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Cavan's Killian Clarke works hard to make it easy

Killian Clarke battling with Kerry's Johnny Buckley
Killian Clarke battling with Kerry's Johnny Buckley
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

You will have seen Killian Clarke in action. For a time during last summer's Championship, he favoured a bright red pair of Nike boots that would catch anyone's eye.

His athletic displays for Cavan, moving from full-back to midfield to follow roving attackers were mesmerising in their energy. As he left the Brewster Park pitch after the first-round victory over Fermanagh, some bystanders were heard to remark how he hadn't a bead on sweat on his brow, despite haring round a pitch on one of the most humid days of the year.

That athleticism doesn't come by chance. The Jordanstown student has a background in cross-country running with Shercock Athletics Club. "I was in the Forrest Gump club with the long hair and all that," he laughs. "It was run 'til you drop!"

But running for Shercock and playing football for Shercock ended up contradicting itself. Long-distance stuff does nothing for the fast-twitch muscle fibres.

That scenario came to a head when Clarke attended Cavan minor trials at the age of 16. He was put in corner-back for the trial match and didn't make the cut. When he sought feedback for the reasons, he was told he was too slow.

He took action. "So I went back to the athletics training and trained with one of the boys in the club, Craig Lynch, who is an All-Ireland sprinter. He is a few years older than me."

That sprint training ensured he made the cut the following year. By 19, he was playing senior Ulster Championship football against Donegal and this is his third year with the Cavan Under-21 team, seeking to make an All-Ireland final when they meet Dublin in Portlaoise today.

Clarke could have been doing other things with his gifts. He could still be cross-country running with that super-charged engine of his, or he might even be playing soccer in the League of Ireland, having enjoyed a couple of seasons underage with St Pat's Athletic in Dublin.

But coming from the house he did, Cavan was the highest sporting aspiration there was. His father Sean is chairman of Shercock club and can't get enough of football. When he was manager of the club several years back, Killian and older brother Lee would occupy themselves fetching balls and playing out their own games on the pitch.

Every week, Sean is the first man to tell Killian when he has training or matches.

And his father, Sean senior, was another loyal follower of the Breffni Blues. He passed away last September, but as Killian recalls: "He would have been first man at the county matches."

He was still about to see the early stages of the Cavan renaissance, with his grandson at the very heart of matters. They all went along to watch Cavan land the first of their four Ulster Under-21 titles in 2011 against Tyrone.

Back then it was a novelty. Beating Tyrone in an Ulster final!

Now, it is expected. Tyrone showed up to Breffni Park this year with a team that had won the Shamrock Cup during their preparations. Cavan had bowed out of the Hastings Cup at semi-final stage to Roscommon, but were secure enough in themselves.

They beat Tyrone by eight points in what felt like a routine win. Just like it had in their seven-point win over Derry a week before, and the semi-final triumph over neighbours Monaghan.

The final against Donegal was different and they required a late goal to come from behind to win.

"In the first half we hit a lot of wides, weren't firing on all cylinders, first touch wasn't great," says Clarke.

"Stuff that would usually go right, wasn't going right. We just needed someone to step up and show a bit of leadership and Liam Buchanan did, he got the goal when we needed it."

In club football, Clarke occasionally lines out at full-forward, yet while Cavan were struggling to chalk up points there was no temptation to stray forward himself.

"I trust the boys up front. I am a defensive player and I wouldn't be detailed to go forward too much, I had my hands full with Paddy McBrearty so I just tried to play defence and keep an eye on him."

That refusal to panic has them in this scenario again, a year on from bowing out to Cork after a moment of madness at the death cost them a free-kick and coughed the game up to the Rebels.

Dublin football seems to be a juggernaut at present with the power-packed performances of the senior team, along with their coffers awash with cash from lucrative sponsorship deals. Yet when it comes down to a game of football, Clarke believes none of that is a real advantage to them.

"Dublin maybe have a couple of hundred players looking to get on this Under-21 team and the boys probably wouldn't know each other as well as we would," he begins.

"When it comes down to it, it's 15 on 15. We have the work done and it doesn't come down to resources. It doesn't matter who is backing me, it only matters what coaching you are getting.

"I think the coaching in Cavan is top-quality at the minute, so we are getting there."

Winning an Ulster title in 2011 was a joy in Cavan. It was only their third at the level, but success breed success and he knows that this group stand as good a chance as any of transferring it into an All-Ireland title.

"The expectation is there, we know ourselves we are good enough, we just need to put the performance together on the day.

"We were disappointed last year, we would have set our sights on something similar to what the 21s had when they were in an All-Ireland final against Galway and didn't perform as well as they could.

"We want to get back to Croke Park, that's where you want to be."

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