Cheltenham boss Darrell Clarke reflects on the loss of his daughter
Cheltenham boss Darrell Clarke reflects on the loss of his daughter, aged just 18, as he insists he wants her story to be an inspiration for others facing mental health struggles
- Cheltenham manager Darrell Clarke’s daughter passed away aged just 18
- 45-year-old detailed the grief he suffered in the aftermath of Ellie’s death
- Clarke added he wants to inspire those struggling with their mental health
The phone call still haunts Darrell Clarke and he knows it always will. It was Valentine’s Day and Clarke sat at home with a glass of wine when his mobile rang and the voice at the other end of the line told him his 18-year-old daughter Ellie was dead.
A stillness fills Clarke’s small office at Cheltenham’s training ground as he relives the call from Ellie’s stepdad and the moment his life shattered.
Ellie’s body was found hanged at her boyfriend’s flat in Mansfield. The couple had argued, he asked her to leave and Ellie took her own life.
‘I walked around the kitchen all night screaming,’ says Clarke.
‘Her mum said she’d been a bit down but I was like “She’s a teenager, I’ll take her out Christmas shopping in Manchester”. That’s what we did for two days. “Get what you want, El,” I said. She was happy as Larry. We were laughing and joking. It was mad to think about how…’
Cheltenham boss Darrell Clarke has reflected on the death of his daughter Ellie last year
Clarke was in charge of then-League Two side Port Vale when he learned of Ellie’s passing
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Clarke’s voice trails off.
‘That kills me. The thing that hurts me the most is that Ellie loved me so much she didn’t want me to share the pain of her last six months.’
Ellie contacted mental health services three times in 2021 and was on antidepressants prescribed by her doctor. She was due to start one-to-one psychotherapy before her death in February last year.
Clarke knew none of this until the inquest. ‘The story is frightening,’ he says. ‘She wasn’t that sort of girl, Ellie. Trust me.’
Clarke told the inquest his daughter’s voice wasn’t heard. He believes she was let down by mental health authorities. Nottinghamshire NHS worked with charity Mind, who Clarke claims were still trying to contact Ellie six months after her death. It’s wrong, he says, that he was left unaware of his daughter’s problems.
He doesn’t agree with the verdict of suicide. ‘It was a cry for help that went wrong in my opinion,’ he says. ‘One that ripped the family apart.’
This is the first time Clarke has spoken publicly about Ellie’s death. It’s been 21 months but, finally, he feels ready. For the first 18 months, grief sent his life off the rails. By his own admission, he caused ‘carnage’. He rebelled against everything. He was, as he calls it, a ‘s***house’.
He knows he should have taken a break before he did. He was Port Vale manager at the time of Ellie’s death and returned to the dugout after just a three-month leave to seal promotion to League One through the play-offs. Only when he left Port Vale in April did he take the break he needed. He went on five holidays in five months before taking the job at goal-shy Cheltenham in September, a club that went its first 11 League One games without a goal. Since his arrival, he’s won two, drawn two and lost two, a run that saw him nominated for the November manager of the month.
Speaking about Ellie is not just about his own grief. It’s about helping those around him. His other daughter, Katie, who’s now 15. Ellie’s brother Thomas, her step-brother Shay, Darrell’s wife Vikki, from whom he’s now separated. His players, who he wants to turn ‘from young footballers into men’. And those who have been through similar tragedy.
Clarke found out an 11-year-old in the Cheltenham academy had just lost his 15-year-old sister so he invited his mum into his office to let her know the family isn’t alone.
‘If I can make a difference by getting out of bed in the morning and trying to reach as high as I can, hopefully that can give others (inspiration). If one family, one person, can look at me and say “we can get out of bed”. There’s always reasons to get out of bed. Can you find that reason when life is really tough? And it is tough. Mental health is massive. The youngsters of today, my god it’s hard for them. To live up to their Tik Toks, to life online that is so false.’
Port Vale players show their support for Clarke before their clash with Rochdale in 2022
After taking a leave of absence following the bereavement, Clarke returned to lead Port Vale to the League Two play-off final
Before his side walked out at Wembley, Clarke played his team a song that had been played at Ellie’s funeral
Clarke returned to the Port Vale dugout for the final game of the regular season at Exeter in May where a win would secure their place in the play-offs.
For three hours, Clarke sobbed in his hotel room. Robbie Williams, the singer and Port Vale fan, sent him a video message: ‘To get out of bed after what you’ve been through, you’re a winner in my eyes.’
Vale beat Exeter 1-0 to reach the play-offs. They edged past Swindon in the semi-finals, winning a narrow penalty shootout in which Vale missed two of their first three spot-kicks.
‘When I went to bed, I said to Ellie: “Stop taking the piss and make the final a bit easier for me!”’
He still speaks to her now. ‘Sometimes I can hear her say “sort yourself out, Dad” if there’s a day where I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself. She gives me a little slap.’
Whenever he sees a magpie, he calls it Ellie. ‘There’s Ellie,’ I say. ‘If there’s two, there’s Ellie with her friend.’
Ellie loved animals. Clarke laughs as he recalls the time Ellie phoned him in a panic after she dropped the box of cockroaches she’d bought to feed her pet bearded dragon and sent insects flying everywhere.
She’d applied to study veterinary nursing at Nottingham Trent University. At the inquest, her mum told the court Ellie checked her emails every day ‘for the future she was excited for’. A future that never came.
