Clark revelling in Villa challenges
Festive cheer has been in plentiful supply at Aston Villa in recent days and central defender Ciaran Clark has more than most to toast this Christmas.
At the age of 23, Clark will reach the turn of the year as a Premier League regular and the prospect of a flourishing international career with the Republic of Ireland enhanced as a result.
Clark's status as a leading figure in Paul Lambert's emerging Villa side has been confirmed by the manager's decision to hand him the captain's armband in the last couple of games and while he may lack the experience to hold that position permanently right now, there is little doubt that he is becoming a leader of considerable clout.
Villa's prolific academy set-up has produced a glut of sparkling talent that is serving the first team well in Lambert's first year as the club's manager and Clark has the potential to be the classiest performer of a rich crop.
Hugely impressive as he played a leading role in nullifying the threat posed by Liverpool's Luis Suarez in the 3-1 win against Liverpool last weekend, Clark gets his chance to add another notch to his reputation as he locks horns with Chelsea's Fernando Torres on Sunday, with fear not an emotion he feels when mixing it with the game's elite.
"I love playing against the best players in the world and Suarez one week and Torres the next is fine by me," Clark told ESPN. "Torres is starting to find his form again now and he is always a threat, but they have so many brilliant players at Chelsea we will need to keep an eye on.
"Villa have done well at Chelsea in the last few years. We won 3-1 down there last season and picked up a 3-3 draw the year before and we go there feeling confident after the win at Liverpool last weekend.
"We have given a good account of ourselves against most of the top teams so far, so hopefully that continues at Stamford Bridge. Let's see if we can continue our form against another top side."
The transformation in mood among the Villa squad in recent weeks bodes well for the club's short and long-term future, with Lambert's decision to build a team around young, hungry players made at the expense of senior figures such as Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Stephen Ireland, Charles N'Zogbia and Darren Bent.
With a clutch of star names condemned to the sidelines, those replacing them are embracing the responsibility handed to them by a manager who should get total commitment in return for the faith he has shown in them.
A maiden Wembley cup final is the reward now dangling before them, with League Two giant killers Bradford City all that stand between Villa and a place in the Capital One Cup decider.
Clark admits he is relishing his role as the front man of Lambert's youthful Villa revolution.
"The idea of being Villa captain was never on my agenda at the start of this season," he said. "I just wanted to try and impress the new manager and play as many games as possible, so it has gone better for me than I could have imagined.
"I certainly didn't expect to be captain by Christmas, that's for sure. That said, I've captained virtually every team I've played for in my career so far, through the youth ranks and now through to the Villa first team and I enjoy the role. I don't know why I always seem to get the captain's armband, but it has happened like that in my career.
"I'm a quiet lad off the pitch and don't like to shout at people, but I cross that white line and something changes in me. I enjoy the chance to pass out information to team-mates and try to get everyone pulling for each other."
Clark's Premier League progress must have nudged him up the Ireland pecking order, with Giovanni Trappattoni surely impressed by his committed display when handed a starting spot in the friendly international against Greece last month.
His performance was notable for a robust challenge that riled members of the visiting Greek team and his feistiness hit the headlines again earlier this month as his whole hearted tackle on Ireland team-mate and Stoke midfielder Glenn Whelan riled Potters boss Tony Pulis.
Firm but fair is how Clark would sum up his attitude in the tackle as he makes no excuses for challenges that could easily have resulted in red cards in the eyes of some match officials.
"I never pull out of a challenge, but the physical side of the game is creeping out," he said. "Without being stupid or over the top, the art of tackling has to remain as a feature of the game, but you seem to get pulled up for minor offences these days.
"There were some comments from the Stoke manager about one of my tackles a couple of weeks back, but I don't think I did anything wrong. I might have caught their player a bit, but I was going for the ball and the manager never said anything to me about it afterwards.
"We went into the Stoke game determined not to be bullied. They might have thought they could get the upper hand on us as we are a young side, but we were determined to give as good as we got. In the end, we got a clean sheet, so it was job done from our point of view.
"Just because we are young players proving our worth in the Premier League, it doesn't mean we cannot stand up to the players we are up against every week. We are in a League Cup semi-final and on a decent run in the league, so we must be doing something right."
The Villa team Lambert will send into battle at Stamford Bridge is likely to have cost a third of the £50m Chelsea paid to sign Torres last January, yet their rising confidence leads Clark and his young team-mates to believe they can continue to produce miracles in the Premier League.