Interview with Marty Clarke, part two: 'I would bump into fellas that I don’t know and they would ask ‘well, what about Down, have you and Burns made up yet?’"

‘What’s happening with Down?’ It’s a question Marty Clarke got sick of being asked and, in the second part of our feature with the former playmaker, he takes a trip down memory lane to the summer of 2010 and tells Neil Loughran why his career in the red and black was never reignited….

Marty Clarke finds himself under pressure from Kerry's Mike McCarthy and Bryan Sheehan in Down's 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final win over the Kingdom. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Marty Clarke finds himself under pressure from Kerry's Mike McCarthy and Bryan Sheehan in Down's 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final win over the Kingdom. Picture by Seamus Loughran

THE only sniff of Marty Clarke on social media is a five year old parody Twitter account that managed just two tweets, amassing the grand total of 76 followers.

‘Marty Clarke here, live in Oz but from Ireland, play for the pies!!!’ is the rather crude biog below a picture of the Kilkeel man in Collingwood colours.

The first half of the two tweet collection makes sure to set the record straight from the off: ‘Btw diss is not the real Marty Clarke!! #iwish’ 

That the real Marty Clarke wasn’t - and never has been - accessible via 140 characters may limit his online interaction, but it doesn’t provide a complete barrier to the whims and wonders of the football-following public.

Since landing back on Irish soil in November 2014 after his second spell in the AFL, Clarke has lost count of the amount of times he has been asked about a possible return to the Down fold. 

With the county struggling to build on the momentum achieved by the unexpected march to the 2010 All-Ireland final, during which he played a starring role, more and more significance was attached to feint dreams of a Clarke comeback. 

Despite not kicking a round ball competitively in over three years, the prodigal son was expected to provide the answer to all of Down’s ills.

One year passed, then another, yet nothing. 

People have questioned whether he ever really wanted to come back and play for Down and, if he did, why hadn’t he pushed the issue?

Clarke did meet with newly-appointed Down boss Jim McCorry upon his return and, as he came to terms with his Addison’s disease, life back in Ireland and being a father for the first time following the birth of baby daughter Anna, the pair agreed to revisit the matter the same time next year. 

By then though, McCorry was gone, soon to be replaced by Eamonn Burns.

“When I came back, I was only just diagnosed. 

“I had a meeting with [then Down boss] Jim McCorry in the Burrendale Hotel and Jim was very understanding. He had done his research on Addison’s and said ‘look, what way are you?’

“At the time I was coming to terms with the diagnosis, my form in Australia was rock bottom so mentally I wasn’t in a great place and the thought of going back in to be a main player for Down, as it was potentially being touted, I just felt I needed a few months.

“I stayed in contact with him but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back that year because we’d just had the wee one as well and I was working out what I was going to do.”

But as he got back into the swing of things, captaining a rejuvenated An Riocht team last year, the clamour for new boss Burns to call Clarke into the fold grew louder with each chastening defeat in an annus horribilus for the men in red and black.

Asked on several occasions about the elephant in the room, Burns kept his cards close to his chest, insisting he was happy with the panel selected.

At the same time, Clarke was being stopped on the street by curious Down followers seeking answers. 

Despite having confirmed his retirement from all sport at the age of 29, the question remains. 

Between Dr McKenna Cup, National League and Championship, Clarke only played for Down’s senior team 34 times in total. For a man with such extravagant gifts, and even taking into account the years spent in Australia, that figure seems ludicrous.

So, with the dust well and truly settled, why did he not feature for the Mournemen again after coming back from Oz?

There was no falling out with Burns, no personality clash. In his mind, it was a simple case of a manager looking at a player and just not fancying him – end of story.

“I don’t have social media but I would bump into fellas that I don’t know and they would ask ‘well, what about Down, have you and Burns made up yet?’” he explains.

“It’s not like that at all, I have absolutely nothing against Eamonn Burns, nothing at all.

“I was thinking I would like to give this another go [in 2016] - that’s what I was training towards. 

“I was going to finish the McKenna Cup with Queen’s, last year I had a pretty influential role for Queen’s in a very good team, and then I was hoping I was ready to play for the county.

