Feature: Defender Clark aiming to reach magic milestone
As he edges ever closer to a century of appearances in claret and blue, Ciaran Clark isn't worried about exactly how he reaches his personal milestone.
Of his 89 games to date, all but 10 have been in the starting line-up, and he is now an established member of the team.
Yet the 24-year-old central defender has already gone on as a substitute three times this season - as well as having to be replaced in another game.
"It will be brilliant to get to 100," he says. "There's a young group of players here now so not many of them have played that many games, so that will be a massive milestone for me and for my family.
"Obviously I would like to be selected for every game but I have no problem about going on as a sub."
With summer signing Jores Okore ruled out for the season, Clark and his long-time pal Nathan Baker having been vying for a place alongside skipper Ron Vlaar, although both of them played at West Ham 10 days ago in what proved to be a highly-effective back three.
"Nathan and I played together right through from under-13s to the first-team," says Ciaran.
"If only one of us is playing, the other is always supportive. We want each other to do well.
"That's what it's like here. Leading up to a game, everyone is competitive and wants to be in the team. But those who are not selected always back the players who are. There's a good atmosphere around the place."
Clark has experienced fluctuating fortunes during what can only be described as a surreal start to the season for Villa's centre-backs.
Named among the subs for the opening day game at Arsenal, he was called into action after just 18 minutes when Nathan Baker was injured.
At Chelsea three nights later he made way for Okore just before half-time after suffering a head wound which required four stitches.
The roles were reversed against Newcastle United, Clark going on after half an hour to replace Okore after the Dane sustained the serious knee injury which is likely to keep him sidelined for the rest of the campaign.
And just when he was settling down alongside Vlaar, a sickness bug cost him his place, leaving him to return to action as a sub when left-back Antonio Luna was injured against Everton.
"It's a good job we have the squad to be able to do that," he says.
"Everyone is fighting for a place and it's good to have that kind of competition.
"Even after I had settled down for a couple of games, I was taken ill. The manager obviously didn't want me passing it on to the other lads so I was told to go home. There was no way I could have played against Tottenham.
"That was frustrating - and so was my injury at Chelsea. I'd come back into the team after going on at Arsenal and I was feeling quite comfortable.
"To have to go off just before half-time was really annoying, particularly when I had to miss the next couple of games. Our medical people didn't want to take the risk of me starting a game and then having the wound open. As a defender, there was always a chance that might happen.
"I couldn't wait for it to clear up - and when it did Jores got injured against Newcastle and I went on to replace him. Our thoughts are with him because it's never nice for a player to get a long-term injury."
Clark was one of several players who signed contract extensions this summer and he is determined to continue his steady progression in claret and blue.
It's more than four years since Martin O'Neill handed him his debut against Fulham but that game will always be special to him.
"It came out of the blue and I only found out I was playing an hour before the game," he recalls.
"I knew we had a few injuries but when the manager called me and told me I was playing I couldn't believe it. I'll never forget that moment."
Shortly afterwards, O'Neill signed Richard Dunne and James Collins, so Clark returned to the periphery, playing only one more game in that 2009-10 season.
Since then his involvement has increased to the point where he made 35 appearances last season.
"To play so many games was brilliant," says the Republic of Ireland international. "Hopefully I can be involved in as many this season."
So do his family. Ciaran's parents attend as many Villa games as possible, while his brother Shane is still a Villa Park regular, despite having moved away from the Midlands.
"Shane still comes to a lot of our games. He used to watch me when he was at university in Birmingham, and he's working in London now. He and my uncle always come up to home games, and they also make a few away games, especially the ones in London.
"My brother was never going to be a footballer - he's the one with the brains! He works in accounting and he's doing really well.
"He has also just passed his driving test at the third or fourth attempt so maybe he will be able to travel further afield for our games now!"
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