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Clarke has whole new perspective after coma recovery

Armagh ace is now thinking positive following on-field accident

By Declan Bogue

Published 17/10/2015

Looking up: Ronan Clarke smiles at his gym, Clarke Fitness, outside Armagh city
Looking up: Ronan Clarke smiles at his gym, Clarke Fitness, outside Armagh city

A couple of weeks ago, the 2002 Young Footballer of the Year set himself a target of walking a mile to his local shop.

When he got there, he was soaked in sweat. A shop assistant expressed her surprise that he was there at all.

He could have called a taxi, but instead he put one foot in front of the other and kept going. And he made the return trip. The effort was nothing compared to his elation.

Two-time All-Star and 2002 All-Ireland winner - and now coma survivor - Ronan Clarke had made it home. He went straight to bed and slept for the rest of the day.

"When I conquered that, I knew I was going to be alright," he said.

A great day. Up there with the best of them.

He recalls nothing of the Friday night he ran into that goalpost in the Athletic Grounds two months ago. After getting checked out, he opted to continue playing for Pearse Óg against Maghery. It was the Championship after all, and his side needed one of their most treasured sons.

The next thing he knew, he was waking up four days later having come out of a coma.

Sitting in his business, Clarke Fitness in the Pearse Óg facilities just outside Armagh city, he thinks back to that mid-August evening.

"I remember looking up at the ball and then that was it. I played on, I don't know how I did. I still don't really understand it. I am trying to piece it all together and I just can't," he said.

He was rushed to Craigavon Area Hospital by his father Adrian, who kept up a running conversation while Ronan slipped in and out of consciousness. Once they reached the hospital, he was placed in an induced coma and put on a ventilator.

After five days, with wife Michelle, Adrian and mother Anne constantly by his bedside, he came round in intensive care.

He recalled: "When I was in it, I could notice shadows around me. I was trying to come out of it and I knew there were presences around me. But I didn't know they were doctors and nurses!

"I had an awful lot of weird dreams when I was coming out of the coma, when I was back home. A lot of sweating."

It was a traumatic beginning to married life, himself and Michelle having only wed two weeks before. They decided to split their honeymoon by spending 10 days in Malta and returning home to play in the Championship, before continuing on to Rome.

"I had to come back for the football of course, because I was saying this would be my last year of playing," he said with a degree of irony.

Once he became aware of his surroundings after waking from his coma, he was bemused with the amount of people who reached out.

Armagh supporters, Donegal and Kerry fans all wrote letters to him. Tomás Ó Sé paid his own tribute and the Dublin team sent a telegram.

Relics arrived in their bundles. One nurse joked with him that she hadn't done all her training in nursing college just to act as a postwoman for the likes of him. Every morning she would deposit a box of mail by his bedside.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't expect anyone!" he said in that unassuming way of his.

It seems a lifetime since he was the impudent teenager who roasted one of the finest-ever defenders in Seamus Moynihan as Armagh won their only All-Ireland in 2002.

In the meantime, his career has been one of utter injury frustration. Back in 2013, Clarke sat down with this newspaper for an interview and detailed his battle to return from the latest setback when he snapped his Achilles tendon.

The Plaster of Paris stretched to his hip and when doctors removed it, they discovered clotting. He went on a course of Warfarin tablets to thin the blood and had to receive daily stomach injections.

Asked why he put himself through all of this, he replied: "Because Armagh is part of your life for so long. You might think, 'Jeez, I'm going to training here again', but it could be your last training."

Last winter, he was, "never as glad to do a pre-season in my life".

"Last year I was only getting 10 or 15 minutes here and there. This year I was getting gametime. I was playing full games," he continued.

"I was comfortable, kicking a couple of points a game. I was enjoying my football and getting back on my feet. I thought my form was alright."

All the while, he worked on his touch, timing and striking with a tip straight from the George Best skills book. Whenever he had a spare 20 minutes, he would throw, kick and catch a tennis ball.

All that because this was meant to be his last year of playing.

Now, he is not so sure. It largely depends on the results of ongoing tests.

"I don't know. I am 80 per cent sure that I won't feature again. I have to move on," he admitted.

In the meantime, he is busy checking in the odd time with his gym. Before the accident, he was helping out with the local Junior club, Tullysaran.

When he came back into their fold, they won their first ever Championship. Elderly men on the pitch crying. It was an evening he now ranks alongside winning an All-Ireland because events have taught him the importance of perspective.

"My whole outlook is totally different now," he revealed.

"You never know. I thought I was as safe as houses on the football field. I thought nothing would happen to me out there.

"My whole outlook is different now. Things that would have got me down in the past don't get me down now. I just turn everything into a positive now and I will be alright.

"That's the way you have to look at it."

Belfast Telegraph

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