‘We do have a couple of mavericks… I was a small bit in that category myself’: Marty Clarke hopes Down can help inspire another generation

Mournemen take on Laois in Tailteann Cup decider on Saturday

Marty Clarke caught the tail end of Down's last glorious era, and would love to see the Mournemen give the county something to be proud of in the years ahead. Picture by Brendan Monaghan
Marty Clarke caught the tail end of Down's last glorious era, and would love to see the Mournemen give the county something to be proud of in the years ahead. Picture by Brendan Monaghan

NO matter how much time passes, whatever challenges the day to day throws up, Marty Clarke always gets a tingle when the bus pulls up at Jones’s Road.

Thursday marks 20 years since one of the most talked about teenagers in the country first set foot on the sacred sod, playing in Down minors’ drawn Ulster final with Tyrone before Armagh brushed aside Donegal in the big one later that day.

The Red Hands would prove the stone in Down’s shoe that year, winning the Ulster final replay before edging out their Mourne counterparts at Casement Park in the last four of the All-Ireland series a month later.

But Down, and Clarke’s, time would come – their 17-year-old playmaker lighting up Croke Park as the Tom Markham Cup was secured 12 months later with a thrilling victory over Mayo.

After leaving to make his name with Collingwood in the AFL, the prodigal son returned to spearhead Down’s drive to the 2010 All-Ireland final, spellbinding performances against Kerry and Kildare sending supporters into a frenzy, only for Cork to pop the balloon when it mattered most.

The Cranfield man’s last appearance in red and black came there too, his county career coming to a premature end in frustrating fashion when he was sent off in a 2011 qualifier defeat, the Rebels once more holding the Indian sign over their northern opponents.

But the Croke connection runs even deeper still. When he comes back now, which he will on Saturday as part of Conor Laverty’s management team for Down’s Tailteann Cup decider with Laois, it is all business.

Clarke, though – like Laverty - was lucky enough to catch the tail end of the county’s last glorious era, a starry-eyed six-year-old watching from the Cusack Stand as DJ Kane hoisted Sam aloft.

He remembers exactly how it felt, and how much it seemed to mean to those all around him. What Marty Clarke wouldn’t do be part of a group inspiring another generation in similar fashion.

“That’s the key,” smiled the 36-year-old, “Conor is obviously a similar age to me – we got to pretend to be Down players in the garden.

“We were laughing because there was no internet as such in them days, but everyone seemed to know everything about all the teams.

“You just maybe read the paper and watched the TV on a Sunday evening, it was a great time to grow up and certainly planted the seed for my sporting career, being able to go to Croke Park and see the red and black, see those players do what they did.

“Every time you go back, you’re hopeful, whether as a player or now as a management team, you want the boys to go out and express themselves, to play with flair as well.

“It’s a special place to play.”

Bidding to escape the Tailteann Cup at the second time of asking, Laverty’s men are under no illusions about the gap that must be made up to even come close to emulating those heroes of bygone days.

But, in his second year at the helm, sealing promotion to Division Two and guaranteeing All-Ireland Championship football next year would be a huge step in the right direction.

“We feel we’re building in the right direction,” said Clarke.

“If we can go there and get the job done then we can push pause for a few months, go back to their clubs and give all there, and you’re starting in Division Two and the Sam Maguire next year.

“We know that’s the prize at stake, and that’s certainly tangible progress, and it would have to be taken up another few levels to play in Division Two and play in the Sam Maguire. That’s our ambition, if you get those things right then potentially you could get on a roll and that’s where we would like to be.

“We would like to be ambitious and see where we could go, and have the county right back up there towards the top tier.”

Marty Clarke: "you knew you wouldn’t come across too many more as good as him"
Marty Clarke starred in Down's run to the 2010 All-Ireland final, his performances earning the Cranfield man an Allstar

It is 13 years since Clarke last represented Down and, working alongside the modern player, the strides made since in terms of physical preparation have been significant.

At a media night in St Malachy’s High School, Castlewellan last week, Clarke sat alongside captain Pierce Laverty and Daniel Guinness – two men whose diligent approach reminds him of his own playing days on the other side of the world.

“The professionalism of these lads here and many others in the squad… it is essentially what the preparation has become now in GAA across the board.

“It doesn’t matter if you are playing a team in Division Four or the best teams in the Sam Maguire; the level of conditioning of the lads has been superb. We can only speak for our own camp, but Conor has put together a phenomenal management team, the strength and conditioning with Johnny Davies, who has been doing a great job.

“But the players drive a lot of it and lot of them are living and breathing it - none moreso than these two. It is day and night, if you are putting hard work in and time and effort and you are asking questions about how you can get better.

“We do have a couple of mavericks… I was a small bit in that category myself when I was playing, where I was stimulated so much by playing and training, but I think that has been fed out of the game now. You have to be near enough all-in.

“It seems to me most players enjoy it, it is an avenue to the facilities, exposure to top level coaching, strength and conditioning, gyms and all that. It is a great lifestyle for a lad living in Ireland, if he is on a good county side, then he can do that... you look at the best teams and you have 25 or 30 lads who are all in that category.”

That is where Down want to be; where Down need to be. Saturday is another huge fork in the road – this time around, they cannot afford to take a wrong turn.