Belfast Telegraph

Footballers' Lives: 'It's very sad my mum never got to meet the boys but I know she's still with me and if I score, I'll look up and know she's there'

Footballers' Lives with Richard Clarke

Big stage: Ballinamallard United captain Richard Clarke at Windsor Park ahead of the Irish Cup final
Big stage: Ballinamallard United captain Richard Clarke at Windsor Park ahead of the Irish Cup final
Sadly missed: Richard Clarke’s late mum Margaret
Cup duel: Crues captain Colin Coates and Mallards skipper Richard Clarke
All in: Richard Clarke with wife Claire, sons Noah and Seth
Richard Clarke
Baby Theo
Lead man: Richard Clarke in Mallards action

By Graham Luney

Ballinamallard's Richard Clarke on his mother's death, having no regrets at shunning full-time game, and why Irish Cup joy with underdogs would be new high

Q: How did your career start?

A: I began in the youth ranks at Dergview. It wasn't really until I moved to Omagh Town that I found a place in midfield. I was often put on the wing but I never had that blistering pace. Roy McCreadie played me in midfield and he was amazing to play for. He had an ability to make you feel like you were the best player on the pitch. We had players like Andy Crawford, Ivan Sproule, Marty McCann, James Quigley and Barry Patton - we were probably punching above our weight in terms of the finances available. Roy would be one of the best managers I have played for and he gave me a chance in senior football. I'll always respect him for that and it's a shame he went out of the game so soon. He's so knowledgeable about football and could still be managing in the Irish League. He's wished me well for the Cup final.

Q: Your career really gathered pace at Newry City. Good memories?

A: Newry were similar to Omagh in the sense of limited finances. It's really nice to see them back on their feet again. They've won their leagues and I think a few board members told me they felt they were years ahead of maybe where they should be. The club is possibly over-achieving and it doesn't have a huge pool of players to select from. I had a lovely time there and it was a platform for me. I went to Bury on a trial and scored in a friendly. I played with Dale Stephens, who went on to be Brighton captain, and you could tell he was special. I travelled home with Chris Casper in the car and he said only one-year contracts were on offer. I was finishing my degree at Jordanstown and I felt it was better suited to stay at home and in the Irish League. I placed a strong emphasis on my education and I've no regrets as I'm a teacher now. It was a massive gamble I wasn't willing to take.

Q: Do you ever think of what might have been had you taken a different path?

A: Full-time football would have been amazing but timing is everything in life and you never know what would have happened. You look at players like Gavin Whyte and Mark Sykes going across and you feel it has to be the right time. I didn't see my situation as a lack of ambition, I was simply being practical about things and at that stage I had put so much work into my degree and I wanted to finish it.

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Richard Clarke

Q: You must look back now on your Irish League career as a whole with huge pride.

A: Definitely. I've great memories. You want to win as much as you can including a league championship. I moved to Glentoran for that reason. They had just won the league under Alan McDonald and it was a strong squad. I wanted the Glens to be successful for years and a few Linfield guys like Winkie (William Murphy), Noel (Bailie) and Spike (Glenn Ferguson) were heading towards retirement or moving on.

Q: How saddened were you when Alan passed away in June 2012?

A: I worked with Alan with the Northern Ireland Under-21 side as well as at the Glens and he was a lovely football man. I also worked with his brother, Roy, at Crusaders and they are just such lovely people. Alan brought me to Glentoran and I will always appreciate that. Life can be very cruel indeed sometimes.

Q: Was there a big decision to move to either Linfield or Glentoran back then?

A: Yes. I spoke to David (Jeffrey) at length and when I look back I have no regrets, but there's a part of me which thinks it would have been nice to play for David in my career. I played for him in a Northern Ireland Under-23s team and he's been a brilliant manager, he has similar qualities to Roy (McCreadie) in that he makes you feel 10ft tall and ready to burst the door down to go out and play. There was a lot of potential at Glentoran but Linfield rebuilt and then won a lot of doubles. You think to yourself, 'Have I made the right decision?' but I don't regret going to Glentoran as I won a League Cup and Irish Cup. It gave me an appetite to win more and I made great friends with guys such as Paul Leeman, who I can always turn to for advice. The Irish Cup final win over Cliftonville in 2013 was a great day, despite my sending off, and I'll never forget the North Stand packed with Glenmen. Not many clubs have that amazing support and they spurred us on. The club had financial difficulties but it galvanised the squad. It was a special day, one I'll never forget.

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Lead man: Richard Clarke in Mallards action

Q: What are the other highlights of your career?

A: The Irish Cup final was special as a big day, one-off occasion. Probably the best feeling I've had in football was with Crusaders when we beat Cliftonville at Solitude to effectively win the league. We had a difficult start that season but pushed on from November and just became invincible. I can remember the final whistle going and hugging Craig McClean with sheer relief and joy because we hadn't won the league before. When you get over the line in a title race after experiencing so many bad days it's a special feeling. Stephen (Baxter) nearly took his hand off when he grabbed the fence as well!

Q: What has been your lowest moment on the pitch?

