Ballygalget veteran Graham Clarke set for another go at provincial glory
AIB Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Loughgiel v Ballygalget (tomorrow, 2.30pm, Glen)
WITH two provincial gongs and twelve county titles to his name, Graham Clarke is no stranger to the Ulster club series.
He was a 16-year-old sub when he won his first in 1990 and the following year he had progressed to the number one jersey, which he’s held for each of the eleven successes since.
Now 42, he briefly retired a couple of seasons ago but came back out after injury ruined the promising career of his protégé, Daniel McManus.
The baton will soon fall to Down under-21 Jamie Crowe but after some 26 years between the sticks, the former Down number one says he has never enjoyed it as much.
Some of his team-mates weren’t born when he played in his first Ulster club final in 1992, one of four occasions that the Ards club would face Cushendall in a decider over a 16-year period.
Paddy Walsh scored five points from midfield for the Ruairi Ógs and with Terence McNaughton at wing-back, a teenage Clarke was stuck for options.
“I remember being unable to do a lot about [Walsh’s] influence in the game. He was very dominant. Sambo McNaughton was wing-half back so you couldn’t hit ball on top of him,” recalls the Ballygalget stopper.
“You’re told as a young fella not to hit the ball on top of Sambo. I was sort of looking to myself ‘where am I going to hit the ball then?’”
With Dunloy suspended from Ulster in ’98, it was Ballycastle that stood in Ballygalget’s way. They couldn’t be separated across 120 minutes before Martin Coulter finally settled it with two late points in extra-time in the mid-November replay.
Having missed out by a single point to Newtownshandrum in the All-Ireland semi-final, a second Ulster medal was seven years in following. When it came, it had to be at Cushendall’s expense.
Those games were noted for their physicality and Sunday afternoon’s foray back into the provincial setting could prove something similar.
Watty Graham Park is an unusual venue for a hurling tie – Clarke’s never played there in his 26 years – and its relatively tight dimensions could restrict the afternoon’s fare to a tighter, more condensed affair than might have been expected.
“Sunday will tell whether it suits us or not. You might say it would keep the thing tight, but Ballygalget’s a big pitch and it’s actually helped us over the years to play on it.”
Not that Ballygalget have been any strangers to such a game lately. Their Down final victory over Ballycran attracted more attention than any county final in recent years after neither side managed a single score in the whole of the second half.
“After last year, we lost in the last five minutes against Ballycran and there wasn’t massive talk this year about it, but with Johnny [McGrattan] getting hurt, the management put a lid on it and we didn’t want too much emotion flying.
“I read a few comments and different things but we just did not care one bit. Anyone that was at the match knew how bad the conditions were.
“We were able to score 4-20 last Saturday against Carey Faughs. We’ve done plenty of scoring in the past where we haven’t won games, so [manager] Barry Coulter was more than happy with 6-2. I’d take 2-1 on Sunday. Or one-nil!”
For Loughgiel, it’s a welcome return to Ulster. Their four Antrim titles between 2010 and 2013 led to Ulster titles before they had to endure a couple of years of Cushendall success.
The Shamrocks deservedly won back their crown last month. They sparked in attack as their entire front six scored from play, with Shay Casey and Eddie McCloskey outstanding and Liam Watson back on song.
Clarke’s opposite number and friend DD Quinn has justified his starting berth ahead of Antrim number one Chrissy O’Connell with a few crucial stops in both the final and semi-final win over Ballycastle.
They are likely to employ either Tony McCloskey or Neil McGarry to look after Gareth Johnson, while Paul Gillan could find himself up against Daniel Toner.
It’s hard to gauge too much from Ballygalget’s county final success, while Loughgiel have yet to quite fire on all cylinders, but the Antrim champions’ wider scope of attacking quality should be enough to edge them through.