GAA Football

'Where I started in 2001 going ‘I can't wait to play for Down', now I was saying ‘I hate this, I don't want to be here'

John Clarke with his three-year-old Luke son at St John's, Drumnaquoile. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran

THE post-mortem carries on in the queue at Starbucks near Banbridge. It’s the week after Down were crushed in Clones, the memories of the previous summer’s heroics mercilessly trampled into the dirt by Donegal boots.

It wasn’t the heaviest defeat of recent times, that came two years ago at the hands of Monaghan, but it might have been the most dispiriting.

That day they only trailed the Farneymen by three following a decent first half performance. The collapse that came after the break wasn’t pretty to watch, but at least they were competitive at one stage.

Against Donegal, it was all over by the 24th minute of a game Down were never in. John Clarke winces slightly through the conversation. He felt for every single player wearing red and black at St Tiernach’s Park because he has been that soldier.

Settling into his seat, Clarke takes a deep breath as he pulls a couple of examples from the memory bank.

Longford 2002. Not long on the panel, an All-Ireland minor medal in the back pocket, heroes of ’91 and ’94 everywhere he looked – but it didn’t matter.

The abiding image is of Pete McGrath fighting back tears as he told the players he was finished. The unforgettable sound? The silence on the bus.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

He goes on.

Tyrone ’03. Donegal ’03. Wexford ’08 is up there too. Sligo ’06 was a particularly bad day at the office.

“Four points I think we scored,” says Clarke with a shake of the head.

“That was a long trip home…”

You get the picture. If anybody has empathy for the plight of Down’s current crop, it’s John Clarke.

He looks back on his playing days with fondness even though his generation - like the one before and after – tried but failed to awaken the sleeping giant of the Mournes, despite occasional signs of stirring.

Fleeting moments of success arrived and departed like shafts of light before the shadows would descend again. That has been Down’s lot since Sam last crossed into Newry 24 long years ago, and counting.

It would be easy to labour on what-might-have-beens, but what’s the point? For better or worse, it was all part of the journey.

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Pete McGrath stepped away from the Down job after the 2002 All-Ireland Qualifier defeat to Longford

THERE was barely a road that went untravelled during the early ’90s as the Clarke family followed Down the length and breadth of the country.

After games, standing outside changing rooms or in car parks waiting to catch a glimpse of men who would ascend the steps of the Hogan Stand twice in the space of four years – these are the days when dreams are born.

John Clarke, like so many aspiring young footballers in Down during the glorious early Nineties, wanted to be just like Gregory McCartan from nearby Ballymartin. Or Mickey Linden out the road in Mayobridge. Brian Burns. ‘Wee James’.

Many times he imagined what it must be like to share a changing room with his heroes, to run out onto a football field side by side.

Fast forward to May 2001, an 18-year-old Clarke is studying for his A-levels at St Louis’ Grammar in Kilkeel when the phone rings. It’s Pete McGrath, just weeks before the Ulster Championship opener against Cavan.

Down were coming off an Ulster final hammering at the hands of an up-and-coming Armagh the same year Clarke and his minor team-mates landed the Tom Markham Cup, before becoming Antrim’s first provincial victims since 1982 in 2000.

The mood music around the county wasn’t good and, for McGrath, an upturn in fortunes couldn’t happen quickly enough.

“All those men, including Pete, were heroes to me - still are,” says Clarke.

“It was a tough time to come in, a transition period, but to share a changing room with those guys who, a few years earlier, had won All-Ireland medals and who you looked up to, that was something you dreamed of.

“Somebody like big Gregory there, coming from Mourne too, to me he was ‘the man’. I had a 10-year career with Down, but that moment, that first training session at Kilbroney Park, was just magic.”

Yet it wasn’t long before the magic started to wear off.

And when lowly Longford finished Down off in a 2002 Qualifier, McGrath knew the time had come.

“That day… you’d never forget that,” says Clarke.

“Pete was in tears when he told us he was standing down - it was a tough journey home. There was nothing said and then he got off the bus at Newry and that was sort of... it.

