THE season opened with a bad joke.
It was delivered with the same unfortunate sense of timing as Nicky Clark's new contract, the striker agreeing another one-year deal with Queen of the South just days after his father, Sandy, had been appointed as assistant manager. The Dumfries club had been left sore following their fall back into the Irn-Bru Second Division and some supporters lashed out by aiming a punchline at the forward; claiming unfairly that his return to the side had something to do with his dad having a say on team affairs.
Clark had been seen as an easy target after all, scoring just once during a season in which Queens were routed routinely on their way out of the first division, but that perception is now confined to the rear-view mirror as his side motor towards a league title and April's Ramsdens Cup final. Such success has been the signature of Clark this season – he has failed to score in only nine of his 27 appearances so far – and each of his 26 goals has chipped away at the wall of indifference that greeted his return in June. The most telling blows were delivered as he scored to help knock both Hibernian and Rangers out of the cups.
It is that strike-rate which has turned Clark into the leading light of this Queens team and his vibrant form has also attracted inevitable interest from more illustrious clubs, with Hibs linked with a move for the 21-year-old at the end of the season, as well as for the precocious talents of Danny Carmichael, Gavin Reilly and Kevin Holt. All of a sudden having Clark's dear, old dad at the club doesn't seem so bad after all.
Any suggestion that the Queens assistant might be inclined to ground his boy during the summer so that he can be unleashed again on the first division is pert, and is met with only with a broad smile from the former Hearts and St Johnstone manager. That has likely been a common feature for Sandy Clark this season given the form shown by his son and his club – Queens have lost just once in the league so far and are 16 points ahead of second-place Alloa Athletic – but their relationship is expressed as one typical of a coach and his player. Nicky had been the subject of some ribbing in the early weeks of the season, with former team-mates enquiring about the form of "wee Sandy" via social media, but their work together has proven to be good business.
It is also nothing new, Clark having worked as a coach at Aberdeen while his son was making his way through the Pittodrie club's youth system, affording a professional understanding between the two that has helped the young striker to flourish. "He is a bit like myself in that you don't hit the headlines at 18, 19; it takes a little bit longer for you to develop sometimes," says Sandy Clark. "He is the boy putting the ball in the back of the net and that is a quality which is worth its weight in gold and if he keeps working hard then he will get his rewards.
"The family bit is great but I have been involved with teams that Nicky has played in since he was 12. We know how to work the relationship. He knows where to draw the line and I know that you need to take a step back at times."
It is a sentiment which has helped guide Clark towards the best form of his nascent career. His rapacious form can serve to disguise the fact the forward is still only 21, while it has also eclipsed two fallow seasons at Peterhead – a club he left following relegation to the third division. His subsequent rise to become the country's leading goalscorer has been aided by Queens' decision to remain full-time this term and the opportunity for refinement that allows, although the poise he has shown when given a sight at goal has been undeterred by the stature of opposition. "Nicky didn't have his best game against Forfar [two weeks ago] but he was given one chance and took it well to finish the game," says Clark.
"He is big enough and man enough to make his own decisions [over his future]. If the opportunity comes for our players to go, and I don't mean going to a team on a par with us – and I would class first division teams like that – then I don't think anyone would stop them. You've got to develop young players but you can't hold them back if they're ready to move on."
The Dumfries side would certainly seem restless, with many of their league rivals having become statistics during a campaign which is certain to add up to a league title. Clark suggested that he and manager Allan Johnston would "get their backsides kicked" should their side falter now but the Queens board are likely more inclined to invite them both to sit down and discuss extensions to contracts that expire in May. Johnston has excelled since taking charge towards the end of last season, but his affinity for the role of manager had long been identified by Clark.
"I met Allan when he was 15 at Hearts and he has got a great awareness of the game," he says. "If you can take that with you as a manager then you can be successful."