A: Probably losing the CIS Cup final when I was Newry captain against Portadown. It was hard to take because Newry craved success. The decision I had to make to leave Crusaders was another hard day. I knew I needed to play more and Stephen (Baxter) understood my circumstances. I've always had a great relationship with him and I left the club with a heavy heart. To be honest, my heart still lies there. I had fond memories and myself and my family were treated so well there. The supporters are amazing. Relegation with Ballinamallard was tough too. It was gut-wrenching. There's plenty of bad times in football so you've got to appreciate the good times. Football can fill you with joy but also bring you to your knees.

Q: After relegation, did you consider walking away from football?

A: No, I felt at the time I could step up and still play in the top flight. I had a few offers from different clubs and I spoke with Harry McConkey. I felt I had nothing more to prove in the Championship but I also felt the club could use my experience to rebuild and help the youngsters coming through. Harry has infectious enthusiasm and there's a long-term plan there now for progress.

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Cup duel: Crues captain Colin Coates and Mallards skipper Richard Clarke

Q: How big an achievement would it be for Ballinamallard to win the Irish Cup?

A: Ballinamallard v Crusaders in an Irish Cup final? It's still sinking in to be honest. I think it will sink in when we have the suits on travelling to Windsor. It's a day I thought wouldn't come again, especially after our poor start to the season. Our only goal was to stay in the Championship. All this is surreal but it's also down to hard work and people believing in each other.

Q: Can you win it?

A: We are massive underdogs against a club that is full-time now. We will believe we can do it because it's been done before and in football you must believe that anything is possible. We have prepared well and we like being underdogs. Go there with a defeatist attitude and it could be a long day for us. We have a great manager and backroom staff who will be looking at ways we can hurt them. We need to stay in the game for as long as possible and I can't get sent off in another Irish Cup final! It will be special to play against top players and good friends. Given how much of a minnow we are, it would be the greatest achievement of my career if we win it. Ballinamallard is a small club, embraced by the community and work so hard for everything. For me to be captain and lift that trophy, it would be the pinnacle of my career.

Q: You know the Crusaders players very well. Who are their dangermen?

A: David Cushley was in and out of the team like myself for a while but he has really impressed. I don't think you can look past Paul Heatley. So many times I have seen him produce a real 'worldie' when we were struggling. Paul is a spontaneous player and we need to keep an eye on him and Jordan Owens. Jordan allows the other players to do damage. Jordan Forsythe is a complete midfielder who has worked hard to play at a high level. Deccy (Declan Caddell) knows his strengths and he and I complemented each other well.

Q: Will your family be your biggest fans on the day?

A: Claire has just given birth to Theo so that fan club has grown. The baby has arrived in good time for the final! The two boys Noah (6) and Seth (4) will be walking out with me on the day. Noah was nine-months-old and in my arms for the Glentoran Irish Cup final. The boys were with me when we won the league at Crusaders too. Family is key to everything, they make the sacrifices to allow me to play the game. My dad Billy and brother Stephen, who is 10 years older, will be there at the final.

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Sadly missed: Richard Clarke’s late mum Margaret

Q: You lost your mum, Margaret, when you were 18. How difficult was that time?

A: That was a tough time. I'm very similar to mum with regard to my character and we were very close. I've never really spoken about her a lot and over the last few rounds of the Cup, the games against Dungannon and Warrenpoint, I just had that sense that she was with me. I was so emotional after both games and my mum's passing was something I dealt with privately. She was in a diabetic coma when she died, aged 53. It was very unexpected but a good network of friends within and outside football helped me get through it. Football gave me something else to focus on and Roy (McCreadie) was very supportive. Players came to the wake and I've always had the feeling that my mum is with me. Mum is missed but I was grateful to have good people around me. The great thing about football is it gives you lifelong friendships and sometimes you need those friends. People unite, regardless of their background, and when one person is hurting it affects everyone. My mum was very kind and caring and didn't have the opportunity to see the two boys and now Theo, and that's very sad because she would have loved them. She had a great affection for people and a big heart. You were never too big to get a hug from her. She lived for myself and my brother. My mum's spirit is always with me and when I celebrate goals I'll always look up and treasure the fact she's looking down on me. I take my own boys to Killen Rangers and Ballinamallard. I love to see them enjoying themselves and learning the game without any pressure.

Q: Do you have any coaching plans?

A: I had plans to do my B Licence but they were on hold with the baby on the way. Next year that could happen. I want to give something back to the game. I feel as fit now as I have been in a long time. The training is top notch and that level of professionalism drives me on. I want to enjoy what is left of my career because it can leave you so quickly. I'll know when it's time to maybe drop down and play for Killen Rangers. A coaching opportunity might come along as well but I want to play as long as I can.

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All in: Richard Clarke with wife Claire, sons Noah and Seth

Q: How supportive has Claire been?

A: It's very difficult for her because I've been away a lot training and playing and we have limited holiday time. She's looking after the boys and although this is a part-time game, players and their families make huge sacrifices. It's a full-time commitment and it brings pressure too. We live in Castlederg and I'm a PE teacher at Omagh High School. My family have been fantastic and I always want to make them proud. They love to hear the stories and see the medals. There's more to come!

Snapshot

Date of birth: November 28, 1985

Place of birth: Belfast

Previous clubs: Omagh Town, Newry City, Glentoran, Crusaders

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