“I think she was up there kicking every ball there for me today”.
The tragic loss saw the 44-year-old take six weeks away from the game, with the promotion-sealing victory at Wembley just his 11th game back.
“It is special for my eldest daughter, who I lost this year, and my family who have gone through tough times,” a visibly exhausted Clarke said after the match.
He quickly followed that up by saying he “wasn’t looking for sympathy” as other families endure such heartache.
But no father has done what Clarke did at Wembley. Grief, pride and elation coursed though him and spilled over in the late stages of the final on English football’s biggest stage in front of more than 37,300 spectators.
“I worked so hard the last few days to control those emotions, and they all come out,” he said.
‘I pray they go up next season’
From the outset, the recent months, and what Clarke has gone through, defined the day.
Andy Crosby led the side onto the pitch – a thank-you to the assistant manager who had stepped up as interim boss while Clarke was off on compassionate leave.
“Andy took over in the hardest circumstances imaginable and with a group of players did a fantastic job,” Clarke said. “It was fitting for him to take the team out.”
In the eighth minute, opposition supporters started a minute’s applause in solidarity for Mansfield-born Clarke, a former Stags player who made more than 170 appearances for the club.
“It was very special and it was from Mansfield, she [Ellie] is a Mansfield girl born and bred,” Clarke said.
“For those Stags fans to do that touched me, I have a great affinity with the club.
“I was there from the age of 10 to 23. I have so much time for them and the football club and [Stags manager] Nigel Clough.
“They will bounce back. I pray they go up next season, for them to do that for myself and my family after eight minutes I’ll forever be grateful.”
Clough ‘happy’ for his opposite number
Clough gave Clarke a big hug before kick-off and the Mansfield boss said he was “delighted” to see his opposite number happy after the game.
“I class him as a friend, that’s the only decent thing to come out of the day for us,” Clough said.
Clarke now has a League One campaign to prepare for, but his attention after the game immediately turned to his family and a holiday they will take with friends.
“I’m going to mend the family, go away and we will have our own special moments,” he said.