Ciaran Clark took one for the team at Selhurst Park – and it cost him his place.
The Newcastle United defender is now determined to win his place back in Rafa Benitez’s side, who take on Leicester City at the King Power Stadium tomorrow.
I feel like I’ve improved, and hopefully I can keep improving and pushing and trying to get as many games as possible.Ciaran Clark
Clark felt the full weight of Crystal Palace’s Mamadou Sakho land on his knee as he defended a corner in the February 4 meeting between the two clubs.
With Benitez having already made three changes, Clark had to play on – and it was just as well that he did stay on the field.
Clark made two late clearances as Palace, pushing for a winner, laid seige to United’s goal. Newcastle kept them out to claim a hard-earned point from a 1-1 draw.
“It was from a corner, and I think Sahko, his weight, just landed on my knee,” said Clark. “I was struggling for a bit there. I don’t know if we’d used all our subs or what the situation was.
“I was just in the right place at the right time at the end of the game, and managed to get those two clearances and we held on to a result.
“It was just one of those things, and that was it.”
Clark’s defending in those final few minutes typified the never-say-die attitude of Rafa Benitez’s players this season.
For Clark, however, those fraught final few minutes at Selhurst Park came at a cost – as he hasn’t hasn’t kicked a ball in anger since.
The Republic of Ireland international has been an unused substitute for the club’s last four league games.
The centre-half watched from the bench as his team-mates overcame Huddersfield Town 1-0 at St James’s Park last week to move up to 12th place in the league.
Newcastle are seven points clear of the relegation zone.
Clark has been kept out of the team by the form of Florian Lejeune, signed from Eibar last summer, since returning to fitness.
“I think we kind of knew it would be like that this season,” said Clark. “We signed some real quality players, and the competition’s been a lot tougher this season, but that’s obviously good.
“It brings out the best in everyone – the individuals and the squad.
“It keeps everyone on their toes and pushing hard in training.
“So far, I think we’ve really enjoyed this season, and hopefully we can finish it off well.”
Clark – who has played 1,745 minutes of Premier League football this season – has relished the club’s return to the top flight.
“It’s been brilliant,” said Clark, who was a fixture in last season’s title-winning team.
“I think last season was fantastic the way we managed to get promoted and win the league.
“We knew it was going to be tough this season. We knew ourselves, and we’ve just tried to take each game as it comes.
“We’ve got a really good bunch of lads out there, and confidence is high, we all believe in each other and we’ve got a good bond.
“That’s something I never thought we’d lose. That’s a massive help towards getting points on the board in this league.
“Obviously, in the past this type of bond has helped massively. The new players coming in ... everyone’s made them feel welcome. They’ve got involved, and it’s just been a good team effort.”
Benitez has overseen individual and collective improvements at Newcastle this season.
For his part, Clark believes that he’s improved as a player since joining United – and he’s patiently waiting for another chance.
“I feel like I’ve improved,” said Clark. “He’s obviously worked a lot on individuals and the team, and wants to improving players.
“He believes that improves the team, which is does. People can improve on little areas here and there, and I think he’s the best man to learn from.
“I feel like I’ve improved, and hopefully I can keep improving and pushing and trying to get as many games as possible.”
Meanwhile, Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic hailed on-loan Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic after he scored his eighth goal for the promotion-chasing Championship club.
Mitrovic netted in Tuesday night’s 2-0 win over Leeds United.
Jokanovic said: “He’s an important signing for us. He scored another goal and worked in the offensive and defensive set-pieces.
“He can hold the ball. What’s important is we start our striker and he scores the goals.”