It's rare that a player who was top goalscorer in his only previous season at a club, and who began the following season in good scoring form, would become a much derided figure among a section of the club's supporters, seemingly an easy target for scapegoat status when results started to go against the team. Such was the case with Nicky Clark, who scored 16 goals in his debut season with Dunfermline and who began this season scoring 4 goals in the opening League Cup game, before being sidelined through injury 2 weeks later.
His return to the side became almost a problem in itself for some Pars fans, who believed that he was being given favourable treatment by manager Allan Johnston on the basis that his dad, Sandy, is the Pars assistant manager. All unsubstantiated, of course, but bad feeling grew, culminating in shameful scenes during the Challenge Cup game at Falkirk in October, when a boisterous group of Dunfermline followers chanted "We've only got 10 men", aimed at Clark's perceived lack of effort, and with the player eventually substituted, probably for his own good, late in the game, to much ironic cheering.
Turning against a proven goalscorer is about as self-defeating as any group of supporters can be, and the previously-mentioned "need" (why?) to have a scapegoat, with the assistant boss' son an easy target, did little to improve relations between the players and fans during a difficult middle section of the season. Clark was - not surprisingly - struggling for goals, with no goal assists from the central midfielders in the squad for the entire first half of the season. Instead of looking at that as a possible reason for the main striker's lack of goals, the focus for some (not all) became Clark himself.
Humble pie was soon to be on the menu for many of the striker's critics. A run of 4 goals in 7 games, including a decisive goal against Falkirk, saw Clark's instinctive goalscoring form return from November through to New Year. Named team captain in the absence of Callum Morris from the starting line-up, clearly his manager had faith in the player not only to score goals but also to lead the team. Clark responded to being given the captaincy by putting in a series of good displays, working hard, and leading by example.
7 goals in March saw him named Championship Player of the Month, but his greatest moment in a Pars shirt was still to come. Once again team captain, he scored an unforgettable equaliser in the 95th minute against Inverness on Saturday to win a precious point and prevent a very damaging defeat in the play-off race, maintaining Dunfermline's advantage over the Highlanders. It was possibly the most important goal he has scored in his career. Clark's goal at Inverness also earned him a place in the SPFL Team of the Week and moved his tally for the season to 21 goals in 38 games. He is also the joint top scorer in the Championship this season.
At 26 years old, Clark is approaching his peak years and it has to be hoped that he will extend his stay at Dunfermline after his contract ends this season. He is the most gifted natural scorer we have had since Andy Kirk and has developed as a player during his 2 seasons at East End Park. There are very few players who can virtually guarantee a goal every other game but Clark is one of them: indeed, his goals per minutes played ratio is better than a goal every 2 games, scoring, on average, every 155 minutes this season.
While his goal at Inverness was hugely important, hopefully it will be superceded in the next few games as the Pars aim to be involved in the promotion play-offs throughout May. A winning goal in the play-off final would be a fitting end to a season that has seen a remarkable turnaround in the fortune and the popularity of our leading scorer.