On the face of it, Adam Clayton looks like he’d be a bit of a dickhead. He looks like a stereotypical footballer with his customary sleeve tattoo, attention seeking beard, a missus straight out of the WAG catalogue and he’s had all of the haircuts.
He’s had a Johnny Bravo quiff, he’s had it slicked back, shaved and there was even a man bun at one point, but we won’t talk about that.
He even rounded off the stereotype with yearly trips to Dubai and the “will he, won’t he?” saga that accompanied Clayton’s transfer from Huddersfield to Middlesbrough that seemed to last all summer painted a picture of a man only concerned with finding the team that could pay him the most.
However, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Whatever it looked like Adam Clayton might be changed drastically when he signed for Boro in the summer of 2014. Clayts would become an integral cog in Aitor Karanka’s promotion chasing machine and swiftly became a fan favourite.
Whatever the preconceptions were of the man with the footlong beard, he changed them during his time on Teesside and that started with his position in the team.
Arriving from Huddersfield, in a deal that saw Jacob Butterfield moving the other way, Clayton was considered to be a relatively attack-minded midfielder.
He’d scored seven goals in the previous league campaign for the Terriers which was more than Grant Leadbitter or Emmanuel Ledesma had managed (at 6 apiece) and just one shy of the Boro’s speedster Muzzy Carayol who was in the form of his life.
Clayton had also set up more goals (6) than anyone else in the Boro squad the previous season barring Grant Leadbitter (9) and Albert Adomah (6).
For all intents and purposes, it seemed as if Adam Clayton had been bought to offer extra creativity to the midfield and to allow Grant Leadbitter to sit back and control the game from the centre of the park.
Aitor Karanka had other ideas.
Clutching Clayton’s beard in both hands, the Spaniard whispered lyrics from the Human League song that would soon blare out in support of the midfielder from the Riverside stands.
Karanka had picked him out and now he was going to shake Clayton up and turn him around. Turn him into someone new. Adam Clayton wasn’t going to be driving forward and firing in long-rangers ever again. He was barely going to enter the opposition’s half of the pitch never mind the opposition’s box.
Adam Clayton was going to become Aitor’s axis upon which the rest of the team would rotate. The job was twofold. Sitting back to give the defence an extra layer of protection, it’d be his job to clear up any mess and stop counterattacks in the form of the now patented Clayton Cynical Foul™. Someone gets past the halfway line? Clayts would be there with a shirt pull, a boot in the ankles or even a rugby tackle.
It was also down to Clayton to be constantly available for a pass either out from the defence to start the march upfield or as a source of relief when attacks had stalled in the face of teams becoming ultra defensive in the face of Boro team that was becoming more formidable by the day.
It wouldn’t be as easy as plonking Clayton into the side and expecting him to become Middlesbrough’s Makelele overnight. He’d need someone to help him. He’d need a partner.
He needed Grant Leadbitter.
Clayts and Leads would go on to form a midfield alliance that dominated the Championship in devastating fashion, often being outnumbered as other team’s managers flooded the centre of the park to no avail, as the pair drove the Boro promotion chase forwards. They were Aitor’s lieutenants on the pitch, the thumping heartbeat that powered the side.
In a move that was nearly as familiar to the Red Army as George Friend’s cut inside, Clayton would turn out from defence and tap the ball sideways to Leadbitter, the skipper taking a touch, before knocking a 45 yard diagonal to Albert Adomah. It was like clockwork.
The former Leeds’ man’s defensive capabilities also allowed Leadbitter to join in the attack, with the captain being involved in 27 goals in the league during the two seasons that followed Clayton’s arrival at the club.
The impact Clayton had on the team was highlighted in that first season whenever he was missing from the squad. Barring the opening day victory against Birmingham, when Clayton was still a Huddersfield player, Boro didn’t win a single game without him playing.
As Aitor Karanka and Steve Gibson went to work in the summer of 2015 to add the final pieces to their promotion jigsaw, they knew the heart of their midfield couldn’t be bettered and with extra attacking talent on the way coupled with the sting of losing out at Wembley to Norwich making Karanka more cautious, Clayton found himself focusing more heavily on protecting the back four.
There were still flashes of the man he’d been, Clayton had provided the Beckham-like cross for Jelle Vossen’s opener in the first leg of the playoff semi-final against Brenford, but the days of the midfielder finding himself on the scoresheet were long gone. His only goal for the club, ironically against his former team Huddersfield, was a deflected effort that looped over the keeper.
So later in the season with the scores level and promotion hopes in the balance, Boro fans might have been forgiven for thinking there couldn’t be a worse player than Adam Clayton for the ball to roll to in the dying seconds of the game against Reading.
