In this week's installment of our popular series, Crusaders winger Ross Clarke discusses learning his trade at Windsor Park, netting in the Irish Cup final and why he always has a point to prove
Q. What are your earliest football memories?
A. When I was eight or nine I started at Portaferry Town Boys as I'm originally from Kircubbin. I also played hurling for Ballygalget from a young age but I wanted to play football. I can remember when with Portaferry I played a friendly and was on the bench when I had to come on but I had no shorts so I came on wearing jeans and set up the winner. I was there for a year and a half before Glentoran invited me to join them but when I was 11 I joined Linfield and from there I progressed. Colin Ireland had asked me to join the Blues and I can recall playing for the youth team and reserves on the same day. I learned a lot from the coaches.
Q. You would have expected a good football education at the Linfield Academy, how did you find it?
A. It was good but difficult because new kids were coming in all the time after trials. Competition was the norm every year and a few lads went on to play across the water. I played with Michael McLellan, Carl Winchester and Jordan Watson. My twin brother Aaron was also at Linfield too but he quit football to pursue other commitments. I wanted to go on and be the best player I could be.
Q. Was there ever an opportunity for you to play at a higher level?
A. I think that's every young boy's dream and when I was with the Under-16s I had a trial at Colchester but I was very small and the physical element wasn't there. I hadn't developed enough physically at that age.
Q. Was that a disheartening experience?
A. I think it helped me focus on my game more and work on the things I could improve. I concentrated on the technical side of the game, knowing I could work on my strength in the years ahead and catch up eventually.
Q. What are your memories of progressing at Linfield?
A. I was introduced into training aged 16 or 17 when Noel Bailie, Michael Gault and William Murphy were there. Those guys taught me the importance of having a physical presence in what is a demanding league. They took training seriously and set a great example. Demands were high and it was all about winning. That's the mentality, regardless of what the game is.
Q. Do you need to be mentally tough to thrive in the Windsor Park environment?
A. I think the day you don't feel the pressure on yourself to perform and the desire to win then that's the day you're in trouble. Pressure brings out the best in players, it's important not to take your foot off the gas. You want to be the best and there's no room for error.
Q. Did the Linfield lads help you a lot?
A. So many players have helped me and I'm still learning from players like Paul Heatley, who plays in a similar position and his consistency over the years has been incredible. Paul is one player who could have played at a higher level. At Linfield, Michael Gault was very influential and gave me confidence by reminding me I had earned my place in the team and he wanted to push me on. Peter Thompson was a massive help and it's important to listen to players who have considerable experience. Roy Carroll was another one who was a great example and encouraged me. Ivan Sproule came to Linfield at a good time to help me and then Warren Feeney and Andy Todd arrived. I've been fortunate to be surrounded by great players and coaches.
Q. Did you get a league winner's medal at Linfield?
A. In my last season I played nine games and I think you need 10 to get a medal. It was bittersweet winning the league because I didn't feature enough and injuries held me back at the Blues. It was one step forward and two back for a while. It was frustrating but you have to learn from these setbacks.
Q. Didn't you score a winner in a Boxing Day derby?
A. It was my first senior goal and was in front of the Kop Stand. I had come on as a substitute in David Jeffrey's time there. Mark McAllister scored the first and then I got the second after a bit of a goalmouth scramble. It wasn't the best goal I've scored but there was an electric atmosphere and it's a memory to cherish.
Q. You've had a horrible time with injuries. How tough has that been for you?
A. In pre-season at Linfield I picked up a stress fracture in my foot and I was hopeful of coming back in eight weeks but it turned into a full season. It was difficult because I was really hungry to play. The season before I had played under Warren Feeney and was looking to establish myself. I had hamstring injuries as well and after going on loan to Ards I played four games and scored four goals before injuring my knee. It was going to be difficult to return to Linfield and play when I hadn't played enough at Ards. I've had a knee injury with the Crues too but nothing too serious, thankfully.
