Clarke looking forward to blowing the cobwebs off
IF the little snippets emanating from Darver since mid-October are to be believed, new Louth boss Aidan O'Rourke has already made his presence felt among his new charges.
Tales of stomach-churning pre-season sessions have been trickling back through the grapevine, suggesting that the Armagh man wasn't spoofing when he insisted shortly after his appointment that his Louth team would be one of the 'fittest ever to take the field'.
Darren Clarke isn't complaining, however. Having missed quite a bit of training ground action in 2012, last year's top scorer is just glad to be there, and eager to get started.
'You just want to get back playing games at this stage, because training is always tough in December and this is what we do it for. It'll be good to shake the cobwebs off,' he says.
The veteran corner forward is remaining tight-lipped about rumours linking him with a move back to former club St Mary's after a successful stint with St Sylvester's in Dublin, but regardless of where he plays his club football in 2013, he's looking forward to a new inter-county regime.
Things weren't always rosy under Peter Fitzpatrick. Clarke only broke into the first XV last season, but delivered the perfect riposte, finishing the campaign as the Reds' top scorer for the sixth time in his career.
However, Clarke's been around long enough to know that O'Rourke's appointment represents a new challenge and a clean slate. First impressions are positive.
'It's been very good so far. I suppose it's Aidan's job to take it to a new level and that's what he's doing already,' Clarke continues.
'He's a new manager, but he brings lot of experience of the modern game to the table, with Kildare and Down, and college football with Queens. It's a very professional set-up and that gives you the best possible chance to go out and perform and get results.
'It's been a breath of fresh air and the numbers out at training shows that, please God, things will work out when the football starts too.'
Clarke is under no illusions as to the task at hand, revealing that a number of players have impressed in trials and training. With an extended panel in operation until after the O'Byrne Cup, it's all to play for.
'I'm sure there'll be a chance [in the O'Byrne Cup] for a lads who've come in through the trial process to stake their claim for a place and put a bit of pressure on the more established guys.
'He's working with an extended panel at the minute so everyone is working hard to stay in there when it's cut [down]. I suppose when the National League comes around he'll be having a closer look at that.'
Clarke is looking forward to the new O'Byrne Cup format, which sees the Reds play three games in eight days in a round-robin format.
'The new system is better. Last year we only had one O'Byrne Cup game against Meath in Navan, so that's not much use when you're trying to get ready for the National League. The games will come thick and fast, but we have a panel there to deal with it. There are new faces there, so the three games should give everyone a chance to impress and that will help keep other lads on their toes too.'
After that the overall goals for the season haven't changed much from any other year.
'The aim is just to take it to a new level. I've always said we have good players here in Louth and it's a case of getting the maximum out of them.
'We'd like to get out of Division 2. It will be tough, last year we could have gone up or down, but if we want to push on there's no point in just consolidating. We'll give Leinster a good lash too, I know Aidan places a big emphasis on the Championship,' he adds.
O'Byrne Cup 2013
Jan 6: Louth v UCD (Drogheda) Jan 9: Meath v Louth (Navan) Jan 13: Louth v Longford (Drogheda) - Group winners advance to semifinals on Jan 20; final Jan 27.