Clarke hopes return can earn its reward
MARTIN Clarke has never once regretted his decision to trade the life of a professional sportsman for home comforts.
Now his selfless dedication to the Down cause could see him rewarded with an All-Ireland senior football championship medal next weekend.
Clarke (22) is a vital cog in a free-scoring Mourne County attack and in seven championship games this season the An Ríocht clubman has contributed 1-27, including nine points from play.
Clarke's potential had been well flagged from his prolific underage playing days and in 2005 he captured an All-Ireland minor football championship medal with Down.
His form attracted the attention of scouts from Australian Rules Football giants Collingwood and in August 2006 Clarke signed a two-year contract and made the switch Down Under.
Three years later, in September 2009, he announced his Collingwood retirement, citing a desire to return home on a permanent basis.
Since making his Down senior debut, against Queen's University Belfast in a McKenna Cup tie last February, Clarke has gone on to make a sensational impact.
Clarke explained: "For me, it was mainly non-football related, coming back to my family, my girlfriend and my home. It definitely wasn't going well for me in the final year (at Collingwood) and that also contributed to my decision to come back home.
"I have full-time work at home, coaching around the schools in Down, and that's been a success for me.
"So, I don't really look on it as a right or wrong decision. The fact that it's going well with Down made me really enjoy my time at home, but it's more about off-field factors than on it, and always has been."
During his three years in Australia, Clarke benefited greatly from the many positive aspects of being a full-time professional athlete. "I took home a fair bit, in terms of the weight training and that. I was able to taper my own programme along with Paddy Tally (Down trainer), but the weights in Australia are not that far advanced compared to the GAA," he said. "Everybody has their own programme and it's a case of following it strictly and approaching it in the right way.
"But, in terms of overall fitness, I'm only starting to get it right recently. It's just been 10 months since I got back and I'm only seeing out games properly now.
The main thing I took from Australia is using my voice on the field in training and in games. That's a big focus over there. In previous years, I wasn't doing that as much."
In a creative sense, Clarke possesses a keen footballing brain and as well as being a prolific score-taker, the roving forward is capable of opening up defences with perceptive passes.
His role against Cork next Sunday is central to causing what the bookmakers would consider an upset.
And Clarke admits that Down have been somewhat fortunate to reach Gaelic football's biggest day through the back door, having lost to Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final.
Clarke reflected: "I think we've been lucky in the back door and had a gradual upward curve in terms of the difficulty of teams we have played. We met Longford, they're a Division 4 team, and then Offaly from Division 3.
"Sligo will be in Division 2 next year and we were lucky enough to get them on the rebound after their Connacht final defeat.
"Then we played Kerry with a couple of men (Paul Galvin and Tomás Ó Sé) missing.
"That was a notch up again slightly and Kildare was another slight notch up on that Kerry team. It's been good preparation for Cork, who are seen as favourites, and it certainly doesn't get much tougher for us.
"But we've shown good form and built up momentum. We'll go in there with all guns blazing."
Clarke added: "Cork's winning ratio of games over the last few years is up there with Kerry and Tyrone because they haven't lost too many. They've only lost to Kerry in the last couple of years, while we have lost to so-called weaker sides.
"But for us, the build-up is good. It's great to see people around the county with smiles on their faces and having something like this to look forward to. It's humbling that we have made these people happy, but in training nothing has changed and we're keeping our focus on the job at hand.
"You certainly can't miss the hype and the colour around the county. It's hard to avoid it, but at the same time you can focus on training.
"The beauty of playing inter-county football is that you love your team every bit as much as the supporters. In some professional sports, that's not the way."
- Martin Clarke (right) is a Nike athlete and wears Nike Pro Combat baselayers, an integral part of every player's kitbag, that provides protection and support, giving athletes confidence in their game.