loves."
Before ending our interview, I ask Clarke about competing in the U.S. Open Cup for the first time since his days in Dallas, and whether it's important to him to make a good showing in the tournament.
"Sure—it's a chance for us to play against the big boys and put one over on them," he replies, perhaps remembering a certain August night. "I like to be the underdog."
A shorter version of this article appeared in print with the headline "The curious case of Colin Clarke."