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Clarke's selfless return a story to truly savour

FOUR months to the day. May 2 in Gaelic Park, New York and Galway kicked off the 2010 senior football championship and with it sparked the dreams of intercounty footballers the length and breadth of the country.

Sixty-seven games later, only two are left standing. Cork, who were tipped before a ball was kicked as potential All-Ireland champions, and Down, a team who have lit up this summer by booking their seat at the top table 50 years on from their very first All-Ireland senior final success.

Remarkable

While the small ball game has dominated the newsreel this week, as Kilkenny aim to complete a remarkable five in-a-row of Liam MacCarthy Cups, the fortunes of Cork and Down are in sharp contrast as they bid to end famines which has seen them without Sam Maguire for 20 and 16 years respectively.

While Cork are where they were predicted to be, Down have come out of the blue managing to do something Dublin and Kildare failed to achieve: grab with both hands a gilt-edged chance to land that All-Ireland final appearance. But what is it about the Mourne men that they were better equipped to jump that penultimate hurdle when others fell short with the line in sight.

While it might be very simplistic to pin it to one solitary thing, the impact of Martin Clarke to this team cannot be overstated.

Since his return from Australia, the Down attack has a new figurehead and with it a player whose vision and workrate around the field has not only added a new dimension to their front six, but has most certainly shifted the weight of expectation off the shoulders of Benny Coulter.

That's not to take from the Mayobridge clubman, whose own contribution to the cause has been significant, but Clarke's all-round contribution is close on matching Bernard Brogan's importance to the Dublin team. He sits on top of the Down scoring chart, having notched 1-27 to date in the championship, but then this stat only tells half the story.

His ability to make space for himself is arguably one of the prime reasons Kildare struggled to live with Down, as over the course of the 70 minutes they failed to negate the influence he had on the game.

Drifting out the field and constantly managing to keep on the move while offering himself as an outlet to the man in possession, the 22-year-old used the laces on his left boot to ping some sublime, laser-guided passes to his colleagues around the field.

Last Sunday Clarke picked up the man of the match award after another standout performance, but unlike many of his peers who make themselves available for an interview with the Sunday Game while collecting the gong, Clarke was conspicuous by his absence, as the only interview aired was with Down midfielder Kalum King.

This is something of a common theme this year with Clarke, whose selfless attitude on the field appears to be mirrored off it.

Impressive

Earlier this summer having been awarded a monthly merit award from the Ulster GAA writers Association, he refused to collect the award referring to the fact that he was only one cog in a very impressive wheel.

Twelve months ago Tadhg Kennelly landed home from a glittering career with the Sydney Swans to help Kerry lift Sam Maguire, and fulfil one of his lifetime ambitions. The selection committee picked him for an All-Star award, although I'm not sure if he was fully deserving of the prize, as I believe maybe his story outweighed his contribution. In Clarke's case the journey might be slightly different in that his two-year stint with Collingwood, while successful, didn't manage to envelope him, as his yearning to return to play with his club, An Ríocht, and his desire to wear the county jersey drew him home sooner than may have been expected.

However, Australia's loss has most definitely been James McCartan's gain. And while Clarke faces the very real prospect of emulating Kennelly in landing an All-Ireland in his debut season with the senior team, his story will be all about the influential contribution he made in 2010, a journey that may well force him into the limelight to collect more than one personal accolade if the result goes his way in just over two weeks' time.


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