Q. What was the worst time for you?
A. Probably getting released by Linfield, that's not something any player wants to experience. I felt I had a point to prove and the problem was I wasn't playing. A hard time was signing an amateur contract at Linfield giving me time to prove myself and I can remember thinking I was always trying to establish myself. I did get a professional contract and that gave me hope but I didn't start a game and it was the right decision to go out on loan. I eventually spoke to Stephen (Baxter) and he gave me fresh belief and confidence. I've played a lot of games for Crusaders.
Q. Why did you decide to join Crusaders?
A. After speaking to Stephen I knew I wanted to play for him. Like David Jeffrey, he's a good motivator and Crusaders offered me an opportunity to go full-time though I have since found a job. Football is my big passion and I felt at the age of 26 this was an exciting move. The club went more full-time and it was a big change. It was always going to take a little time to bed in but we won two trophies last season and I've seen encouraging signs for the future. The staff at Crusaders, including physio Brian Strain, are great. From being offered an amateur contract to winning the Irish Cup and County Antrim Shield, plus a goal in the Irish Cup final, I feel very fortunate.
Q. You scored with your first touch in the 2019 Irish Cup final, that must be a special memory.
A. Stephen has a big squad and the players are hungry when the chance comes. The Irish Cup win and the Europa League games with Wolves were great times. I never felt I would play in front of a big crowd at Molineux. I was part of the Linfield squad that faced Celtic and it was another unforgettable experience but I won't play a better team than Wolves. They were true professionals and I can remember them doing gym work after the game at Seaview. It was inspiring to me and a wake-up call to see how professional they are. Their centre-half Willy Boly kept an eye on me and there was no getting around him. Joao Moutinho was a master at keeping the ball and controlling the game.
Q. Given your injury history, is your biggest hope to stay fit and keep enjoying the game?
A. You can take playing for granted. I've had injuries and those experiences have taught me to enjoy it while it lasts. Young people can take things for granted but this is a different era. I was guided by hard, experienced Irish League players while in today's game the younger players might struggle to grasp what it takes to make it in the Irish League. I think there's a different mindset and that's why it's important to have players like Sean Ward, Sean O'Neill and Billy Joe Burns to keep the lads on the right track. We've seen Gavin Whyte progress across the water and his team-mates have helped him along that road.
Q. Who's the best player that you have played with?
A. Paul Heatley has been a class act for Crusaders but William Murphy would be my pick. He was a brilliant defender and leader.
Q. How supportive has your family been?
A. I've been blessed with a family who have been very encouraging and they have motivated me, they always believed in me and wanted me to kick on. My dad Martin and mum Kathleen have been hugely supportive. Dad played hurling for Ballygalget and Down and we played a lot of sport. Kids' faces now are glued to their iPads and phones and it's sad to see. No one's playing in the street anymore. My brothers Aaron and Matthew and sister Aisling always want me to do well. The Irish Cup final was a great experience for all of us. My girlfriend Rachel has been with me through the tough times and she's been a rock. She gets the brunt of my bad moods after a bad result. Her and her parents support me when they can.
Q. Is having a point to prove a common theme of your career?
A. I think you always have to do that, especially at Crusaders where the manager gives you a shirt and you must show you deserve it. Boys like David Cushley and Paul McElroy are breathing down your neck to play. You've a point to prove in every game to yourself and others. Stephen Baxter and Jeff Spiers have shown faith in me and I like to prove them right rather than think about proving people wrong.
Q. What was the worst moment of your career?
A. Being released by Linfield. It was always going to be hard for me to move on but I'm enjoying my football at Crusaders and looking forward to the future. We are all missing the game because of this coronavirus but it will be back at some point. Standards keep rising and there's been an increase in attendances which is brilliant for all of the clubs. Hopefully, that can continue. Crusaders are a close-knit family club and we are fortunate to be surrounded by good people. It's up to the players to go out and do the business on the pitch. I want to win as much as I can and get more European experiences. I'm totally focused on my football and becoming a better player.
Date of birth: May 17, 1993
Place of birth: Newtownards
Crues record: 80 games, 15 goals
Previous clubs: Linfield, Ards.