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Brendan Clarke: Family's Cup fortunes can turn St Pat's way


Brendan Clarke and his son Zac: 'You're a dad first and football comes second.' Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Brendan Clarke and his son Zac: 'You're a dad first and football comes second.' Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Brendan Clarke and his son Zac: 'You're a dad first and football comes second.' Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

In the clearing stands the boxer, And a fighter by his trade. And he carries the reminders, Of every glove that laid him down or cut him, Till he cries out 'I am leaving, I am leaving', But the fighter still remains.

SIMON AND Garfunkel's classic song 'The Boxer' went through my head as I arrived at Richmond Park to meet St Patrick's Athletic goalkeeper Brendan Clarke. For me, the comparisons between boxer and goalkeeper are obvious: each one a lonely figure, guarding his patch, and always only one mistake away from disaster.

It's been a good year for Clarke, though. For the first time in his career, he has been an ever-present in the league. "I only missed 45 minutes against Drogheda, when I came off at half-time. I thought I had broken my ribs in a clash with Gary O'Neill. We were 3-0 up at the time and fortunately I was all right."

It's 11 years since he first arrived at Richmond Park as a 17-year-old, following in a family tradition, begun by his grandfather Des Byrne, who played in the 1954 FAI Cup final, and taken up by uncle Seán Byrne in the 1974 final. Both were on the losing side, although Seán gained adequate compensation in 1979 when winning the League and Cup double with Dundalk, scoring in the final, and winning the Cup again in 1981.

The Cup has been like a millstone round the necks of four generations of Pat's players since their last triumph in 1961. They've been involved in some epic finals - 1996 v Shels, 2006 and 2012 v Derry - and come out on the wrong side every time.

Perhaps 2014 will be different. Going into the campaign as league champions, Clarke remarked: "With the squad we have, we should have finished a lot closer to Dundalk. We wanted the league title again this year, but it didn't work out, so our attention has gone to the Cup. As players you want to win medals for yourself, you're selfish, but if you do, the fans will benefit."

Today will be Clarke's third final. He won in 2011 when, after playing 119 minutes in the final against Shelbourne for Sligo Rovers, he was famously substituted by manager Paul Cook, with penalty king Ciaran Kelly taking over to win his second penalty shoot-out in succession.

When Louis Van Gaal did a 'Paul Cook' during the World Cup finals, Clarke's phone "nearly exploded with the Twitterfeed", as fans recalled his 2011 experience.

Switching back to Pat's in 2012 in a straight swap with Gary Rogers, Clarke was back in Cup final action, but this time the memories are not so pleasant.

This is where the 'boxer' comparisons hit home. Derry were the opposition, as they are again today, and the scores were level 1-1 when Conor Kenna passed back to Clarke. What happened then is something which will forever haunt him, because it's the mistakes, not the glory, that players remember.

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"I tried to pass it back to Conor, but Stephen McLaughlin (now with Nottingham Forest) read it and intercepted and I took him down." Rory Patterson converted the spot kick.

While Pat's equalised and took the game to extra-time before losing, that is no consolation to the goalkeeper. He still carries the mental scars, although he claims that they are not nearly as bad as they were when he was a younger player.

"Then, if I made a mistake on a Friday night, the whole weekend would be ruined," he explained. "I let things get to me and let them affect my weekend, but since I've had my son you can't be in that mood. You're a dad first and football comes second. Before that I didn't want to talk about it. My family are huge Pat's fans and they wanted to talk about it, I just wanted to say 'Leave me alone, I just want to get over it', but now, as I've matured as a person and a goalkeeper, when I get home after the games that's that done.

"There's nothing you can do about it, you've just got to learn from your mistakes, and Liam (Buckley) has been fantastic about that, talking about the number of chances he missed as a centre-forward. It's just one of those things that comes with sport. It's tough being a goalkeeper because 99 times out of a hundred if you make a mistake it's a goal, so that comes back to the mental side, you have to be prepared."

With the help of former Pat's goalkeeping coach Tim Dalton (now at Shamrock Rovers), he worked on the mental side. "It involved reading books on sports psychology on how to deal with setbacks, and using triggers, like kicking the post, to get back into my comfort zone."

Although he admits that lying in bed at night the rewind can kick in and replay his errors, Clarke is clear about one thing: "Every mistake I've made, I've learned from. If the same situation arises on Sunday, I'll kick it straight into Row Z."

With seven players from each side ready for a reprise of their involvement two years ago, history is already repeating itself in a big way. If that's a worry for Clarke, he's not showing it. He's too busy kicking the goalposts. He's in his comfort zone.

St Patrick's Athletic v Derry City

RTE2, 3.30

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