The former St Johnstone keeper enjoyed the most remarkable season of his life in the 2020/21 campaigbn as he won the League and Scottish Cup double. In doing so, he caused heartache in Leith, defying the Perth side’s underdog status to oust Hibs in the semi-final of one and then rubbed salt in wounds by defeating them in the final of the other.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing in the interim but in the highest profile meeting with the Easter Road side since those Hampden showdowns, Clark is looking to reassert a sense of superiority.
“I've had some enjoyable times against them,” said Clark, speaking after making his first Hearts start in Wednesday’s 3-2 win over St Johnstone. “I’m at a different club, it's a derby, they'll be right up for it and we'll be right up for it at home. We just need to make sure we get back into training, make sure we recover well and make sure we are ready to go. The games come thick and fast at this time of year, more so with the World Cup.”
A packed schedule is a welcome change from idling on the bench after the free agent signed on at Hearts in September as competition for Craig Gordon and Ross Stewart. He has had to bide his time but the horror double leg-break sustained by captain Craig Gordon at Tannadice saw Clark elevated to the starting line-up against his former club, as Hearts finally shook off a 12-year hex, recording a league victory at McDiarmid Park for the first time since 2010.
“It was good to get back out there,” Clark continued. “I had a few games during the World Cup break but to get back into competitive action was pleasing. The circumstances surrounding it are horrid but it's a chance for me to get back out on the pitch. I think that was my first 90 minutes since Inverness in the relegation game [play-off in May]. That's been five, six months without a competitive game so it was good to get back out there and good to get the three points. They made it difficult for us towards the end but it was great character from the boys to stick it out and get the win. People were saying before the game that it has been X amount of years since we've got a victory here so it's pleasing to leave with three points.”
That was enough to move the Gorgie club back into third place in the cinch Premiership as they chase a return to European football next term and while derby success will always be its own incentive, the Tynecastle side have extra reason to crave a win when Hibs turn up at Tynecastle on Monday. Keen to pull away from the chasing pack in a tight battle for third, and the consequent reward of a European invite, Clark revealed that the injured Gordon had also helped to focus minds.
“Our aim is to finish as high up the league as possible,” the 30-year-old said. “If we can keep churning out wins that will go a long way to achieving that goal. We take it one game at a time but the big man [Gordon] is one away [from most Euro appearances for Hearts], so that's an added incentive.”
The nature of Gordon’s double fracture means a lengthy rehabilitation for the Scotland No 1 but, having worked closely with him in the national set up and, more recently, at Hearts, Clark is not surprised to learn that his colleague does not intend to bow out meekly and will instead battle to regain his starting spot with club and country.
“That's what the big man is like,” said Clark, who was part of the Scotland squad for the 2021 matches against Denmark, Moldova and Austria. “He has faced serious injuries before in his career and I'm sure he will have a road map planned out on his recovery. Obviously, everyone at the club is fully behind him and offering support to him. We wish him a speedy recovery and hope he is back soon.”Hearts manager Robbie Neilson has revealed that Gordon intends to drop into training on Sunday to inspire his team-mates ahead of the second derby of the season, and will remain involved in the team as he rehabilitates. This is great news, according to Clark, who has credited him with a key role in his on-going development. “Even spending nine, ten days away in Scotland camps with him you can learn so much so to be working with him on a daily basis is great and there is Cheesy (Ross Stewart) and Gall (Paul Gallacher, goalkeeping coach) as well who are two great guys. We all push each other. To have these guys behind us as well is great, and it's now time to step up and take the chance given to me.”
And, he knows, with a vacancy in Steve Clarke’s set-up, a decent run of form could help him earn a Scotland recall. “Obviously it will be in the back of my mind,” Clark added. “If I can go in at club level and do the best I can and it opens up that opportunity for me then that's great. It's one of those where I am always focused on the next game and making sure I can go in and do well. If that is enough to get me back into squads then that's great. It will be at the back of my mind, that incentive, but mainly for me it is going in and making sure I do well for the club.”