Sunday 17 November 2019

keeper of THE FAITH

IF Mayo are a side characterised by their perennial ability to pick themselves up after one despair or another and begin the process all over again, then David Clarke is the epitome of that remorseless spirit.

He's yet to hit 30, but he is the only player that remains on the current panel who can boast possession of a national title.

If that may seem to render him a relative institution, think again.

The 17-year-old, who was drafted in for the 2001 league final success against Galway -- oh that rarity in modern times, a Mayo win in a Croke Park decider -- may be absolved for having assumptions as to his future place in the scheme of things.

Time would make him think anew.

For one thing, he wouldn't make his championship debut for another four years after that instant success under Pat Holmes.


Over the decade, Mayo would win half the available Connacht titles, but it was not until this year's gritty triumph against Sligo that Clarke finally got his mitts on a winner's medal.

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Peter Burke and John Ruddy were the senior incumbents for the 2001 and 2003 defeats to Roscommon and Galway respectively; Ruddy remained for the facile win against the Rossies in '04 as Clarke struggled in the aftermath of cruciate surgery.

He finally debuted in the summer of 2005 after a stunning league display against Cork, but his side were undone by Galway in the western decider.

John Healy edged him out of the side as Mayo avenged that defeat a year later and when Clarke regained his place in the side, Galway visited familiar despair in the classic 2008 final.

Mayo would regain Connacht titles in 2009 and last summer and, guess what, Clarke managed to make neither side, elbowed out initially by Ken O'Malley and latterly Rob Hennelly.

So, when someone asks him has he ever spent time on the bench before this summer, it's all he can do not to grimace.

"I have had plenty of time on the bench for club and county," smiles the mild-mannered Garda.

"It's something you have to get on with. It's easy to throw your hat at it and say: 'I don't want to do this any more.' The hard thing is to keep at it. You have to have that bit of belief as well."

Clarke couldn't contemplate a life without Mayo football at its core.

"It is probably the main thing in your life if you are to do it right. Between work, this and that, and your family life, football has to come number one.

"I am lucky enough in the job that I am in that I have never missed a training session. But you are taking bits of annual leave and by the end of the year, you might not have much holidays left.

"So, wives and girlfriends don't have any holidays during the summer, but nobody is making you do it. You are here by choice. You want to be here.

"The way things are at the moment a lot of us are lucky to be in the country. So, you make the most of it. I will keep at it for as long as I can because life does not be long moving on."

Clarke is the guardian in a side that have been transformed defensively; Mayo's three championship ties this season have conceded just one goal and a weak one at that.

A run of clean sheets during the league now intensifies the image of this as a stolidly defensive outfit, far removed from the one that gifted two goals to London in Ruislip last summer or 10 in three HQ visits before the Down quarter-final.

"Our defence has been very good this year," he agrees. "We showed that in the league. We're doing well and we're not giving up goal chances.

"I'd rather play every game like that -- I'm not looking for praise or trying to be a hero. If we can win games and not let them have a shot on goal then all the better. The best teams have the best defences. I think it has been like that for top teams for a long time.

"Big games might come down to one or two goal chances and if the other team takes them you can lose. All goalkeeping training is about concentration."

Horan's attention to detail has provided for specialist goalkeeping coaches to add that extra element to training; last year Eugene Lavin was part of the team, succeeded this summer by Burke.

All with the one aim. To be number one.

"I don't want to be playing on Ballina's back pitch in September," stresses Mayo's number one. "You want to be in Croke Park in front of 80,000 people."

Standing apart. But not alone.

Irish Independent

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