HOLDERS Louth prepare for an O'Byrne Cup semi-final against controversy-hit Kildare at Newbridge tomorrow without top scorer Darren Clarke.
Clarke, who plays his club football with St Sylvester's of Malahide in Dublin, is still struggling with a knee ligament injury.
It showed up in a recent challenge against Meath and Clarke had hoped that physiotherapy and a course of medical treatment would sort out the injury. He came on as a sub against Athlone IT in the O'Byrne Cup last week, but felt some pain, so on Thursday he had an MRI scan to ascertain the extent of the injury.
"It's one of those injuries. There was pain in my knee when I tried to run and it's not cartilage. It's a medial ligament problem.
"Last year I had a similar injury and the doctors say it's a lot to do with wear and tear. It probably needs rest and possibly a scope job done on it.
"It's disappointing that I'm out of the Kildare match and I might miss a few more games, but no matter how you look at it, the important thing is being fit for the Championship," he said.
At age 26 and despite regular disruptions to his football in the last two years, Clarke is the county's top scorer, with a total of over 240 points to his credit.
This latest injury sees him off to a sluggish start to 2010, but he will hope that the knee issue can be sorted out and thus allow him to get an extended run of football, unlike previous seasons.
In 2008 he suffered a metatarsal injury. Last year he was in sparkling form as Louth won the O'Byrne Cup, but suffered a bad leg injury against Limerick.
He came back from that, but got the mumps. And to cap it all, Clarke suffered the first suspension of his career for an incident in the Leinster Championship quarter-final against Laois.
He wasn't booked and he wasn't sent off, but ended up with a month's suspension.
Clarke and Laois full-back Mark Timmons came into contact with each other as they chased for a ball that was heading out of play.
Timmons came off worst, but the referee took no action. The incident was highlighted on the 'Sunday Game' and the outcome was a four-week ban for Clarke, which kept him out of the qualifier against Tipperary which Louth lost.
Clarke was very disappointed with that ban, especially as Laois manager Sean Dempsey and the player involved, Timmons, sent letters in support of him.
However, the disciplinary authorities decided otherwise, and Clarke was sidelined as Louth took the exit door from the championship against Tipperary.
It was a tame end to a season which had started so well.
"Coming from a weaker county, you're proud to wear the Louth jersey and to play for the cause, and any time you win some silverware, it's a great achievement.
"We were hoping to use the O'Byrne win as a springboard for the season.
"The team was flying in the League, but unfortunately we lost a lot of games by a point and ended up in a relegation battle instead of the top end of the table, where we had hoped to be challenging," he said.
On a positive note, Clarke won the Senior Football Player of the Year award in St Sylvester's inaugural club awards scheme, and his experience in Dublin football gives him some perspective on standard in Louth.
"Playing in Dublin I can see that individually we have very good footballers. The issue seems to be that when we step up on to the big stage, there's a certain lack of belief collectively. Hopefully, that will change. The dream is to be playing in Leinster finals and winning and that's what keeps you going," he said.
New Louth manager Peter Fitzpatrick is putting his stamp on the squad and has them working hard on fitness as well as gearing up for the campaign.
As a forward, Clarke is pleased with the scoring rate and is itching to be back in action soon.
"So far we've scored 2-18 against Wicklow and 18 points against Athlone IT, so that's a good start.
"Kildare will be a good barometer as to our progress. You want a good stern test before the National League starts and Kieran McGeeney has Kildare going well.
"Last week's game against Laois got the headlines, but physically and mentally, Kildare will be a great test for us at Newbridge," he said.