'Any pressure on us is coming from ourselves'
David Clarke has defied injuries and doubts over his kicking to reclaim the Mayo No 1 shirt
Life as Mayo senior goalkeeper began early for David Clarke, and could have ended early too, had he been of a mind to allow it. In 2001 Pat Holmes introduced him at 17, as understudy to Peter Burke, in time to win a National League medal. He made his championship debut in 2005 and played in the All-Ireland final defeats of 2006 and 2012, before injury derailed him a year later, causing him to miss the All-Ireland final against Dublin.
That could have been the time to leave and cut his losses but he wasn't prepared to. Not on those terms. By 2014, James Horan's final year as manager, Clarke was 30, and played no match in league or championship. Last year, under Holmes and Noel Connelly, Mayo rotated the goalkeeping position in the league. Clarke regained his place for the championship, only to suffer another injury during the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Donegal. Robbie Hennelly played the second half of the Donegal game, and retained his place for the two semi-final matches against Dublin.
This year Clarke's chance arrived unexpectedly, a reward for remarkable patience. Under Stephen Rochford, Hennelly was first choice in the championship but Clarke gained a reprieve after the defeat to Galway in the Connacht semi-final. He appreciates he has been fortunate. But he never abandoned hope and insists he still enjoyed being part of the squad, contributing as much as one can from outside the team. During the last few years he has worked hard on his own, and with Mayo goalkeeping coach Peter Burke, on his kicking, which would have been seen as the part of his game with most room for improvement.
"I suppose when David started 15 or 20 years ago, goalkeeping was all about long kickouts," says John Healy, his former club and county team-mate, and for a while his club manager at Ballina. "The more you could kick it, the better chance you had to stay within the team. That has done a complete 360-degree turn: it is all about direction now. Long kickouts are a thing of the past. But he has adapted well and has had to work very hard. Robbie Hennelly is an excellent kicker of the ball, long and short.
"He has spent long hours practising those kicks. Not every man would have that kind of dedication. If you look at it from a goalkeeper's point of view, it is very rare that a goalie has to save a shot. If they save a goal once in every two games it would be the height of it. But they kick the ball out 30, 40, 50 times. His only weakness was his kickout. He had everything else."
Injuries were outside Clarke's control, a twist of fate, and have been a recurring and potentially dispiriting theme throughout his career. "I would say it is one of the reasons he stayed on," says Healy, "because he kept getting injured. Every second year he got injured and it opened the door for others. He has had to spend a good few years on the bench, which would have been very hard for him knowing the talent he has. Many others would have thrown in the towel but he would not give in."
In 2005 Clarke found himself in the peculiar position of being a Mayo goalkeeper but second choice with Ballina, behind Healy, when the club won the All-Ireland final in March. Were he to win an All-Ireland now, there are few players on the Mayo team who would have laboured more for the privilege. "He was very, very patient; he waited and he waited and he got his chance," as Healy puts it. "I think the Mayo people feel secure with him in goal, especially under the high ball. He is such a commanding figure in the square and a calming influence at the back. He won't panic."
Clarke will be 33 by the year's end and is now married with a child of 10 months. A member of the gardaí, he works in Tubbercurry, a short commute from his home in Ballina. At the Mayo press night, he was asked about his change of fortune. "I suppose things can change quickly. That is the good thing about sport. You try and get into a position that if you are called upon you are in a position to do the job. I think it is still the same for a lot of the group - we're all in this together type of thing.
"In the last number of games there has been different personnel, different tactics. There is a place for everyone in the panel - whether that is inside or outside the [match-day] 26. For the last while at training they [subs outside the match-day squad] are trying to replicate the Tipperary and Dublin players so the lads who are playing on the big day get an idea of what they are coming up against. There is that type of mindset around the group. Look, I was delighted for myself - that's why you play football, to play in the big games, and I got a run of them during the last couple of months. But I know it can change pretty quickly."
This time the dice rolled his way. He rooms with Hennelly on away trips and he has had enough personal disappointment to know how his rival will feel today, too. "I have been on the other side, starting games and then getting injured. There is always a chance; you have got to be ready. When I came in Rob was definitely the number one. He had played excellently in the last couple of games last year. I was in a place where if I was to play any part and Mayo were to win the All-Ireland, I was happy. I was willing to do that. I'm 32 now but if you go in there with the attitude that I only want to play and you're not playing, you could be a long time hanging around the place and your mental state wouldn't be great. I was willing to do whatever I was needed to do."
His injury in 2013 was his most serious, tearing his hamstring severely in the Connacht semi-final against Roscommon. "I tore my hamstring and then I tore it again when I was trying to come back for the Connacht final against London. I tried to come back too quick - stupidity on my part. I probably pushed it back and it took me the guts of a year to get back fully fit. Then a new management came in with Pat and Noel. It was a clean slate so I decided to come back for another shot.
"This season new management came in again so I decided to give it another shot. Sometimes it is hard to give it up. When you see a new management coming in it is a clean slate. The attitude is that I might try it one more time."
Dealing with injury is cited as his greatest challenge and frustration, rather than matches lost. "When you get an injury like that, it's all the small, little victories: the first day you go back; the first day you nail your rehab; the first time to go back on the pitch; the first day you train with the team; the first day you play a club game."