Ellie did make the play-off final easier, if only on the pitch. Vale, as if by fate, faced Mansfield in the final. Clarke’s former club, his hometown, the place where Ellie was born, lived and died.
Before the team walked out at Wembley, Clarke played a few lines of the Ellie Goulding song that accompanied his daughter’s funeral.
How long will I love you? As long as stars are above you. And longer if I can.
‘I stopped it and said “Lads, I buried my daughter to that. This game’s not life or death. I’m so proud of you boys, so proud of how you’ve gone about this. We’ve already won. Just go out there and enjoy it”.’
Port Vale won 3-0. On eight minutes, the number Clarke wore as a player at Mansfield, all 37,000 fans at Wembley rose in tribute to applaud him.
Thirty of his ex-players went to Ellie’s funeral, including Luton Town captain Tom Lockyer, who Clarke managed at Bristol Rovers.
Clarke says he’s been ‘brought up by grief’. His mum died in a car crash when he was two, on his gran’s birthday, while his father was an alcoholic who waved insurance money from his mum’s death in his face. Clarke and his brother Wayne were raised on a Mansfield council estate by his gran Sheila – ‘she was a rock’ – and his grandfather, Dave, who worked as a turnstiles steward at the Stags.
Clarke thanks the League Managers Association for their ‘outstanding’ support. They helped him find the right counsellor, who’s provided vital help. Also his new partner Rebecca, for the support she’s shown him.
‘Most of the boxes I’ve had in my life I’ve been able to let them float away,’ says Clarke. ‘But Ellie’s box is always around me. I’ll always have my own guilt and my own feelings on all sorts of things. I’ll always have that round my feet.
Goals from Kian Harratt, James Wilson (pictured) and Mal Benning secured a 3-0 win for Vale
On a jubilant day for the club, on the eighth minute fans at Wembley rose to applause Clarke
Despite his achievement, Clarke questioned whether he was being treated differently following his return due to his daughter’s untimely death
‘I feel like I could never give enough to my daughter. I’ve given so much to my job over the years. Then you start thinking: what if I was there more? I saw plenty of her, I spoke to her every day. We’d go on holidays every year. My home was in Southampton but the girls all had their rooms there. I couldn’t be there anymore. I couldn’t walk past Ellie’s room.’
He struggles to go back to Mansfield now. Ellie, his mum and his gran, who died about five years ago, are all buried in a cemetery there. He visited a few weeks ago.
‘It’s f***ing hard,’ he says. ‘It kills me for days. I’m sat at my daughter’s grave, she’s here and mum and gran are over there in a double. The whammy of it just hits me too hard.’
And yet for someone whose life has been so shaped by grief, Clarke exudes the air of a man determined not to let loss define him.
‘My gran always said there is always somebody worse off than you,’ says Clarke. ‘There’s no truer word is there? I can lose my daughter through a cry for help – but there can be someone who lost their whole family in a car accident.’
There were times at the end of his spell at Port Vale when he felt people tip-toed around him. If he stormed off after a game, was it because his daughter died? If he went for dinner on his own, was it because his daughter died?
‘I just want to be treated normal,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to be treated as the football manager who lost his daughter.’
In the three hours spent in his office, there’s more than just silence and sorrow. Clarke’s loud, he’s boisterous, he’s honest. What you see is what you get. There’s laughter, there’s stories, there’s lots of swearing.
Clarke re-enacts one of his favourite team talks, hunched over, hobbling around the room cradling an imaginary pair of gigantic testicles. He recalls Neil Warnock refereeing a behind-closed-doors friendly against Clarke’s Bristol Rovers team shouting at his own Cardiff players to ‘shut the f**k up, that’s not a free-kick!’ How at Port Vale, they called themselves Port Vile. The time one of his players chased him down the corridor when he told him he’d not been selected.
In the end, it was football that pulled him back. But why now, why Cheltenham, why a team that was rock bottom of League One without a goal to their name?
‘I just missed it,’ he says. ‘It’s a drug, it’s an addiction to want to be on the grass, to work with your players. How long do you wait? I just missed out on a top League One job but this excited me as well, in a different way. It will feel just as good as a promotion if we can stay up this year. Trying to create history.’
This is Cheltenham’s third successive season in League One. They have never made it four in a row. He thinks they’ll need 15 wins to stay up. He’s already got two.
He wants to make Katie proud. That’s his purpose now. He wants, eventually, to win promotions from each division and to reach 1,000 games as a manager. He’s won five promotions so far, and all four of his play-off campaigns.
‘I couldn’t ever see myself coming out of football,’ he says. ‘I think the day you lose that hunger and desire, you’re being a fraud.’
The 45-year-old has since taken charge of Cheltenham and is keen to leave a legacy in football
There’s lots of them in football, he says. ‘Nodding dogs, I call them. Players who come in and go, yeah, yeah, yeah, but don’t lead by example. I don’t mind anyone with a quiet personality but when you haven’t got personality on the pitch, you’re f****d.’
Eventually, after more stories and more memories, Clarke picks up his phone. ‘Right, guys, I’ve got to speak to my councillor. I really enjoyed that.’ Our time is up.
‘I want to leave a good legacy,’ he says. ‘Ellie was so proud of me and I want to do more. I don’t want to be that victim of life. My gran never lived her life a victim. My gran never gave up so why should I – I want to achieve more than I’ve ever wanted to achieve.’
For confidential support, call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch. See www.samaritans.org for details.
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