“It was a sad way for it all to end, and you did feel a bit of guilt thinking maybe I didn’t perform and this man’s gone because of me, or because of us.

“I mean, this was a game Down traditionally would have won. Now Pete’s resigned, there’s tears in the changing room. All of a sudden you’re thinking ‘this isn’t what I imagined here’.”

Paddy O’Rourke, McGrath’s captain in 1991, got a tune out of the team in his first year as victories over Monaghan and Fermanagh leading Down to an Ulster final date with Mickey Harte’s Tyrone.

It proved a defining day for both counties. Dan Gordon plundered three goals as Tyrone failed to contain the towering teenager, then there was Gregory McCartan’s red mist and a Red Hand fightback led by Peter the Great.

Harte’s men kicked on in the replay after the first day ended in a draw, and while they were later crowned team of the decade, Down drifted along with little more than hope to cling to.

“That game really set Down back. After that, Tyrone went on to win three All-Irelands. Down? Nothing, forgotten about.

“It was so hard, mentally, to come back from that and the longer we went on without winning, the tougher it got. By that stage a lot of the older men had moved on so the focus was on a lot of us who came out of that ’99 team.

“People were saying these boys aren’t what they’re made out to be at all, and there’s no denying it. We had a few big results here and there but overall that minor team didn’t really deliver as a group.”

Another Nineties hero, Ross Carr, took over from O’Rourke at the end of a disappointing 2007 Championship.

Like his former team-mate, Carr - who was assisted by 1994 All-Ireland winning captain DJ Kane - enjoyed a flying start, rumbling Tyrone in an Ulster Championship quarter-final clash on an unforgettable night at Pairc Esler.

But it proved another false dawn. And while Down lost to Armagh the next day before losing to Wexford in the Qualifiers, the Red Hands reassembled and finished the summer with Sam again.

A difference of opinion with Carr meant Clarke didn’t feature at all in the 2009 season – though it is a break he feels that may have served him well in the long run.

“We had put a big shift in coming up to Christmas, the Leopardstown racing was on and Ross had called a training session for that morning. I went to Leopardstown every year so I text him to say I wouldn’t be at training and that I’d see him during the week.

“He text me back to say ‘if you’re not at training, don’t bother coming back’. I felt hurt by that and never went back. He never contacted me and I never contacted him.

“It’s something I probably do regret it because Ross managed the Kingdom [An Riocht] in 2014/15 and me and him got on the best.

“I’ve a lot of time for Ross but, in hindsight, it was maybe a good thing because I did come back really hungry in 2010...”

And by then there was another Clarke on the block as the prodigal son returned from Oz to head up a red and black revolution.

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Marty Clarke returned to play for Down in 2010 and 2011 after making a huge impact for Collingwood in the AFL. Picture by Seamus Loughran

“We had a lovely big garden around the outside and then a field over the back where dad made nets for me and John. It was literally after school, out there kicking with John. He’s five years older so I was always having to compete just to hold my own against him”

Marty Clarke

THE formative years spent out the back of the family’s Cranfield home may have helped hone the skills that Marty Clarke would eventually bring to the big stage, but equally as important was the roadmap laid down by his older brother.

Like John, Marty would win an All-Ireland minor title with Down in 2005, and by that stage he was already a household name across the county for his exploits with St Louis’ and at underage with An Riocht.

Within months of finishing school he was whisked away to the bright lights of Melbourne after inking a deal with Aussie Rules giants Collingwood.

Despite his tender years, and despite never having played for the senior team, Clarke’s importance to Down appeared to grow in his absence. And while the Mournemen struggled, he was busy taking Australia by storm.

John Clarke couldn’t have been more delighted, or more proud, but he was now in an odd, unexpected position. All of a sudden he was ‘Marty’s brother’.

And as talk of a potential return to Ireland accelerated in 2009, his phone became much busier than usual as friends, fans and journalists craved information.

“Is Marty coming home?”

“Can you get me a quote from him?”