“But I didn’t hear from Eamonn Burns or any of the management team at all. Not once. It didn’t really annoy me, I just thought I’ll knuckle down and give a year to the club.”

Some form of explanation from Burns, whether publicly or privately, would have brought some much-needed clarity to the situation, Clarke feels.

“If he had said ‘I’ve watched Martin over the last season or so and he doesn’t really fit into the way I want to play’, then that’s completely fine. I think, personally, that’s what he thinks.

“I know he was at a couple of games we played last year, some of them I didn’t have a great game, so I think that’s maybe what the reason was, that maybe I wouldn’t have fitted in or been good enough.

“And that potentially could’ve been right and fair but that’s why I didn’t put the red and black on again – it’s because I wasn’t picked. It’s that simple.”

Right and fair, Clarke says, because playing with Addison’s disease made consistency of performance an issue. Some days he felt great, others he struggled to get out of bed.

Last August he went to Croke Park with his family and watched in awe as player of the year Lee Keegan followed Sean Cavanagh everywhere when Mayo edged out Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Should he ever return to the inter-county scene, Keegan is exactly the kind of player he would find in direct opposition. Clarke has never been afraid of a challenge and had left many a centre-back gasping for air in his pomp, but the game had changed - and so had he.

“I was looking at Lee Keegan and I just said to Anna ‘this is unbelievable, I’m not sure I’ll ever get to a level where I’m able to do that’. He’s just a serious athlete and that’s what I would’ve been comparing myself to.

“When I played for Down in 2010 and 2011 and growing up playing through school, I never was out of breath. Fitness was my thing. I was the fittest player at Collingwood too, I always won the time trials so I didn’t have to think when I was on the ball ‘I’m out of breath here, I need to get rid of this’.

“That’s why on the pitch, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to contribute in the way people would’ve liked, but I know the standards I would’ve brought to training, the experience of having played a number of big games across two codes at the highest level.

“People would come up to you and say ‘jeez, I bet you’re glad you’re not near that now’ but I don’t share those sentiments whatsoever – I’d love to have been able to help.

“The lads that are there at the minute, I have a lot of respect for them. Guys like Alan Davidson coming into the county set-up for the first time, I wish his experience of it was the same as I had in 2010.

"That was my highlight, that run. That team brought a new generation of Down fans with it - that’ll always be the best memory I have of playing for Down.”

Clarke is shown a red card by referee Michael Duffy in in last-ever appearance for Down in July 2011. Picture by Declan Roughan
Clarke is shown a red card by referee Michael Duffy in in last-ever appearance for Down in July 2011. Picture by Declan Roughan

JULY 23, 2011. Ten months on from pushing Cork to within a point on the third Sunday in September, Down are routed by the Rebels. 

The red mist descended on Clarke as he was ordered from the field 14 minutes from time, uncharacteristically picking up yellow cards for off-the-ball clashes with Noel O’Leary early on and then John Miskella.

As he trudged towards the line, Melbourne-bound in a matter of months, none of the Down support inside Croke Park that day could have imagined they were watching the 23-year-old’s last act in county colours.

It was a world away from the buzz that greeted news of his return from a first spell Down Under two years previous.

An underage star who had led the Down minors to the Tom Markham Cup in 2005 and came on as a sub in the same year’s All-Ireland U21 final, it was with a sense of mourning that Mourne followers digested the county’s worst-kept secret when Clarke boarded a plane to Australia in 2007.

The mood was flipped on its head when Clarke confirmed in 2009 that, after taking the AFL by storm in a successful Collingwood side, he was homeward bound.

James McCartan had just taken over the managerial reins, and hundreds loaded up their cars and travelled to Newbridge to see Clarke play his first National League game against Kildare.

Clarke lived up to his billing, delivering a master-class in an 11-point win. The Down hype machine went into overdrive.

By the time Championship came around, his name was on everybody’s lips. 

Jim McGuinness, then in charge of the Donegal U21s, admitted studying Clarke’s every move as Down sent the Tir Chonaill men tumbling out of Ulster at a sun-drenched, sweaty Ballybofey, Benny Coulter’s extra-time goal sealing the deal.

