From Saintfield United to the Champions League, it’s been a remarkable year in the life of young Andrew Clarke.
The talented teenager left Crusaders to experience Linfield’s full-time environment and he’s also put his education on hold to see how his career develops at the Blues.
After agreeing a two-year contract with the champions, he’s jetted off with the squad to Lithuania to take on Zalgiris Vilnius in the first qualifying round of the Champions League tomorrow night.
His own career is taking off at a blistering speed and Blues boss David Healy moved swiftly to recruit him after impressive performances for the Crues.
The 18-year-old joined the Crusaders reserves side, but last season was his breakthrough one as one friendly and four competitive appearances — including one against Linfield at Windsor Park — offered glimpses of his potential.
He could have extended his stay at Seaview, but the opportunity to experience a full-time culture at Linfield was too good to resist. A medicine degree at Queen’s University has also been parked while he pursues his football education.
“The main reason why I joined Linfield was the full-time aspect of it,” said Clarke who lives just outside Saintfield.
“I was only going to be in a few days a week at Crusaders, but Linfield were offering full-time professional football.
“I was making the decision between going to university and stopping playing to focus on my education or going into full-time football. If I wasn’t going to university the full-time game suits me and Linfield suited my needs better.
“My studies are on hold, I have a deferred offer for medicine at Queens and I will focus on football this year and see how it goes.
“It was a tough decision between football and medicine, but hopefully I’ve made the right choice.
“I signed for the reserve team at Crusaders and was called into the first team around January.
“The Crues offered me a contract and it wasn’t a case of me not wanting to be there, it was my desire to train five days a week and go full-time that influenced my decision to go to the Blues.”
And what a start to Clarke’s Linfield journey, straight into a Champions League adventure. It’s the stuff of teenage dreams.
“It’s a bit of a step up from a year ago when I was back at Saintfield,” he adds.
“I was at Saintfield United and moved to Ridgeway Rovers when I was about 10.
“I never really followed Irish League football closely, but I enjoyed working with Jamie Mulgrew at Ridgeway.
“Matthew Tipton was there too and they were great coaches to have when you are learning the game. I moved back to Saintfield when I was about 15. Last August I moved to Crusaders and progressed into the first team.
“I can play in central midfield or up front. I would consider one of my main positions to be attacking midfielder.
“I enjoyed being part of the Crusaders first-team squad, now Linfield’s. That’s a lot of good players you can learn from.
“I want to be the best player I can be. If it’s good enough to make the Linfield first team then I’d be delighted.
“The Champions League game will be a great experience, I’m looking forward to it.”