FORMER Aussie Rules star Martin Clarke is set to be a pivotal figure for Down this season after making his senior inter-county debut in a challenge game against Fermanagh on Sunday.
The game took place on his home pitch of An Riocht, and the former All-Ireland-winning minor star is expected to make his competitive debut in a McKenna Cup match against Derry in Celtic Park on Sunday.
Clarke (21) and his brother John are among the McKenna Cup squad announced by new Mourne men manager James McCartan.
Clarke walked away from a lucrative Aussie Rules career to return home before Christmas.
He enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks at AFL club Collingwood after joining in 2006, debuting for them in his first season -- an unprecedented event for an Irish 'footy' recruit.
Clarke's success is believed to have been one of the prime factors behind the increased recruitment of GAA talent by AFL clubs, but he quit Australia after just three years, citing homesickness and a desire to become a teacher.
He will definitely be a key man in McCartan's plans.
Dan Gordon is the only noticeable big-name absentee from Down's McKenna Cup squad; he is understood to be using the pre-season to recover from injury and is expected back before the start of the National League.
Several newcomers from county champions Kilcoo -- Aidan Brannigan, Conor Laverty and Paul Greenan -- have been included, and the squad also includes several of last year's All-Ireland U-21 finalists, as well as complete newcomers like Liam Lennon (Castlewellan) and Kevin Anderson (Aghaderg).
The Mourne men open their season on Sunday against Derry, whose manager Damian Cassidy has appointed Glenullin's Gerard O'Kane as the new county captain.
Cassidy said that O'Kane's outstanding performances last year were a factor in him taking over from Fergal Doherty.
O'Kane skippered Derry to an All-Ireland minor title in 2002 and captained St Patrick's Maghera to Hogan Cup glory a year later.
"He has history of leadership, and bringing success with him when he is a leader. Those are the aspects of the player which are hard to ignore," Cassidy said.
"He was extremely consistent in last year's championship. Against Sean Cavanagh, he was very commanding on a day when things weren't going our way.
"Against Monaghan in Celtic Park and Clones, and particularly against Donegal in Ballybofey, he was very, very strong."
Before they play Down, Derry have lined up a challenge against Donegal in Celtic Park tomorrow.