Sunday 21 January 2018

Clarke shows true vision by leaving Australia behind

Tommy Conlon

He had his time in Australian rules, but Martin Clarke plays Gaelic football not unlike an American quarterback too.

Watching him pick his passes in various games all summer has been one of the pleasures of this terrific championship season.

He played 46 senior games for Collingwood in the Australian Football League, but obviously had far too much brainpower for a sport that requires no brainpower at all. Aussie rules is a dumbed down field sport; it is essentially a game of long-distance running, with the ball as an optional extra. As it happens, they play it with an oval ball, which in a kicking game reduces the skill level even further.

They learn to kick it very long, and very straight, off the flat of the foot, because that is the only way an oval ball can be kicked with accuracy. It is a one-dimensional skill, outside of which there is little room for experimentation. You cannot put curl on it with a shot off the instep, nor slice an arc on it with a shot off the outside -- you'd just look stupid for trying. The choice of foot passes is also severely limited by the imperative to find the man directly with the ball, as opposed to playing it into space -- the ridiculous bounce sees to that.

If Clarke had stayed in Melbourne, his football brain would've turned to mush and his kicking skills would've been reduced to one generic technique. He might have made good money, he'd have wasted a very good talent.

He returned from Australia late last year and in recent games has been unveiling a wide repertoire. He is now running the Down attack line like a classic, playmaking centre-forward: dropping deep, demanding the ball and spraying the passes.

Benny Coulter has at last found someone who can supply him with the bullets, much like Trevor Giles supplied them for Graham Geraghty and Ollie Murphy when Meath were last winning All-Irelands.

Clarke could do worse than source a few old tapes of Giles in his prime; he would see a master passer in action, a player who understood clearly his role and seldom deviated from it. He demanded the ball but rarely dwelled on it, holding onto it just long enough to survey his options and choose his pass. He did not believe in running with the ball; he believed in kicking good ball, early and often, to his inside forwards. And when it was good, it was very good, angled for height and length, dipping over the heads of defenders, and falling favourably into the arms of those cold-blooded finishers.

Giles could deliver those passes off left and right foot; we're not sure how much Clarke can do with his right. He's a different sort of player anyway, being a better athlete with more pace, and therefore able to run at defences as well as probe them with foot passes.

In the 24th minute last Sunday, he ran hard into Kildare territory, drawing a free which was converted and a yellow card for the offender. In the 29th, he lofted a point from long range and in the 57th picked out an exquisite pass that no one in the stadium anticipated -- including the Kildare defence. It left Peter Fitzpatrick through on goal.

So, like Kerry's Declan O'Sullivan, he looks like a playmaker who can do it all -- although it is a tad premature to be putting him in O'Sullivan's class just yet.

These on-field generals don't come along very often. Martin McHugh, in total contrast to Giles, ran the Donegal attack in his prime by doing just that -- running with the ball. McHugh was so quick, and had such tight ball control, he could repeatedly carry the ball into traffic, and somehow emerge with it on the other side. He demanded the ball too, and his team-mates were only too happy to give it to him, glad to be rid of it. McHugh was like a basketball point guard, taking the ball up the court and orchestrating the attacks.

The best of the last decade was undoubtedly Brian McGuigan, whose style and vision arguably reached a pinnacle in the 2005 All-Ireland final when he scored 0-3 from play and directed operations with such authority that he was involved in another 1-5. McGuigan was surrounded by such talent and charisma in that

Tyrone forward line, that his own profound influence was perhaps overlooked.

But it might have helped in another way too: any defence faced with players like Canavan, Mulligan, Dooher and O'Neill couldn't afford to concentrate too much on the centre-forward alone.

Clarke is so conspicuously the Down fulcrum that Cork are no doubt already drawing up plans to put him in a straitjacket in the All-Ireland final. They may choose to sacrifice one player to a strict man-marking role, like Derry once did against Giles, deploying the human limpet that was Kieran McKeever exclusively for that purpose. In any event, we can already picture the scenario whereby men in red shirts will be converging on Clarke as soon as he takes the ball in his hands.

Any neutral would like to see Clarke displaying his skills on All-Ireland final day, but it would be naïve to expect it. Perhaps another classic Down centre-forward from a previous era, the great Greg Blaney, will give him some advice on how to cope.

Sunday Independent

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