His friend Cormac O'Malley from Ballina recalls walking up Jones's Road after the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin when a crowd gathered outside Gill's pub broke into applause in honour of Clarke's contribution to a famous victory. "He was thankful but that was the last place he wanted to be," says O'Malley. "He would be a private person really. In terms of personality he is very grounded. It is only in the last year he went on to Facebook for the first time, and Tom Parsons was taking the mickey out of him for taking so long."
O'Malley remembers when Clarke used to wear a rugby boot on his right foot to get longer distance from his kickouts. "Now you look at the way he has refined it, some of his pin-point kicking is excellent, he definitely has improved it. He had to kind of reinvent himself."
Getting inside the Mayo dressing-room at 17 left a deep impression on him, sharing it with some of the players who featured in the All-Ireland finals of 1996 and '97. "They were the fellas who gave me the love for Mayo football," says Clarke. "They were the first Mayo team that I had seen to be hugely successful. It was great."
But a year later, in an under 21 club game, he suffered a cruciate injury which kept him out for a year. When he recovered fitness, getting back into the Mayo side took time. "In fairness John Maughan and Liam McHale kept me involved in Mayo at that time, even though I was only a substitute with the club. There was a time it could have gone either way. I suppose things like that [being a sub] - make me think whether I wanted to keep on training. There was a long time I wasn't training and I had this thing in the back of my mind to keep at it and it would turn around."
Mayo's season jack-knifed with the defeat to Galway, as did his. "Obviously it was low, it was very new to us," Clarke admits. "The next day we had a meeting which really set the tone for the next couple of weeks. We just got back to basics, working hard, there was a few tough training sessions and then there was a club championship game and then there was another training session before the Fermanagh game."
What did Galway teach them? "We just went away from what we were good at - trying to outwork the opposition. Maybe we didn't listen to what we were told. Maybe that defeat and the meeting the next day really focused us on [the fact] that if we work hard, we are as good as anybody, but if we don't, anybody can beat us."
The lack of a big Mayo performance in the run-up to the final isn't something that concerns him. "The last couple of years I was on the bench. We lost to Kerry and Dublin in replays and those games were talked about as classic games and we were playing top-class football but ultimately we didn't get to the final. This year we have been building up gradually since that Galway game. We went through the qualifiers. We feel we have been getting better and putting longer patches of good football together.
"We are where we are now and we are looking forward to it. Our aim at the start of the year was to win the All-Ireland and now we're in with a chance."
His relationship with Hennelly is delved into. They are working towards the same goal but in direct competition. "Well we bounce things off each other, we room together but it's not all football we talk about either. There is a time and a place I suppose. We are in competition at the same time. When one of us is given the nod then it's 100 per cent support [from the other]. But week to week in training, session to session, game to game, we are in competition. We are trying to push each other as hard as we can at training."
Working in Tubbercurry offers him some shelter from the public's preoccupation with Mayo's quest to end their long wait for an All-Ireland. He talks of the process, his language stripped of sentiment. But they are keenly aware of the common bond they share with their followers.
"In Mayo that is all they want to talk about [winning the All-Ireland], from a young fella that is all you want to do. Whatever pressure that's there is mainly coming from ourselves. If you are relying on people to make you do it, or people to put pressure on you to do it, from the outside, it's not coming from within the group or within yourself. I am going to put pressure on myself to play well the next day. The group is going to put pressure on itself to play well the next day. But, as regards the external pressure, I think we have been around long enough to know that it doesn't affect us, you are trying to not let it affect how we perform. Mayo people want us to win. It's probably a bit more muted this year, I've found, so far.
"No matter what game we played this year, be it FBD or league or qualifiers, we have had massive support. People are supporting us; with the money they pay into matches, it's been phenomenal. Like it's not easy travel to FBD games. Even that Dublin [league] game in the wet, in Castlebar on a [monsoon-like] Saturday night, there was a massive crowd at that. Like in the qualifiers I think we had some of the highest crowds.
"We are lucky, not that we expect it, but that has been the norm, like. That's the way the Mayo people are. The last number of years they've just been fantastic. The support from clubs in London and America, the money that has been fundraised for us, and I think we have the highest number of season ticket-holders. So it's not just putting flags up on houses, people are putting their money where their mouths are. And it is humbling in a way, and we owe something to those people. We can repay them by doing the job. And the best way of doing the job is focusing on ourselves and getting ourselves right."
He is asked what it will take to win. "Probably a better performance than we have put in this year. Looking at it over the last few years, the last couple of games we've played against Dublin, we've been hugely competitive against them. There's not been much in any of the games. In a couple of the games last year, looking on, there was a huge flow of energy from one team to the other. Small things we were talking about [that are important]: work-rate, tackling. That is something we have really worked hard on: tackling. Getting to a position where it is crisp, where it's hard but fair, we have put a lot of time into it, with Donie Buckley and our coaches. And it was disappointing from the last game the amount of frees we were giving away. If we do that with the quality of the team we're playing and Dean Rock. . . the way he's playing, he doesn't miss many, that is something we are going to have to clean up on."
The dream lives on. Nobody knows better than Clarke how fortune can swing your way, maybe when least expected.
Sunday Indo Sport