| 13.5°C Belfast

Clarke is a natural Breffni boys leader



Streaks ahead: Killian Clarke leads out the Cavan team earlier in the season

Streaks ahead: Killian Clarke leads out the Cavan team earlier in the season

©INPHO/James Crombie

Mattie McGleenan

Mattie McGleenan

©INPHO/James Crombie

Streaks ahead: Killian Clarke leads out the Cavan team earlier in the season

It has been three years since Armagh last won a game in Ulster, when they beat Cavan in The Athletic Grounds, and three years since Down won a Championship game, beating Leitrim in 2014.

IT was sitting in his car on the M3, snaking along between the traffic lights on his way from Dublin to Cavan, when Killian Clarke's half-daydream was disturbed by the phone ringing. His Cavan manager Mattie McGleenan flashed up on the screen.

Almost as soon as the conversation began, he asked straight out; 'Do you want to be the captain of Cavan?'

"I was trying to be cool saying 'Thanks Mattie...' and just the usual stuff and hung up the phone," the 23-year-old recalls.

"I let this big roar out of me in the middle of the traffic and everyone was looking around wondering 'who is this lunatic here?' with the headphones on him.

"I said 'Right, the first man I had to ring was my father,' who is a big football man. And when I told him, he nearly started crying down the phone."

Sean Clarke is one of those die-hard Cavan men who could close their eyes and dream they were in The Polo Grounds, 1947.

As well as playing for Shercock and handing down the love of the club to his sons, he coached them all at underage. He has put his stint in as club Chairman. His own father, Sean senior, was the type of Cavan fan that had to be early into any ground. So early, they would frequently be knocking the gates looking in to watch the day unfold in front of them.

So with all that in the background, little wonder he got emotional at the thought that his son - his big, lean, strapping son as he is - would be leading Cavan's senior football team out as captain.

"I never heard my father cry before so that just shows the magnitude of what it means to him as well as what it meant to me," Killian states.

"I know we have some excellent footballers on the team at the moment, men with serious heart, and it is a great honour to be leading those boys out. It was a very proud day for me, probably one of the proudest days of my career."

In college games for Jordanstown, club, county, challenge games or whatever, Sean Clarke has been there to see his son. As he said back when he was the under-21 captain prior to a game against Dublin; "He is always stuck in a ditch somewhere with his binoculars out.. he is that sort of boy."

It was always likely that Clarke was going to make it in some discipline.

At underage, he played soccer for St Pat's Athletic, having impressed with local side Manor Farm in Shercock. Note, Cavan has virtually no soccer league to speak of whatsoever.

But to play for Cavan minors was the ultimate at that age. He attended a trial one year at 16 and didn't quite make it.

After the team was read out, he sought the manager out for some feedback. Playing at corner-back in the trial, he was told he wasn't sharp enough off the mark. So he went and joined an athletics club and found that he had a talent for long-distance running.

"So I went back to the athletics training and done sprinting, trained with one of the boys in the club who is an All-Ireland sprinter. He is a few years older than me - Craig Lynch - and let me train with him," he recalls.

"I was in the Forrest Gump club with the long hair!"

It was football he settled on - not really much of a choice in a household like his - and Cavan were glad to have him.

The Breffni Blues had an odd league. Much to be pleased about but still relegated. They enjoyed the bonanza day of the opening round and the thrill of the Dubs coming to town. They won in Castlebar against Mayo and drew at home to Kerry a week after.

Just when they appeared to have the hard work done, they fell to Roscommon.

Cavan's task was always going to be difficult with a new manager in Mattie McGleenan, and a number of frankly baffling defections from the panel over the winter. Here they were, back in the big time after striving so hard to get there, with a highly-rated manager, and suddenly the likes of David Givney and Eugene Keating were not pushed on playing for their county.

All the same, they did the best they could.

It gave them the taste for more in the future.

"Definitely. We are not looking at that ahead of this game but when next year starts that will be the objective to get back up because it can only improve you. If you are going to be winning Ulster Championships, you can see the likes of Tyrone, Monaghan, Donegal are all in Division One and the more you are playing against quality opposition, the more you improve."

When they met Sunday's opponents Monaghan, they dug in for an absolute dog of a derby game and denied them scores for the first and last twenty minutes of the game. They got out of Castleblayney with a point on the gruesome scoreline of 0-7 each on a freezing day.

A midfielder in the main, Clarke has been named at full-back for the visit of Monaghan, where he will be detailed with tracking Conor McManus.

It was Peter Reilly with the under-21s who first identified his strengths as a full-back. That won't bother him.

Nor will the perception that Monaghan belong alongside Donegal and Tyrone as Ulster's 'Big Three'.

"We are getting what we deserve. We are after being relegated from Division One; Monaghan are after finishing third in Division One and they could easily have made the final," he states bluntly.

"In the last few years we probably have not stepped up on the big day when we needed to grit the teeth and get the win. We are getting what we deserve, you are not given anything in Gaelic football, you have to earn it."

At home in front of a rabid crowd, Cavan, and Clarke, feel they are ready to go out there and grab what they can with their bare hands.

This might get ugly.

Belfast Telegraph