They bowed out to Tyrone in the provincial semi-final before embarking on a run through the back door that saw them swat aside Longford, Offaly and Sligo before turning on the style to send reigning champions Kerry packing in the last eight.

As the summer wore on everybody wanted a piece of Clarke but, like most of his markers throughout the campaign, the press couldn’t lay a hand on him.

He didn’t conduct interviews, and actively avoided any post match awards, shunning the RTE cameras when named man-of-the-match after Down’s nerve-jangling semi-final defeat of Kildare.

Some said Australia had changed him, that he was being unnecessarily aloof, but Clarke insists he simply didn’t feel comfortable having the spotlight constantly turned in his direction.

“I just wanted to knuckle down and play my football. 

“The thought of standing in front of a camera after a game with a glass ball… I think it was potentially the culture in Australian Rules and at Collingwood where no part is bigger than the team.

“I was reluctant to do that because the next day there’s photos of you in the paper or the back page has ‘Clarke says… whatever’ I didn’t want that attention. I don’t have a head about myself, and I didn’t want to be held above anybody else.

“I was slightly embarrassed, to be honest. I got man-of-the match from RTE in the semi-final against Kildare and I didn’t feel I merited it.” 

Such focus on one player could destabilise a weaker dressing room, but his Down team-mates were only too glad to have him back.

“There wasn’t one bit of resentment from our end,” says Danny Hughes, who also landed an Allstar in 2010. 

“There were no egos in our dressing room, and there were no egos because we never won anything. When he came back, it meant we could punch on equal terms with the best teams up there. We all just appreciated the talent that he had.

“As for the media thing, Marty’s just different,” explains Hughes. 

“I would go to the opening of an envelope, I’m probably the opposite to him, but I think Marty just didn’t want too much of a fuss being made.”

Sadly for Clarke and Down, there was to be no fairytale finish. 

Despite holding a three point lead at the break, Conor Counihan’s Cork came on strong in the second half to snatch victory by the narrowest of margins and end their 20-year search for Sam. 

Noel O’Leary was Clarke’s shadow from the get-go, the Rebels’ dog of war growling and prowling across Croke Park all afternoon, limiting the Down man’s influence by foul means or fair.

Looking up at the Hogan Stand and clapping as Cork celebrated was tough to take, but it’s only as he arrives at the end of his playing days that the magnitude of the occasion and that loss has really started to hit home.

“I’m definitely not a bad loser, so I didn’t think that much about the defeat at the time. 

“I didn’t realise the enormity of the thing, how close we came, until now. And I have been thinking about it recently, what a difference it would make if you had won an All-Ireland, to reach the top of the GAA world.

“It’s coming back more and more now…”

Marty Clarke collects his 2010 Allstar alongside Down team-mates Brendan McVeigh, Benny Coulter and Danny Hughes
Marty Clarke collects his 2010 Allstar alongside Down team-mates Brendan McVeigh, Benny Coulter and Danny Hughes

“HAVE you ever considered management?”

It is two-and-a-half years since a consultant sat him down and asked this question. 

Only now, with his playing days brought to a premature end, is he ready to contemplate a future that doesn’t involve lacing up boots and punting an O’Neills ball between the uprights.

“I’ve started to watch a lot more Gaelic football and I’m really starting to enjoy analysing it,” said Clarke, who has dipped his toes in the world of radio and television co-commentary in recent years. 

“I did a diploma in Australia in sports and management which centred a lot around the coaching and administrative side of sport, and then this degree I’m doing in Stranmillis is a bachelor of science in health and sports, so it involves a lot of sport-oriented coaching. 

“I’ve done wee bits of ad hoc coaching around clubs and really enjoyed it but it probably sowed a seed when the doctor in Australia said about management. 

“I hadn’t thought about it up until then, but now I definitely think I would love to get into that side of things.”

Benny Coulter has already declared his desire to manage Down one day, maybe Clarke could form a double act with his former forward partner?

“Haha,” he laughs, “you never know. Watch this space.”