Darrell Clarke reflects on the loss of his daughter, mental health and his impact at Cheltenham Town since becoming their manager.
The new Robins boss has explained to Sky Sports how he managed to getting his side winning – and scoring – again after inheriting a side who had not scored in five months.
This left them rock bottom of League One standings, but Darrell Clarke’s side have taken eight points from his six games in charge, netting seven goals.
They now sit 23rd, with 9 points from 16 games played, and are still 8 points from safety, luckily there is still plenty of time to produce a great escape.
Five months without a league goal – but hope is back at Cheltenham.
Popped down to the West Country this week to see first-hand what Darrell Clarke has done to turn #ctfc from a club without a goal in a record 11 games to one with real belief of survival. https://t.co/qKtLZAGZ50
— Ron Walker (@ronnabe) November 18, 2023
The first aim for Clarke as he arrived at the club was to, in his words, “Score a goal.”
He says: “We hadn’t done it all season! But we got one in the game against Derby, and then looked to keep building, and ticking things off as away we go.”
“There’s good people at this football club, it’s done well over the years and punched above its weight,” Clarke goes on to say. “I thought there was a chance to create history here – we’ve never stayed in League One for four seasons in a row.
“That’s my task, I’ve got my teeth into it.
“It’s not rocket science at times. You need a bit of luck, and the club certainly didn’t get much of that in the first quarter of the season.
“You’ve got to build resilience. I’m a resilient character myself, and you’re trying to build that in players to get over that adversity of everyone asking when Cheltenham were going to score a goal.
“It was in the newspapers, it was all anyone spoke about. It was the monkey off the back that we had to get rid of pretty quickly.
“Now that’s gone, we can start looking towards winning more football matches. You have to win 15 games in League One to stay in the division.
“We’ve managed to win a couple so now we’re looking for at least another 13 wins, pick up points where we can and make sure we’re a match for anyone.”
He brought in Tom Pett for “peanuts”, someone who has previously played under Clarke, and is helping turn Cheltenham’s form around.
“We didn’t have a player like him in the squad,” says Clarke. “The other boys look up to him in the changing room, and when you’re in a group in the bottom four you need more experienced players – and he’s one of them.”
“It’s not about the money for me,” Pett tells Sky Sports. “It was the opportunity to play League One football, and for him. It’s a great set of lads. We’ve got a big challenge ahead of ourselves, and I’m excited to be a part of it.
“I knew what the gaffer would be like as soon as he took over. The first day I was here, he was the loudest and chirpiest, and he’ll always be like that. The squad thrive off that, and you wouldn’t have known coming into the building where they were in the league.”
Clarke adds: “It’d probably be my biggest achievement. We started with a quarter of the season gone and one point on the board, and we’re still playing massive catch-up.”
On can his side avoid the drop: “Without a shadow of a doubt.”
Clarke also spoke to the media about losing of his daughter, aged 18, as he insists he wants her story to be an inspiration for others facing mental health struggles.
The 45-year-old talks about the grief he experienced in the aftermath of Ellie’s death, hoping to held others struggling mentally.
‘I walked around the kitchen all night screaming,’ says Clarke, as per Daily Mail, on receiving the news about his daughter in a phone call on Valentine’s Day.
He had been at home with a glass of wine when he was told she was dead. He relives the call from Ellie’s stepdad, that her body was found hanged at her boyfriend’s flat.
The couple got into an arguement, and he asked her to leave and Ellie took her own life.
Clarke says: ‘Her mum said she’d been a bit down but I was like “She’s a teenager, I’ll take her out Christmas shopping in Manchester”. That’s what we did for two days. “Get what you want, El,” I said. She was happy as Larry. We were laughing and joking. It was mad to think about how…
‘That kills me. The thing that hurts me the most is that Ellie loved me so much she didn’t want me to share the pain of her last six months.’
Ellie tried getting in touch with mental health services three times in 2021 and had been taking antidepressants prescribed by her doctor.
She also was due to begin having one-to-one psychotherapy prior to her death in February last year.
‘The story is frightening,’ he says. ‘She wasn’t that sort of girl, Ellie. Trust me.’
Clarke said to the inquest that his his daughter’s voice hadn’t been heard, that she was let down by mental health authorities.
Nottinghamshire NHS worked with charity Mind, who Clarke claims were still trying to get in contact Ellie six months after her death, to which he says, “it’s wrong” that he wasn’t aware of his daughter’s problems.
He states that he can’t agree with the verdict of suicide. ‘It was a cry for help that went wrong in my opinion,’ he says. ‘One that ripped the family apart.’
He details just how tough life was for him for the first 18 months, saying he had ‘carnage’, was rebellious, a ‘s***house’, and knows he should have took some time out from being manager at Port Vale, only appearing back in the dugout after three months having guided the club to the playoffs and then promotion to League One.
It was only when he departed Port Vale in April that he took that refresh, having five holidays in five months and then took up the job as Cheltenham manager.
As he opens up on daughter Ellie, saying that it’s daughter, Katie, 15, Ellie’s brother Thomas, step-brother Shay and Darrell’s wife Vikki (now separated), his players and anyone who has gone through something similar that he wants to help.
Clarke learned that there was 11 year old in the Cheltenham academy who lost his older sister, 15, so he sent an invitation to his mum, to come to his office to let her know the family isn’t alone.
