Clare left Sheffield Wednesday for Tynecastle Park aiming to play high-octane football against quality teams on big occasions. They don’t come much bigger than Sunday at Easter Road. The 22-year-old has improved gradually throughout the campaign and, having sampled the Sheffield derby, is encapsulated by the intensity of its Edinburgh equivalent.
He also feels his maiden season in Scotland is only a precursor for what is still to come. Clare expects to grow in stature in the months ahead.
“I’m happy with what I’ve done here so far,” said the Englishman, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “There are still games to play and things to play for. I think, with a pre-season and knowing the Scottish league a lot more, there is the opportunity for me to kick on again next year. I’m trying to improve to help the team.
“The reaction to me coming to Scotland was negative on social media, but the people I actually spoke to and explained my decision to supported me. Looking back now, it has been the right decision. I came here to try and play in as many good quality games as possible. I feel I’ve gradually increased the amount of games and every week you’re playing good quality opponents. That’s what I wanted to do, so I’m happy with my decision to join Hearts.
“The derbies are massive games and there is so much riding on them. Players, staff and fans all want to win these games. It’s almost like a cup final every time you play Hibs. I’ve really enjoyed it.
“You obviously enjoy it a lot more when you win. We didn’t deserve to lose against Hibs last time. We maybe lost through not taking our chances rather than Hibs being the better team. If you go in with full focus, know what it’s about and give your all, the fans will always support you.
“For me, Hibs-Hearts is more intense than Sheffield Wednesday-Sheffield United. I didn’t play a lot in the Sheffield derby but it is passionate as well. The fans are really at it, so are all the players, but I think it’s more hostile in Scotland. Maybe that’s because I’ve played more of a part in the Edinburgh derbies than I did down south.”
Well versed with life in the English Championship – itself a division renowned for physicality and robustness – Clare believes the Ladbrokes Premiership is actually tougher.
“They’re similar in a sense but I’d say it’s more intense up in Scotland. You get a bit more time on the ball in the Championship. In Scotland, against the majority of teams, there’s no time on the ball and you have to create that time a lot more. There is definitely a bit of a difference, although the Championship is still a very intense league with the amount of games they play.”
There will certainly be no time to ponder on the ball in Leith this weekend. It wouldn’t be an Edinburgh derby otherwise. Hearts are eager to tap into their previous experience of visiting Hibs in December, when Olly Lee’s sensational winning goal brought Craig Levein’s new-look side victory.
Easter Road now holds no fear for Clare and his colleagues. “We’ve already played Hibs three times this season. We know what it’s like at Easter Road now. We’ve had a taste of it and had a taste of winning. That will be in our minds going there,” he said.
“We know we can do it, we’ve done it before. Even though we are still quite a new team, we have had that experience and that’s something we need to remember. We need to try and replicate it to win there again. That’s the most important thing.
“I remember the game in December. It was very tough and was played at 100 miles an hour from first minute to last. There were brilliant celebrations in our changing room at the end, as I’m sure there were for Hibs when they beat us last time. It’s a great feeling when you beat your close rivals, especially when there’s a lot of stuff going back and forth between fans and players. It’s part of football and you enjoy being in amongst it.”
Clare is certainly thriving in the second half of the season compared to the first. He has found his feet and rhythm in Scottish football having taken time to find full fitness and sharpness after ankle surgery this time last year. He is now regarded by Hearts manager Levein as an influential attacking figure. He is also the club’s nominated penalty taker. Of the four goals he has scored in his last seven outings, three have come from the spot. He is widely expected to start against Hibs having missed last weekend’s home defeat by Rangers through illness.
“I’m feeling good and I’m happy I’m over the illness from last weekend,” he explained. “Going back to the start of the campaign, it was tough up here to start with because I was recovering from injury and learning about Scottish football. The intensity and physicality of the Scottish league is different to any football I’ve played.
“My injury made it a little bit harder to make the jump but, since December/January time, it has settled down and been a lot easier to cope with. I’ve felt a lot better and more comfortable in games so I feel I can make a difference and help the team a lot more.”
If he helps Hearts win at Easter Road again, it will only further justify Clare’s move north.