Clarke on Swedish road back
A FORTNIGHT ago, Ronan Clarke limped on to a flight to Sweden for an operation on his cursed Achilles. It was the first step in a long and arduous journey he thought he had already all but completed.
Back in May in the Armagh City Hotel, he was bullish about both his own and Armagh's prospects for the summer. The injury that had dogged him since before the first round of the league last year was clearing up, and he explained how he believed there was "more talent" in the current Armagh side than the All-Ireland winning 2002 version.
Then, in the run-up to the Down game, disaster struck again and it was decided an operation was required. It was a crushing blow as his rehab, under the watchful eye of the head of sports medicine at the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland, Phil Glasgow, had gone to exactly to plan.
Crucially, everything he had done to that point was in a pair of runners. When he first pulled on football boots, which exposed the Achilles a little more, the problem recurred and he was back to square one.
Clarke could hardly have done any more to get back fit. Armagh had gone to every length, including using the only 'anti-gravity' treadmill on the island in UUJ, where the IRFU were also sending Rob Kearney and Jerry Flannery.
At 28 and with his litany of injuries, every season counts and he was determined to be ready for action when the time was right. Fate had other ideas for him.
The early signs are that the operation was a success and, barring further complications, it's not far-fetched to suggest he will play in the National League and possibly even the McKenna Cup in 2012. But such has been his luck, it's only a whisper.
"It's been the worst injury I've had," Clarke agreed. "I've already been over a year out. All I've heard is people saying you won't come back the same player, which I do not believe. People are entitled to their opinion but I was thinking of the British athlete Jessica Ennis, who ruptured her whole Achilles and she learned how to push off her other foot."
There'll be a three-year gap to bridge before Clarke returns to championship football, having last lined out for Armagh in the qualifier defeat to Monaghan in 2009. It's hardly what he imagined when he was first went to county training as an 18-year-old when, but for Paul McGrane's intervention, he might not have turned up.
"I remember standing on the bridge above the training field -- it was just below my house -- on my way down the first night. And I was looking down at these guys and they were huge and I was thinking, 'I don't know if I'm up for this yet'. I was about to turn on my heel and Paul McGrane caught me and said, 'Come here' and brought me in. It was very daunting," he said.
Since then, Clarke has grown into one of the county's most important players. He travelled on the team bus for their matches last year -- "You always tell yourself you might be fit for the next game, you just want to be there" -- and will probably do the same for the trip to Clones to take on Derry on Sunday. In the interim, he'll continue to build his sportswear company, Kit Ireland, which offers bespoke gear to clubs.
"You can't get too bogged down in the whole thing. If you do, you'd totally go off the rails. You have to take the rough with the smooth," he said.
He's taken far too much of the former.