‘If I can make a difference by getting out of bed in the morning and trying to reach as high as I can, hopefully that can give others (inspiration). If one family, one person, can look at me and say “we can get out of bed”. There’s always reasons to get out of bed. Can you find that reason when life is really tough? And it is tough. Mental health is massive. The youngsters of today, my god it’s hard for them. To live up to their TikToks, to life online that is so false.’
Clarke was there for the final game of the regular season at Exeter in May where a victory would secure a playoff place.
He recalls an emotional time in a hotel where he sobbed for three hours, with singer and Port Vale supporter Robbie Williams, saying via a video message, ‘To get out of bed after what you’ve been through, you’re a winner in my eyes.’
Vale picked up a 1-0 win against Exeter, getting in the playoffs, managed to beat Swindon in the semi finals, won a narrow penalty shootout having seen his side miss two of their first three spot-kicks.
‘When I went to bed, I said to Ellie: “Stop taking the piss and make the final a bit easier for me!”’
On still talking to her today, he says: ‘Sometimes I can hear her say “sort yourself out, Dad” if there’s a day where I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself. She gives me a little slap.’
Ellie had a big love for animals. And whenever he spots a magpie, he calls it Ellie. ‘There’s Ellie. If there’s two, there’s Ellie with her friend.’
Ellie did make the play-off final easier, if only on the pitch. Vale, as if by fate, faced Mansfield in the final. Clarke’s former club, his hometown, the place where Ellie was born, lived and died.
Before his side took of his former hometown club Mansfield for the playoff final at Wembley, Clarke played a few lines of a song Ellie Goulding song ‘How Long Will I Love You’.
Lyrics: How long will I love you? As long as stars are above you. And longer if I can.
Clarke says: ‘I stopped it and said “Lads, I buried my daughter to that. This game’s not life or death. I’m so proud of you boys, so proud of how you’ve gone about this. We’ve already won. Just go out there and enjoy it”.’
On what was already an emotion day for him, with the occasion, what he had been through, Port Vale winning the game 3-0, and on eight minutes (shirt number Clarke wore as a Stags player) fans applauding him in tribute, he couldn’t hold back the tears in his interview post-match.
A emotional message from Port Vale boss Darrell Clarke, who lost his daughter in February. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/y31oQPJG06
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) May 28, 2022
30 players who had played for Clarke, including Luton’s Tom Lockyer, had turned up to the funeral.
Clarke said he’s been ‘brought up by grief’ after his mum lost her life in a car accident when he was 2 years old, on his gran’s birthday, while his Dad, an alcoholic waved insurance money from his mum’s death in his face.
Darrell and his brother Wayne were raised on a council estate in Mansfield by gran Sheila and grandfather, Dave, who worked as a steward on the turnstiles at Mansfield Town.
Clarke also praises the League Managers Association (LMA) for how they supported him, describing it as ‘outstanding’, having helped find him the correct counsellor, that could help him in the right way.
He also had been supported by his new partner Rebecca, Clarke says: ‘Most of the boxes I’ve had in my life I’ve been able to let them float away. But Ellie’s box is always around me. I’ll always have my own guilt and my own feelings on all sorts of things. I’ll always have that round my feet.
‘I feel like I could never give enough to my daughter. I’ve given so much to my job over the years. Then you start thinking: what if I was there more? I saw plenty of her, I spoke to her every day. We’d go on holidays every year. My home was in Southampton but the girls all had their rooms there. I couldn’t be there anymore. I couldn’t walk past Ellie’s room.’
He struggles to go back to Mansfield these days, with daughter Ellie, his mum and his gran, who died about five years ago, all buried in a cemetery there. He visited a few weeks ago.
‘It’s f***ing hard,’ he says as he can’t bring himself to go back to Mansfield, where his daughter was laid to rest. ‘It kills me for days. I’m sat at my daughter’s grave, she’s here and mum and gran are over there in a double. The whammy of it just hits me too hard.
‘My gran always said there is always somebody worse off than you. There’s no truer word is there? I can lose my daughter through a cry for help – but there can be someone who lost their whole family in a car accident.’
He says he doesn’t want to be treated any differently just because of his daughter’s death.
‘I just want to be treated normal,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to be treated as the football manager who lost his daughter.’
He felt able to get himself back into football: ‘I just missed it. It’s a drug, it’s an addiction to want to be on the grass, to work with your players. How long do you wait? I just missed out on a top League One job but this excited me as well, in a different way. It will feel just as good as a promotion if we can stay up this year. Trying to create history.
‘I couldn’t ever see myself coming out of football.I think the day you lose that hunger and desire, you’re being a fraud.’
‘Nodding dogs, I call them. Players who come in and go, yeah, yeah, yeah, but don’t lead by example. I don’t mind anyone with a quiet personality but when you haven’t got personality on the pitch, you’re f****d.’
He ends the interview with the Daily Mail by saying: ‘Right, guys, I’ve got to speak to my councillor. I really enjoyed that.’ Our time is up.
‘I want to leave a good legacy. Ellie was so proud of me and I want to do more. I don’t want to be that victim of life. My gran never lived her life a victim. My gran never gave up so why should I – I want to achieve more than I’ve ever wanted to achieve.’