Clarke praying for another Wee day out
Sidelined star urges Louth to stay in Leinster hunt as he nears return
THE Wee County has just got smaller – in terms of the space available to fans who want to see Louth in action against Wexford at the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow.
Louth's confident display in overcoming Laois at Portlaoise two weeks ago sparked a scramble for tickets from fans hoping to see their team stay in the winning groove.
Capacity at the compact Drogheda venue is limited to 4,000 for health and safety reasons because of the grass banks on three sides of the ground.
Star forward Darren Clarke hopes that the die-hard Louth followers won't be disappointed.
"For the players, it's always nice to play at home. The only thing about it is that you hope the genuine supporters that follow you in the league can get tickets because of the capacity," he said.
At least he is guaranteed a seat at the game, but it's scant consolation for not being out on the pitch.
Clarke (right) has been sidelined with a knee ligament problem picked up in a club match that caused him to miss the Laois game and, while recovery is going well, it hasn't progressed quickly enough to get him a place in the starting line-up.
"Time is the healer, but I'm getting closer. The Laois game came too early. A ligament injury takes time to heal," he said.
"The most frustrating thing for a footballer is having to watch matches, especially in the good weather.
"Personally, I have to see how it goes, but from the team's point of view, everyone is focused on Wexford. We're under no illusions as to the task in front of us.
"Whoever's tuned in most will get there, but the reward is a Leinster semi-final place, so that's a huge incentive for both teams."
Playing on their home pitch backed by a fervent support should help Louth, but they haven't set the world alight in their two previous championship outings at Drogheda.
Back in 2008, Tyrone came calling in the qualifiers and ran out fairly comfortable winners by 1-17 to 1-9, en route to an All-Ireland triumph.
In 2009, Tipperary were the visitors and while the margin was just one point, once again the home side had to accept second best on their own turf.
Clearly Drogheda, albeit sparsely utilised as a championship ground, is no fortress for Louth. Indeed, Wexford have already won at the Gaelic Grounds in the league this season.
That's a useful dress rehearsal for the Slaneysiders, although this time round the ground will be packed to capacity and the atmosphere will be much more intense.
"People are talking about Louth being favourites, but I look at it in a different way," said Clarke.
"Wexford have been there or thereabouts the last number of years. They played in an All-Ireland semi-final, they've been in Leinster finals and ran the Dubs close last year, so there's no doubting the quality they have.
"It's up to us to step up to the mark and come out and play as well as we can. They have some fantastic footballers and we have to be on our toes.
"We're definitely not taking Wexford for granted. The fact that they beat us this year was an eye-opener – and that game was in Drogheda."
The last 12 months have not been particularly good in terms of Clarke's inter-county career.
On June 3, 2012 Dublin hammered Louth 2-22 to 0-12 in a Leinster quarter-final at Croke Park.
Clarke scored eight of his team's points that day, but it was scant consolation for such a heavy defeat.
A few weeks later, in the qualifiers against Westmeath in Mullingar, he had four points, all from frees, to his credit when he was sent off shortly before half-time.
Captain Mark Brennan had already taken the long walk earlier for a clash with Westmeath's John Heslin, and with 13 men for all of the second half, Louth were on a hiding to nothing.
"It's been a long year and I felt things went against me," said Clarke. "In my eyes I was sent off in the wrong against Westmeath and the suspension kicked in this year for the league, so I missed our first league game against Westmeath, which we lost.
"I picked up an injury against Galway when I was eligible to play again and that was it. I only played half a game in the league.
"I've been unlucky with injuries, but it won't stop me. Please God, I'll play some part in the championship this year for Louth."
Manager Aidan O'Rourke has selected the same Louth side that beat Laois, and that includes Clarke's St Mary's clubmate John Bingham, who was one of three championship debutants at Portlaoise.
Ciaran Byrne and Conor Rafferty were the other two novices at this level. All three played well and retain their places for the Wexford showdown.