GAA Football

My top five: Former Down ace John Clarke picks the best he worked under

Former Down player John Clarke takes a walk along memory lane as he considers the top five managers he played under across 20 years playing club, college and county football…

Former Down forward John Clarke has picked out the best five managers he played under during a 20 year career. Picture by Declan Roughan

1. Pete McGrath (Down 2001/2002, An Riocht 2006-2008)

IT was hard to look past Pete, having grown up in awe of the 1991 and ’94 teams. When I got a phone call from the man himself in April 2001, asking me to join the Down panel at 18 years of age, it was a proud moment.

Pete handed me my senior county debut that May against Cavan and I will always be grateful to him for that. Although his tenure came to an end in 2002, he made a huge impression on me with his passion for Down football, hard work, emphasising the need for a strong mentality and good basic skills.

Our paths crossed again when took up the reins at An Riocht. At that stage the Kingdom were a mid-table Division Two team, but within two seasons we were Division One champions - an incredible feat.

He will be forever remembered in the club for this, as well as the sense of humour a lot of people didn't see; he enjoyed the training ground banter as much as anyone. A real gentleman, and the best manager I’ve played under.

Gerry Dougherty (pictured far right) led Down to the 1999 All-Ireland MFC title, and was in charge of Ulster Club San Francisco when John Clarke was there

2. Gerry Dougherty (Down minors 1999/2000, Ulster Club San Francisco, 2005)

GERRY, or ‘Trixie’ as he is better known, called me into the Down minor squad in the spring of 1999. We had a very talented squad of players but I have no doubt that, without Gerry's leadership and passion, we wouldn't have won anything.

He was a real old school manager in that he knew players needed a good fitness base along with a high work-rate and grasp of the basic skills of the game. For a three-week period that year he trained us like we had never trained before in the sand dunes of Newcastle and Castlewellan forest park; those weeks set us up mentally and physically for the successful summer we went on to have.

His team talks always had you jumping out of your skin, but ‘Trixie’ also understood the importance of letting lads bond after games and he always encouraged a few pints and bit of craic. He was so organised as well - every week was laid out and at every training session you knew what you were doing and why you were doing it.

I was fortunate enough to team up with him again in the summer of 2005 when he led the Ulster Club in San Fran to their first ever North American title. Safe to say Gerry is a legend not only in Down but in San Francisco as well.

Brendan Morgan is a stalwart of An Riocht, and made a huge impression on John Clarke and hundreds of other young players coming through at the club

3. Brendan Morgan (An Riocht)

VERY few people outside of Co Down will have heard of Brendan but when you mention An Riocht, his is the one name and face that comes to mind. A great player during the 1970s and ’80s, he was at the forefront of An Riocht's massive underage success at all levels in the ’90s.

In 1994 Brendan led the club to its first county title at U14 level, and was the man in charge again in 2000 when he led the minors, a team of which I was a part, to a first county minor title.

Again he was an old school type manager who instilled great fitness and discipline in his teams.

Even at a young age players would have run through brick walls for him; he showed me the importance of being part of a team, and to appreciate the club and crest.

Brendan has a wicked sense of humour at times and some lads were scared to miss training as they would have felt his full wrath. A man who has suffered personal tragedies in his own family but has always bounced back to put his heart and soul into An Riocht - if An Riocht ever go on to win a senior championship, no-one will be more proud than him.

He’s a man I’m proud to have played under, and I look forward to having a pint and a bit of banter with him in Richie's bar when this is all over.

It was clear from the first An Riocht training session Steven Poacher took that he had a big future in coaching, according to John Clarke. Picture by Sportsfile

4. Steven Poacher (An Riocht 2009-2011).

BEFORE he was named An Riocht manager, I hadn’t heard much about Stevie. However, after the first training session he took on a cold January morning, I knew this fella meant business. He was and still is a fantastic coach.

In three years under him, I never did the same training session twice - that speaks volumes. His sessions were so fresh, organised and enjoyable. His biggest asset was his energy and passion, whether it was a championship game, pre-season or a training session; it didn't matter.

He instilled total belief in all his players and got the best out of me during those years. Stevie left a lasting legacy at the club and is a man I still love meeting to talk all things football; his personality and positive attitude to life is infectious.

Stevie has his critics at times, but most of those don't know the man. I have no doubt he will be involved in the Down senior set up in the not too distant future. A great guy with a big future in the GAA.

Paddy O'Rourke's man-management skills stood out during his time in charge of Down, when the Mournemen came so close to winning the 2003 Ulster title. Picture by Philip Walsh

5. Paddy O'Rourke (Down 2003-2006)

I’D looked up to Paddy as captain of the All-Ireland winning 1991 team, but when he took over from Pete in 2003 I didn't know what to expect. Very soon I realised this was a man who had a huge passion for Down football - I would even say he was obsessed with Down and trying to get us to win an Ulster title.

He had the utmost respect from all the players, and he made every player feel important. Bar a couple of woeful refereeing decisions in the 2003 Ulster final, we would have been Ulster champions and the rest would have been history.

Paddy is a fit man and, even then, did a lot of the running sessions with us. I remember in 2006 I had a bad flu before an important National League game and a couple of nights before he arrived at the house with a bag of medical supplies to help quicken my recovery. That's how much he cared for his players.

Paddy wasn't afraid to try things either and during his last couple of years he converted me from a half-back into a half-forward, with relative success. He was harshly treated in the end but that summer of 2003 will always live with me. I would love to see Paddy return to the Down hot seat in the future.

* It was hard to narrow this down to a top five - I had to leave out some great managers including James McCartan, Ross Carr, Cathal Murray, Barney McAleenan, my own father Thomas, Jim Mulholland, Brendan McVeigh sr and, in more recent years, Benny Corrigan and Francie Poland. I have taken something from every one of them.

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