As Oliver Norwood’s clearance bobbled into his path, Clayton willed every ounce of the goalscoring hero he’d been at Huddersfield to come forth, seeing his name in lights. This would be the goal he’d always be remembered for. The ball couldn’t have sat up any sweeter as Clayton swang his right foot at it and it soared straight into Albert Adomah’s face.
Luckily the force of the strike sent the ball careering into the path of Adam Forshaw who squeezed in into the near post to send the Riverside absolutely fucking mental.
Clayts would also have a hand in another last-gasp victory the following game against Bolton, with his lofted pass to David Nugent leading to Jordan Rhodes’s second goal in added time in front of a packed out away end.
We all know how it ended from there. Brighton at home. The Red Sea drowning the Seagulls. Promotion, finally. Clayton on top of The Dickens. Bad pop music. You know the drill. Life couldn’t get any better.
Despite the arrival of Marten de Roon from Atalanta and the elevation of Five Yard Forshaw, Clayton would remain an integral member of the midfield during the ill-fated Premier League season that followed those sun-drenched scenes of celebration.
The image of him bollocking Victor Valdes started to show the potential cracks in the squad between the marquee signings and the players who had become entrenched in the club and it wouldn’t be the only time Clayts and bollock would be mentioned together that season as the Reds slipped out of the Prem at the first time of asking.
Now as a fully fledged defensive midfielder, the Manchester City graduate appeared 34 times in the Prem and signed a three year extension in March as Boro faced another foray into the Championship.
Having been such an influential part of a specific machine for the past three seasons, the appointment of Garry Monk threatened to dislodge Clayton from the starting eleven. Monk’s Middlesbrough was to be more expansive, adventurous and exciting than what had come before it as the club looked to “smash the league” and millions of pounds was thrown at the team.
In a similar situation to the one he had found himself in 2014, a manager was promising to reinvent Adam Clayton in a role that would prove critical to the side. There was still a place for him in Monk’s Championship Allstars, dropping in between the centre halves as a Boro Baresi, as the likes of Martin Braithwaite, Patrick Bamford and Britt Assombalonga tore the league apart.
It all seemed so idyllic in a pre-season friendly against F.C. Augsburg at the Riverside, the Boro beating the Bundesliga outfit 2-1 and fans able to see the seeds being planted of what could prove to be a thrilling time on Teesside.
Then reality hit, the Monkbot short circuited and reverted to disaster mode where every problem was only answered by throwing as many forwards on the pitch as possible. As he had to the rest of the club, Monk had swindled Clayton, dropping him from the squad entirely apart from an appearance in a dismantling from Derby. The midfielder would only be restored to the team when Tony Pulis came to town.
Clayton was almost indispensable in the first twelve months for Pulis, with the safety first approach adopted by the manager figuring in perfectly with his skillset, missing only three league games in that time.
His performance in the workmanlike suffocation of a much-fancied Leeds team beginning their time under Marcelo Bielsa earned him a man of the match award in every newspaper column in the country and emphasised his importance to a club that he was slowly becoming a leader of.
Maybe it was his association to the Pulis style or his desire to be the leader of the team that led to the “Boogate” fiasco after a game against Millwall. He was right in what he said, togetherness is the key ingredient to achievement especially in the Championship and booing is absolutely shite, but he could have read the room.
Fans were rightly pissed off with the way the team were performing, having to watch soul-sapping football when a bit of bravery could’ve catapulted the team into promotion contention. It was around this time, as John Obi Mikel took his place, that many felt Clayton should move on.
To be honest, it would have saved the damp squib of a departure that followed last summer. In and out of favour with Jonathan Woodgate, his influence on the team dwindling, and reduced to brief cameos for Neil Warnock, Clayton still made himself available for the games after his contract had expired in the midst of Project Restart.
With his Dad home after battling COVID and pneumonia, it would’ve been understandable if he’d “done an Ayala” and sat at home. Instead, that decision was made for him by Warnock who let him head off on holiday with games still left to play.
Further spikes in the pandemic have meant his homecoming this weekend isn’t the one he would have envisioned. As with George Friend, Clayts rejoined Aitor Karanka at Birmingham and what a poignant moment it would have been to be able to say goodbye to three men who were pivotal to the best times of the 2010s.
Ultimately, all three will enter the place they once called home without the roar of the crowd and applause they would have rightly received. It’ll only be the ghostly echo of glories past ringing around the stadium.
He may not have been the midfield axis of years gone by but Adam Clayton deserved better than that for the 241 appearances, the 62 yellow cards, the single sending off (how was it just one?!), the memories and proving that not all footballers who look like dickheads are actually dickheads.
He deserved better than that for being Adam Clayton, baby.
Photo Credits: Teesside Live, MFC, The Northern Echo, Daily Mirror, Mattie Bunn