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How the Monaghan master Clerkin keeps himself finely tuned

By Declan Bogue

One evening a couple of weeks ago, the wider Clerkin family were visiting their brother and son, Dick, his wife Alison and their son Cailean, who have recently returned back to Monaghan town.

The guests brought buns. Dick reached for a bun to accompany his tea. His brother Ben gave him the eyes. Things ain't what they used to be around chez Clerkin.

He's 32 now. Fifteen seasons ago he made his debut for Monaghan in a dour league match against Cavan. The following morning he was back at his school desk. From that moment to then he lived the typical life of a county footballer through the period of change of the 00's decade.

He lifted big weights. He lifted light weights. He ran timed distances. Stayed off the chips and buns and where did it all get him? Nowhere but his own private hell.

Back in 2011, Eamonn McEneaney made him captain, informing him before a training session. "I'll try not to let you down," replied Dick.

That Championship, he was sent off against Tyrone and taken off in their disastrous round one qualifier defeat to Offaly. Pressure didn't suit him but it took years to develop the confidence to go his own way. And now he is enjoying his best and most successful period in a Monaghan jersey, capped by his awesome performances so far in this year's Ulster Championship.

His approach now flies in the face of the modern sports science and not, you expect, an approach championed by Sunday's final opponents, Donegal.

"If I want a bun, I'll have a bun," jokes a relaxed looking Clerkin.

"That won't be the difference in us winning. I would always look after my diet but life is too short to be cutting the bit of fat off the steak."

Yeah, but what about all the mandatory hot yoga, or the extra-curricular sprint sessions? He answers: "The last few years I would have been doing something every night and sometimes you look back and wonder did you enjoy it?

"I have probably trained less this year than any other and I have been fresh and just enjoyed it."

Perhaps, he admits, there was a little element of some self-imposed pressure lifting after they landed Ulster last year.

"A lot of it would have been a case of flogging myself the Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights where we weren't training and at this stage I wasn't willing to give that. If that meant that I wasn't in the position to nail down a starting position then that was a personal decision."

So if he had a weights session to do, he would come in early to training and do it then. He learned how to leave the bag in the corner on his nights off.

It flies in the face of the 'more is more' GAA training culture, but also reminds us that the mind is a muscle too, often neglected in this era of periodised loading programmes.

"There is still a huge amount of learning has to be done in terms of preparation and how players are managed," states the Currin clubman.

"I'm 15 years at it now. Weights and all that? You are talking about the one or two per cent gain versus the 98% that can come from managing yourself right, balancing a demanding career and a demanding family life."

If this works for him, he is keen to point out, it is perhaps because he has built up a residual fitness over the last 15 seasons. A teenager fresh onto the panel would have a lot of work to do first to say, take the monster hits that Clerkin has dished out to the likes of Aaron Findon and Ciaran McKeever, or absorbed from Sean and Colm Cavanagh this season.

It's been a bruising summer for him, especially as he said after the Tyrone game that he thought his days of full participation were behind him at this stage.

"I probably hadn't prepared myself to be recovering from 70 minutes of Ulster Championship, certainly not three weeks out of four, so I am quite happy to put up with the aches and pains.

"The way games have gone now you sometimes get opportunities for collisions like that. Other times it is just relentless running at pace. I'm quite happy if it is just the hits, because a lot of hard running can be sometimes harder to get over as you get older."

He knows that Donegal will bring a nice blend of running and hitting, but if you were hunting out a pre-match cliché, Clerkin was never your man to talk up opponents.

"Both teams, and especially Donegal, are long enough around the block now and they are in the business of winning All-Irelands," he begins.

"Another Ulster title, yeah, I'm sure it would be great but Jim McGuinness I have no doubt has his sights on bigger things. Revenge on Monaghan, that is probably a little bit under their radar. With top-level teams it is about performance rather than having to rely on stuff like that."

And on their own sideline, he knows that Monaghan are blessed with Malachy O'Rourke.

"He is very astute and the whole team backs him 100% in what he does. Nobody is too big to be dropped. Nobody is too small to come in and make a difference. That is probably what has added so much to this squad the last two years, that trust between management and players and it brings the best out of everyone."

On Saturday, Dick, Alison and Cailean will stick to a familiar routine. They will go along to the Slieve Russell Hotel for a walk and a cup of tea and a snack. It saves him from football small talk.

"Sometimes it's just best to take yourself away from it all and just enjoy that day with your family. You might not see much of them the next day, if at all."

Sunday could be that kind of day.

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