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Tyrone are closing in on Dublin after Ulster SFC: Ronan Clarke

Ronan Clarke recalls Armagh being caught by Fermanagh in 2004
Ronan Clarke

I’VE often been asked do I miss my playing days. I think I’ll always miss them. There’s no better feeling in the world than feeling grass under your feet.

I get a big kick out of coaching the Armagh Ladies team these days.

Coaching, though, gives me more headaches than playing ever did. But at least I can still feel the grass under my feet.

That’s the important thing.

The best thing about coaching is when things that you’ve worked on in training start to bear fruit during games.

For me, that’s where the real satisfaction lies.

I’m still learning my trade and I’ll keep pushing on. But I have to say when I sat down to watch last Sunday’s Ulster final between Tyrone and Donegal I felt some pangs.

I would do anything to run out in Clones again. It’s such a special feeling and a special place.

I can’t hide the fact I’d love to see how I would have fared in the inter-county game as it is played today.

I know, I sound old before my time – after all, I was still playing for my club Pearse Og right up until last year.

I would watch games nowadays and I don’t think the Armagh side of 2002 to ’09 would have engaged in the same tracking back that goes on.

You can see the changes unfolding with every passing year and the ever evolving role of the full-back, or corner-back or half-back and their ability to break forward.

Our era was incredibly intense to play in too, so I feel I could have adapted to the ‘modern’ game – but I would have had to add to my game to survive or indeed flourish.

You often see forwards ending up in their own full-back line in games. If my memory serves me correctly I found myself in the Armagh full-back line just once before.

It was in the 2008 Ulster final against Fermanagh (the first game); I got the ball and thought to myself: ‘I’ll carry this one out here.’

Before that thought could take root I'd lost the ball.

After that moment I trotted back up to full-forward – out of harm’s way - and decided to leave McKeever, Kernan and Mallon to deal with those sorts of things.

The full-back line was no place for a forward. At least that’s what I told myself after that day!

The game keeps changing, evolving – but one thing that seemingly can’t evolve any more is the amount of time and energy players put into their chosen sport.

Don’t get me wrong, we trained hard, exceptionally hard with Armagh but when you hear what players are doing today I’m never in the least bit surprised to see teams looking mentally fatigued at stages of the season.

The top players might get the best possible care and attention but there is only so much a player’s body and mind can absorb.

But that’s a whole new realm of discussion for another day.

There was a fair degree of negativity surrounding last Sunday’s provincial decider, particularly the first half. People described as ‘dire’, ‘too cautious’, ‘ugly’ even.

I have to say I enjoyed the build-up to this year’s final and while people bemoaned it as a spectacle, everyone knew how the two teams would set up. There were no secrets unleashed in Clones.

It’s just the way the game is nowadays. Teams get players behind the ball so they won’t be exposed.

Until somebody comes up and breaks the mould and is successful at doing it, I can’t see things changing in the short-term. Coaches will copy the successful teams.

The first half of the Tyrone-Donegal game was undoubtedly a cagey affair with both teams set up in like-minded fashion but as the game wore on the more fascinating and engrossed I was.

The last 10 minutes were fantastic.

A draw would have been a fair result but when the game was in the melting pot Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte stood up for Tyrone.

Cavanagh’s record speaks for itself. At 33, he’s still going strong.

We played the Moy in a friendly game many years ago and it was the first time I encountered Sean. I ended up winning a MacRory Cup with him in 2000 with St Patrick’s Grammar, Armagh.

He played centre-forward, I played full-forward. He was always an exceptionally talented footballer and his three second half points against Donegal were the measure of the man.

Peter Harte’s monster point in the dying embers was incredible, fit to win any game.

The Errigal Ciaran man has been outstanding for Tyrone this year.

Rory Gallagher has a job on his hands in trying to lift the Donegal boys for the Qualifier hurdle against Cork next weekend but I still feel they’re in the All-Ireland shake-up.

For me, though, Tyrone are Dublin’s biggest rival for this year’s All-Ireland.

Worryingly, the Dubs have yet to be tested as they annexed yet another Leinster title last weekend, while Tyrone should be wary of the distance between the Ulster final and their All-Ireland quarter-final outing on August 6.

When Armagh were coming off Ulster title wins, we always found that three or four-week gap to the quarter-final a tricky period.

I remember we got caught by Fermanagh in ’04 and Kerry in ’06.

It was hard to know how to best bridge the weeks between these games.

For Armagh, we always found it was hard to get good, competitive friendlies, and in-house games had outlived their value because the players knew each other inside out by that stage of the season.

I’d like to see a two-week gap between winning your province and playing in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

For me anyway, that’s the ideal gap between big games.

If Tyrone can hit the peaks again next month, I feel a fourth All-Ireland title is well within their reach…

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