Marty Clarke in line for dramatic Down playing return - 13 years after last game

Former Down star Marty Clarke returned to club action with An Riocht on Friday night, six years after his last appearance
Marty Clarke, part of Conor Laverty's Down management team, could feature for the Mournemen as a goalkeeper

THIRTEEN years after his last appearance for Down, Marty Clarke is in the mix for a remarkable return to the red and black – this time as a sweeper ‘keeper.

Although still an integral part of Conor Laverty’s management team, the 36-year-old has been training with the squad since the start of the year, and particularly alongside goalkeepers John O’Hare and Kevin Anderson.

With last year’s number one Niall Kane opting to step away, Charlie Smyth pursuing his American football dream Stateside and Warrenpoint goalkeeper Gary McMahon unable to commit, Laverty and coach Ciaran Meenagh were keen to explore other options.

As a consequence, the An Riocht man was sounded out about the role towards the end of last year and, although they initially agreed to leave it until he had a full season under his belt at club level, the move has been expedited.

Having thrown himself into a possible return, Clarke has been working closely with Down goalkeeping coach, and Tyrone All-Ireland winner, John Devine, with a view to being involved at some stage.

Glenn’s John O’Hare is the current number one, and has been a solid performer as the Mournemen clocked up five wins in-a-row to leave them within touching distance of promotion to Division Two.

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
Marty Clarke earned an Allstar after helping Down to the 2010 All-Ireland final. Picture by Seamus Loughran

However, with the likes of Tyrone’s Niall Morgan, Monaghan’s Rory Beggan and Armagh’s Ethan Rafferty demonstrating the benefits of deploying a goalkeeper who is comfortable coming out the field and becoming an effective spare man, the Down management is keen to try and maximise this area.

And it is understood Clarke’s vision and passing ability, from play and kick-outs, have given them food for thought as the National League nears its end.

Sunday’s convincing victory over Sligo left Down well placed heading into the final two games of their Division Two campaign, with fellow promotion chasers Westmeath up next in Mullingar on March 17, with Clare coming to Pairc Esler seven days later.

The Mournemen welcome Antrim to Newry for the opening round of the Ulster Championship on April 13, with the winner facing whoever comes out of the quarter-final between Armagh and Fermanagh.

Despite making just 34 appearances for the Mournemen, Clarke is one of the most cultured forwards the county has ever produced, earning an Allstar as Down reached an unexpected All-Ireland final appearance in 2010.

Clarke was just 23 when he made his last appearance for the Mournemen on July 23, 2011 – and it didn’t end the way he would have liked, with a red card seeing him leave the action during the second half as the Rebels romped to a 12-point victory.

Having starred with Aussie Rules outfit Collingwood before answering of the call of his county in late 2009, Clarke decided to head Down Under for a second stint with the Magpies once that 2011 Championship campaign came to a close.

Marty Clarke was sent off in his last game for Down - in an All-Ireland qualifier against Down 13 years ago. Picture by Declan Roughan
Marty Clarke was sent off in his last game for Down - in an All-Ireland qualifier against Down 13 years ago. Picture by Declan Roughan (Declan Roughan - Declan Roughan)

And, although it was anticipated that he would return to the Down fold at some stage after returning to Irish soil - particularly during the reigns of the late Eamonn Burns and Jim McCorry - it didn’t happen.

Clarke announced his retirement from football in 2017 after battling with Addison’s disease - a condition which can cause extreme fatigue and weight loss – and has since established himself as a highly-rated coach, first joining forces with Laverty as Down won the Ulster U20 title in 2021.

There was some surprise during last year’s county intermediate championship when Clarke came on as a late sub in An Riocht’s victory over St John’s, his first competitive appearance for the club in six years.