All Ireland Football Championship: Martin Clarke the man who has Down motoring
For the past few weeks Martin Clarke has made a habit of picking up a variety of prestigious awards.
But he would gladly swap all of those for an All-Ireland medal as his focus turns to an All Ireland final showdown with favourites in Croke Park on Sunday afternoon.
The An Riocht clubman, it seems, was always destined to be a special talent and he displayed his considerable talents with St. Louis, Kilkeel in a memorable MacRory Cup decider in Casement Park four seasons ago.
He marked his arrival on the scene with an assured maturity and a confidence that belied his tender years and it wasn’t long before the top Aussie Rules teams would show an interest and in no time at all he was on his way Down Under.
He took to the oval ball game like a fish to water and appeared destined for a long spell with Collingwood, but eventually homesickness prompted him to turn his back on a lucrative career and return home.
We weren’t to know it then, but we were witnessing one small step in Down’s recovery from football’s backwater and yet his return wasn’t as smooth as was anticipated.
Against Armagh in the Allianz League Division Two decider in Croke Park in April he didn’t set the set the world alight and it was a similar case against Donegal in the Ulster championship in Ballybofey.
Clarke did, however, fare a little better in Down’s Ulster semi final eclipse by Tyrone at Casement Park.
A summer that had promised so much was fast disappearing out of sight, but then came salvation in the form of the much maligned qualifiers when both Clarke and his Down colleagues suddenly discovered an escape route away from the Ulster championship.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light, Down almost crashing out to Offaly in Tullamore as their defence fell apart.
The fact they survived was something of a minor miracle, but in some respects that game was a defining moment.
James McCartan’s men had rode their luck and survived.
Now with much greater self belief, their confidence boosted, they were a changed side, both physically and mentally.
Martin Clarke in particular was a changed man, scarcely recognisable from the player who had struggled earlier in the campaign.
His influence on the side was immense and suddenly he rolled back the years showing off all the skills and attributes that first helped him make a name for himself as a colleges star.
The bigger the occasion the more influential he becomes, so much so that he has developed into the most gifted playmaker in the modern game, winning and demanding the ball before creating and taking crucial scores.
Cathal Murray, Clarke’s football coach at St. Louis realised from an early stage that Clarke was something special.
“He always stood out from the rest and for one so young he had all the skills and the confidence to match,” he said.
“But that didn’t stop him from working at his game, always keen to improve.
“From a Down perspective we were all a wee bit disappointed when he chose to go to Aussie Rules, but he’s back and his return has made such a difference.
“The one great thing about this Down side is that it’s improving all the time and that it’s playing the game with such great confidence and self belief.”
The contrast with their opponents Cork couldn’t be greater for Conor Counihan’s side is facing a team who couldn’t care less if Cork never won an All-Ireland.
Down have little time for the Rebels’ hard luck stories.
The Mourne men are exceptional in that they seem to improve considerably the closer they get to an All-Ireland final.
Now they are in a final they will handle the media hype and enjoy it without ever losing the run of themselves.
What other county could have lost an inspirational captain as Ambrose Rogers and yet replaced him with Peter Fitzpatrick who was close to being named man of the match in the semi final, while.
Kalum King one of many heroes against Kerry has slotted into midfield as if he’s never been away.