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All Ireland Football Championship: Martin Clarke goes from Down Under to Down hero

By John Campbell

When Martin Clarke decided that he would like to return to his roots in Down at the end of a highly successful two-year soujourn in Australian Rules football with the Collingwood club he little thought that this might prove to be his first step towards All Ireland glory.

Yet today this gifted 22-year-old forward, an All Ireland minor winner five years ago, finds himself just 70 minutes away from appearing in an All Ireland final having to date played a major role in the Down renaissance under James McCartan.

It was in the under-age sector —and particularly with the St Louis, Kilkeel school side — that Clarke’s skills initially blossomed and the level of maturity and panache he displayed in helping Down to their Minor accolade in 2005 hinted at even more prestigious honours in the future.

But when he subsequently decided to take up the offer to pursue a career in Rules football Down Under, it was felt that he had been lost to his club An Riocht and Down forever.

The tug of life in the Mournes ultimately proved too strong however and when Clarke returned he was understandably welcomed with open arms.

Now a few months down the line he has helped to propel Down into the last three of the race to the All Ireland title. Yet medals and honours were never high on his agenda when he decided to return home.

“I came back simply because I wanted to resume playing gaelic football for my club An Riocht and to be with my family and friends again. I was pleasantly surprised when I was called into the Down panel and obviously things have gone quite well,” smiles Clarke.

His influence in the side has been pronounced. Selfless almost to a fault, modest in the extreme and absolutely dedicated, he pulls the attacking strings in a line-up fashioned by manager McCartan with the emphasis very much on flair and adventure.

“It’s tremendous to be involved with this Down side. There is a great spirit among the lads and when we got promoted in the league we thought we might do well in the championship. But the pressure is really on now — that win over Kerry has given us a big lift but this is a massive game against Kildare on Sunday,” insists Clarke.

And if Clarke’s input has been prodigious to date, manager McCartan believes that there is even better to come from him — perhaps beginning against Kildare.

“I think Martin has made a major impact since coming into the side and I have no doubt that he can wield an even bigger influence. He has adapted very well and as well as being a creative force he is also a quality finisher,” maintains McCartan.

It is an indication of Clarke’s status within the side that opposition teams invariably deploy two players in a bid to curb his influence, the theory being that shackling him equates to defusing the Down attack as a whole.

Yet he has regularly been among Down’s best players and reserved his outstanding performance of the year to date for that shock win over All Ireland champions Kerry in the quarter-final tie earlier this month. Clarke’s workrate, tackling and distribution drew praise even from Kingdom officials, often notorious for their blinkered approach.

But when he won the Ulster GAA Writers Association monthly merit award because of this towering display, he refused to receive the accolade personally, suggesting that he had only been “one cog in a very good side on the day.”

This inherent modesty coupled with the obvious satisfaction he is garnering from being part of a vibrant Down set-up has made him one of the most popular players in the squad — a fact emphasised by his frontline colleague Benny Coulter.

“Martin has made a huge impression since his return. He is a very good team player, someone who is prepared to roll up his sleeves and do the donkey work as well as provide real flair and class,” insists Coulter.

When Kerry beat Cork in the All Ireland final last year, another rules player, Tadgh Kennelly, was in their side having stated on leaving Australia his desire to share in a Sam Maguire Cup success with his county.

If there was more than a touch of fortune attached to Kennelly’s achievement — he should have been sent off by referee Martin Duffy in the opening minute for a blatant head-high challenge on Cork’s Nicholas Murphy — then Martin Clarke has already shown that he has the skill, demeanour and character to win an All Ireland medal in the grand manner.

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