Sunday 18 March 2018

Clarke's return journey shows his true quality

Martin Clarke's talent has made him a marked man from a young age, writes John O'Brien

THERE is a story about Martin Clarke -- celebrated now -- and his first days at Collingwood. To familiarise himself with the Australian oval ball, Alan Richardson, the club's head of development, suggested he carry it with him everywhere he went, along streets, on buses and trains, essentially make the ball an extension of his body, sleep with the damn thing if he had to. Being Martin Clarke, he had to take the advice to extremes.

In the event something of a YouTube legend was born. Clips would appear of Clarke wandering down a Melbourne street, bouncing the ball unerringly off the pavement or stealing into some nook or cranny for a session of keepie-uppies. In those difficult early days, his relationship with his new companion provided a compelling narrative. The deep frustration he felt at not being able to kick it straight under pressure. His utter determination to conquer it. Which he duly did.

There's no argument but that being exposed to a professional sporting environment for three years would have helped Clarke immeasurably as a footballer in whatever code he chose to follow. Yet the desire to learn and improve, the hunger to hone and develop his skills, wasn't something he picked up during his time in Australia. Those gifts were already in his possession.

Ross Carr, Down minor manager in 2003 and 2004, tells another revealing story. As a free-taker, Clarke was well aware from a young age of the benefits of constant practice. Still, it wasn't enough. Kicking endless frees was all very well, but it didn't replicate match-day conditions. In real game time, you could be out on your feet, suffering the effects of a hard challenge, when you are suddenly called upon to convert a potentially game-changing free-kick. All those hours spent popping frees on empty pitches would count for little.

So Carr would sometimes watch as Clarke sprinted back and forth across the width of the pitch, then allow himself a minute to recover before drilling 40 or 50-yard kicks towards the goals. Any little trick to recreate the conditions he would encounter on match day. "To be thinking like that at 16 or 17 showed how different he was," says Carr. "It's a gift. You can't really teach that. You must want to do it."

Carr had heard big things about Clarke from the time the latter was 12. As a coach, Carr has always been wary of pushing talented kids too soon and held Clarke back for the opening stages of the 2004 All-Ireland campaign. When Clarke hauled them back from the precipice against Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final, Carr realised his talent didn't need to be contained. The thought still gnaws at him that had he brought Clarke on sooner, they might not have lost that year's Ulster final to Tyrone.

A year later, Clarke was instrumental in helping St Louis Kilkeel to become All-Ireland B champions, just seven years after the school started performing in colleges competitions. In their first MacRory Cup they would reach the final before losing to Omagh CBS after a replay. Cathal Murray, then St Louis coach, remembers Clarke being selected as GAA player of the month, an accolade he garnered over every other footballer in all grades in the province.

"He was a left-footer and left-footers always look a class apart," Murray says. "The pass he made to Peter Fitzpatrick against Kildare was typical Marty. Peter didn't even have to break stride when it came to him and popped it over the bar. That was always Marty's trademark. He was never flustered. He always made time to pick out a pass."

Knowing what he was capable of, the seismic impact of Clarke's breakthrough at Collingwood was less of a surprise. What he did couldn't match the sustained achievement of a Jim Stynes or Tadhg Kennelly but all he needed was time. The swiftness of his initiation in the AFL astonished the most hardened of veteran Aussie rules watchers. It had taken Kennelly three years to make his mark in Sydney. Stynes' early progress was equally faltering. Clarke, in contrast, was an instant sensation.

Famously, he'd come to Collingwood's attention when the Australian under 17 side had been touring Ireland and took in the replayed MacRory Cup final in Casement Park. What struck the Australians wasn't just the enormity of Clarke's talent but how he'd turned down the chance to play for Ireland the following day because he felt it unfair to those who had prepared for the game. That showed a fundamental honesty as well as a sharp team ethic.

And then no sooner had he established himself, than he was on his way back home again. For Carr, the decision to return was as brave as the initial one to leave. "Think about it. You're getting a salary and the weather is good. And then you say 'I don't want that anymore. It's not making me happy'. Leaving Collingwood is like leaving Arsenal or Man United over here. People wonder what the fuck is he doing. But Marty was big enough at 21 to say, no, I'm not happy. It wasn't about the money."

Clarke's third year at Collingwood hadn't been as promising. He suffered injuries and had lost his place on the first team. For the first time in his life, he faced confidence issues. "They were looking for him to perform a more conservative role and that went against the grain," Carr says. "I think that was hard for him and when you're a long way from home that can be very tough."

It was May 2009 when Carr received a phone call informing him that Clarke was contemplating not renewing his contract with Collingwood and his last major contribution as Down manager was to facilitate the homecoming. The speed of Clarke's reintegration has been hugely impressive. "When you consider he's really only picked it up since January and in six months he's got there," Carr says. "That's phenomenal. Who else would have done that?"

How well Clarke has done in his first year as a Down senior depends on what gauge you use to judge him. He was Down's top scorer in the league but that was in the relatively modest confines of Division 2. He performed without distinction in the Ulster championship yet he is their top scorer in the championship with 1-27 to his name even though he is not a scoring forward by inclination.

When he refused to accept his man of the match award after the All-Ireland semi-final, it wasn't through arrogance or bad manners. He had accepted the award after their quarter-final victory against Kerry and later regretted it. A friend told him there had been more deserving candidates and Clarke had agreed. It was the same against Kildare. Danny Hughes, he felt, would have been a fairer choice.

Today he will be a marked man. Clarke and all Down know it. Yet there will be no anxiety. Cathal Murray remembers an Ulster junior schools' final when Clarke rattled off 1-18 and their opponents had tried seven different markers on him to no avail. Now Murray sees the feverish speculation about how Cork are going to cope with Clarke, happy in the knowledge that Cork will expend more energy worrying about it than Clarke himself.

In Down, they are busy with the scary thought of the damage Clarke might do when he finally realises his potential.

Sunday Independent

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