Dundrum up against it in ‘Fin final date says John Clarke

Former Down forward John Clarke leads his Dundrum side into tonight's Down JFC final clash with Aughlisnafin. Picture by Pat O'Hare
Former Down forward John Clarke leads his Dundrum side into tonight's Down JFC final clash with Aughlisnafin. Picture by Pat O'Hare

Morgan Fuels Down Junior Football Championship final: Dundrum v Aughlisnafin (tonight, Pairc Esler, 7.15pm – live stream on Down GAA TV)

THERE is plenty of learning to be done when first dipping toes into management, and the last year has been something of a crash course for John Clarke.

Having played under the likes of Pete McGrath, James McCartan, Paddy O’Rourke and Steven Poacher, the former Down forward had plenty of experience in the bank when taking up the reins at Division Four club Dundrum.

But the transition from player to manager can take some getting used to, not least when a pandemic-enforced lockdown is announced just a couple of months into the job. Like everybody else Dundrum rode out the storm, blowing off the cobwebs through the summer months before clicking into gear once championship came around.

Victories over Ardglass (twice) and Drumaness saw them through to tonight’s junior decider with Aughlisnafin, and Clarke admits it has been an enjoyable – if eye-opening – ride so far.

“Dundrum is a club that has a wee bit of history down the years, and it just felt like a good fit for me,” he said.

“It’s been challenging but very enjoyable. There’s a real committed bunch of players there and the committees are definitely looking to go places.

“We missed out on promotion from Division Four but the lads have regrouped well and we’ve a pretty good championship run going so far.

“When you’re playing, you’re so focused on yourself, and when it comes to match-day you just want to perform well and do your best for the team. But when you’re managing you’re worrying about so many other things, trying to keep everybody happy - which is difficult at times - managing different personalities… it’s probably more time-consuming than I thought, but if you’re going to do it you have to do it right.

“You have to be as professional as possible and set as high a standard as you can. It’s a different buzz from playing, it definitely is satisfying when you get a result but when you lose it probably hits you harder than when you were a player.

“The buck stops with you at the end of the day.”

And Clarke knows his men will be up against it if they are to get their hands on the crown when all is said and done at Pairc Esler tonight.

The ’Fin have reached the junior final in the last two years, losing on both occasions, but have looked a real force to be reckoned with en route to tonight’s clash.

Since edging beyond Teconnaught on the opening afternoon of the championship, they proved far too strong for Kilclief and then East Belfast, winning that semi-final with 12 to spare.

Aughlisnafin – who have beaten Dundrum in their last two championship campaigns - also boast some exciting young players such as Shea Croskery, who featured in the Down U20s run to Ulster glory during the summer, and will be fancied to make it third time lucky tonight.

“We are massive underdogs,” said Clarke.

“In my view the ’Fin are an intermediate club. They’re an established Division Three side, they have players who will be in and around county squads in years to come, so that’s the level they’re at.

“At the start of the championship, based on league standings, we were probably the fifth or sixth ranked team in it - we probably weren’t expected to mount a serious challenge but we’re here now and we’re looking forward to it.

“Dundrum have won five junior championships in the past, so there’s that tradition of performing well in finals. Hopefully we can bring that mindset into the game.”