An established Down player in his own right by this stage, Clarke admits it was “a bit strange”. After all, by the time everything was said and done, he had represented the county 109 times to Marty’s 34 appearances.

Yet he remained fiercely loyal to his younger brother throughout. No line would ever be given, no quotes sourced from Down Under.

Surely, though, there must have been part of him that cursed being cast in the shadow of his younger sibling?

“Ah, not really,” he says with a laugh.

“I was my own man as well, I knew what I was doing. I was happy where I was and Marty was such an exceptional talent he was always going to make headlines.

“Yes, people gave me stick - ‘Marty Clarke’s brother’ - and you’d have laughed it off. It didn’t really bother me that much because I knew I was my own player, and I wanted Marty to be the best he could be.”

And when Marty did return, it drove not only John to new heights after he was brought back in by new boss James McCartan, the whole county was surfing the wave.

“I think that’s one of the main reasons why James probably pushed to get the job because once he came in, Martin was coming home.

“It gave me an awful lift and I got my head down and worked harder than I ever did because I knew it was my first year playing alongside him with Down and I didn’t know how many years were in front of us.”

Not many, as it turned out. The Clarke brothers would only play one full season alongside each other for Down – but what a year it was as the Mournemen came from nowhere to forge a remarkable run to the All-Ireland final.

Running out side by side at Croke Park, you can’t put a price on memories like that.

But sadly there was to be no fairytale ending. They lost out to Cork by a point, and less than 12 months later both John and Martin Clarke were gone, never to appear in county colours again.

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The 2011 Ulster SFC quarter-final clash against Armagh proved to be John Clarke's last for Down. Picture by Seamus Loughran

‘Victim of a tactical substitution. When a team concedes 1-7 inside 24 minutes then their full-forward isn’t the problem’

JOHN Clarke’s player rating in The Irish News tells part of the story of his final appearance for Down the night they were ambushed by Armagh in 2011. A victim of his own versatility, he was well used to being moved and manoeuvred, pushed and pulled.

But that night at at the Athletic Grounds, he knew something was different.

“That was a line in the sand for me. I remember walking out that night depressed.

“Where I started in 2001 going ‘I can’t wait to play for Down’, now I was saying ‘I hate this, I don’t want to be here’. I went back to the club that Friday and played a game but my confidence was at an all time low, so I just decided to cut ties.

“You know, you do hear rumours - such and such was saying he should’ve been playing and all that. Then mates are telling you they were saying on the discussion boards you shouldn’t be playing.

“That sort of stuff usually wouldn’t have bothered me but that week or so after Armagh you were so down it made things even worse. I just felt it wasn’t worth it any more.”

McCartan left the door open but, despite playing some of the best football of his career for An Riocht in the years after, neither man ever picked up the phone. Seven years on, that decision to exit the stage at just 28 still niggles.

“Looking back now, I probably should’ve stuck it out for the Qualifiers, but mentally I would’ve found it so hard to go back to training after that. I would’ve been doing the team a disservice and myself a disservice.

“The phone call never came, if it had I might have reconsidered but I was happy with my life, looking forward to getting married... the longer I was away from county football the less I missed it.”

Yet the Down bug never leaves. Every year Clarke starts off believing this could be it, and he was keeping a close eye on proceedings at Brewster Park last weekend hoping Eamonn Burns’s men would kick-start their summer against Cavan. It wasn't to be.

Now 35, this will probably be his last year lining out for St John’s, Drumnaquoile, the club he transferred to in 2015. And as the sun sets on his playing days, it is the memories rather than the medals that hold real value.

“Yes you’d like to be successful but there are other moments that stand out.

“Mum has the picture of the first McKenna Cup match me and Martin played together and another from the All-Ireland final itself.

“You look back to the days you were kicking about in the garden, then you find yourself there, doing what you dreamed of, and you think ‘this is what it’s all about…’”

John Clarke featured for Down in their 2010 All-Ireland final defeat to Cork. Picture by Philip Walsh

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