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Clerkin caught by Cup fever

By Declan Bogue

Hard, really, to explain the attraction, or even the sense, that 2015 is upon us and the McKenna Cup is in the air.

Is it the sight of slightly too long grass on an unfamiliar pitch? The appearance of a skinny student with big dreams and baggy under armour going up against established county men who have wintered well and are in no mood to be made a mug of?

Or for a player, is it a sense of the system being re-booted, charged up for another year of football? Whatever it is, the virus has infected Monaghan veteran Dick Clerkin for the 16th season.

Just prior to the National League last year, we produced a feature on the last men standing in Ulster who had played football from the '90s.

They numbered three, but in the last few months both Fermanagh's double All-Star Barry Owens, and three-time All-Ireland champion Stephen O'Neill, have slid away from the inter-county scene.

That only leaves Clerkin. No All-Stars. No All-Irelands. Just one Ulster title, won at a time when he thought his best football was behind him, until the 33-year-old Chemical Engineer restored his reputation with a string of strong Championship performances last summer that put him firmly in the All-Stars debate.

Benny Coulter won't be back. Nor will Conor Gormley. But Clerkin keeps on trucking. And it's not as if his plate isn't full, with wife Alison expecting their second child any day now and a house being renovated in Monaghan for the extended clan.

But things are different in Monaghan now, he explains.

"There are now different reasons for going back than were applicable a few years back," the Currin clubman begins.

"A few years back we were going back to rectify a situation we found ourselves in, how we had slid.

"Now, it's all about winning. You are going back to win an Ulster Championship and beyond that. From a personal point of view and a team point of view, we have to find out what can be achieved. I still think there is more. There's still a lot I think I can achieve."

He might be the last man standing in Ulster, but there are others hanging around the rest of the country. Longford's Paul Barden made his Championship debut three decades ago and has indicated his willingness to play on. Likewise Ian Galvin in Limerick.

The three men, with their physiques, their appetite for hard work in the most treacherous conditions and their loyalty, call to mind comparisons with Boxer the cart-horse in Animal Farm.

It may be a coincidence that the trio have toiled almost thanklessly for all this time. But we doubt it. Their fulfilment has come from the way they look at their involvement in the GAA.

Clerkin admits that a tiny corner of his ego may wish to outlast the others, but adds: "I'm never going to have the medals and accolades that some players have. It's not the worst thing and it might be a nice tag to have. It might also say something for how I have approached my inter-county career.

"You are in it for as long as you enjoy it - whether that is two years, or 16 years, you take the good with the bad. Having that approach has got me to this stage."

Usually, you can't move in winter for columnists climbing up all over the hoary cliché that 'it is a young man's game now.' Just because a number of players retire in any given year doesn't automatically make inter-county level a game for students.

Perhaps the retirement season has become a mini-GAA season for us all anyway. The propensity for players to now release statements on the retirements is also a new development. It used to be that the end of a players' involvement would come when he might not be called up. Tony Scullion, for example, said he never retired - they just stopped calling him.

Clerkin doesn't see himself as a poster boy for veterans, but can see that he sets an example all the same.

"I think that might be a good message for people coming in to play inter-county football. You can have a long and enjoyable county career and it doesn't always have to be reliant on success," he explains.

"If that was to be said about you at the end of your career, it wouldn't be the worst thing, now, would it?"

He also has the strength of character to be able to speak his mind about his body to those managing the Monaghan team. They have the maturity and composure to trust him.

"You can't expect a trainer who has responsibility for 30-40 guys' conditioning, to know what way you are," he says.

"Every player who gets to that stage should be treated with that level of maturity.

"Some older players use the level of commitment as an excuse. That should not be the case. Look at the amount of rugby players, regardless of being professional, who put their bodies through infinitely more than we do. And they are playing to 34, 35."

He adds: "Your body may only be able to give so much at that age. The experience that you have means you are able to provide something at that level. Good managers should be able to recognise that."

Monaghan are the first county out of the blocks today in the McKenna Cup, when they welcome University of Ulster to the rather nostalgic venue of Castleblayney.

Clerkin will be there, give or take developments with Ali and the baby. Malachy O'Rourke will accept that and be glad of it. And so will the people of Monaghan.

Belfast Telegraph

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