All-Ireland glory in Clarke's sights after brave return from Oz
Published 18/09/2010 | 05:00
A smile creased James McCartan's face at Down's All-Ireland press day when asked about the impact Martin Clarke had made since his return from Australia.
Apologising for not wanting to sound condescending, McCartan declared that he would answer in the same way that he answered when he was asked the same question before, and before that again.
So, McCartan gave the now stock-in-trade answer, a set-piece routine he has gone through since Clarke's dazzling competitive return to action against Kildare in St Conleth's Park last February.
Before that game Kieran McGeeney had expressed doubts about Clarke's capacity to convert frees and prise open gaps in the narrow confines of the Newbridge pitch. His doubts were unfounded, however, and a clear portent for the season ahead was witnessed.
For his first competitive senior inter-county comeback game (McKenna Cup apart), it was quite a start.
It wasn't always as smooth. Opponents in Division 2 analysed him and made plans for him, sometimes with success. When Down reached the league final in Croke Park and lost to Armagh, expectations of him were not realistic. In the Ulster championship he did nice things, working the ball forward with subtle passes. But he still looked well within his limits.
It has taken Croke Park to bring the very best out of him. Moreover, it has taken the same six to eight months as it took Tadhg Kennelly to readjust with Kerry 12 months ago.
The symmetry with Kennelly is not perfect. Kennelly came into a successful Kerry team laden with stars, while Clarke is very much a central figure among the Mournemen.
Kennelly probably had in mind from the middle of last summer that he was going back Down Under, but Clarke looks set for a much more permanent spell at home, though the prospect of a quick return to Collingwood continues to linger in Down.
The club have never made a secret of the fact that they would welcome him back with open arms to build on the 46 appearances he made for them and the meteoric rise he enjoyed during his first two seasons.
The success of their respective returns to Gaelic football should allay the rabid concerns that exist over the drift of young players from this country to Australia.
Clarke's return 12 months ago was perhaps the point where the pendulum swung back to Gaelic football.
Like Kennelly and the lure of playing with his brother Noel at Listowel Emmets, the chance of playing with brother John pulled Clarke hard in the direction of home, and the sense that he was missing out on something that perhaps he was born for.
After Kennelly, he is arguably the most successful of the recent stream of AFL recruits. Setanta O hAilpin has taken twice as long to make a slightly lesser impact.
Within six months of his arrival in late 2006 Clarke had made his Premiership debut in 2007 against Sydney and in his next match against Hawthorn, his performance had local commentators swooning and looking to Ireland as the next big breeding ground. His application to the game, the kicking technique and the stamina he had confounded everyone in the game. How many more Martin Clarkes were out there?
But there aren't many. Benny Coulter is convinced there has never been a better underage footballer to emerge from Down. And that's a fair statement.
In successive years he was the force behind St Louis, Kilkeel's drive to two MacRory Cup finals, which they lost. He once racked up an incredible 1-16 in a game while playing for the college as a fifth year.
The 2005 All-Ireland minor triumph had his fingerprints all over it.
"He was a massive, massive loss and people don't realise that Marty was probably our best underage talent to come through in maybe 20 or 30 years -- probably the best underage talent that Down have ever had," says Coulter.
"We lost a player in a position that we hadn't filled -- centre-forward -- since Greg Blaney. Marty coming back has really made things tick into place. You can move Dan (Gordon) into defence with Marty there. It has worked well for us."
In Down the centre-forward has always traditionally been the most important position. James McCartan Snr and later Paddy Doherty in the 1960s, Greg Blaney in the late 1980s and 1990s. Those who remember John 'Shorty' Treanor, who missed out on both those Down All-Ireland winning teams of the 1990s, will feel he was cut from the same creative cloth.
Conor Deegan, full-back in 1991 and 1994, always feels there is something more distinctive about a left-footer and senses something extra special about Clarke.
"I just think Marty with the left foot is just that little bit different. Left-footers always have more time on the ball than anybody else. Always. I don't know what it is. They are able to drift out on to the left side.
"His vision is exemplary and that's the thing that really sets him apart. The pass he made for Peter Fitzpatrick's point... He knew that that move was on before he got the ball.
"He just knows what's happening. He's just very instinctive, a very talented fella.
"Marty probably brings a bit more guile to his game, just like Greg (Blaney) did. In a lot of ways, they are very similar."
Right now Down have lost two other young players, Jamie O'Hara and Caolan Mooney to AFL clubs, but Clarke's homecoming, has softened the blow. There is a pathway they can all follow now that provides the best of both worlds.
Coulter has come to appreciate the benefits.
"Caolan, at the minute, wouldn't be that big and he can go out there and muscle up. If he doesn't like it he can come back, but Marty had a massive contract there on the table and he turned it down to come back and play for his county.
"I don't know how long he is going to hang about, but it is a credit to the lad.
"If he does win an All-Ireland medal, he'll have deserved it thoroughly for leaving what he had in Australia."