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Richard Clarke: From league title joy to sudden relegation, my Portadown career had it all

 

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Former Portadown midfielder Richard Clarke with wife Karen and children Abbie (11), Jacob (three) as well as twins Seth and Emily (seven)

Former Portadown midfielder Richard Clarke with wife Karen and children Abbie (11), Jacob (three) as well as twins Seth and Emily (seven)

Former Portadown midfielder Richard Clarke with wife Karen and children Abbie (11), Jacob (three) as well as twins Seth and Emily (seven)

There aren’t many footballers that turn down the opportunity of a testimonial, but Richard Clarke was just no ordinary player.

In a rollercoaster 20-year spell with Portadown, the Castlederg man saw it all — from the highs of a league title win and four Irish Cup final appearances to the lows of relegation.

Richard, a payroll manager with the Education Authority in Omagh, reckons the latter was on a par with the disappointment of missing out on an appearance in the 1999 Irish Cup decider against Cliftonville when the game was scrubbed because the Reds fielded an ineligible player in the previous round.

However, it wasn’t only on the pitch that Richard had to display all his battling qualities because in June 2012 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Having undergone surgery and chemotherapy, he was given the all-clear 12 months later.

Even though Richard and his wife Karen already had two children, Abbey and Emily, they were advised there was a risk they wouldn’t have any more — but their fears turned to ecstasy when twin boys Seth and Jacob were born two years later.

“It was around late May when I found the lump,” recalls Richard. “I mentioned it to a few team-mates. They advised me to see a doctor. He diagnosed testicular cancer almost immediately. It was a massive shock to the family.

“Karen was pregnant with Emily, our second daughter. I went into hospital to have surgery and then had two cycles of chemotherapy, which was rough stuff.

“Thankfully, I didn’t require a third cycle. I don’t think I could have faced it. It was Dr Seamus McAleer who was my consultant oncologist — he is one of the best in the country.

“I got the all-clear a year later which was a massive relief. I’m a laid-back type of person, but you can’t afford to be laid-back with your health.

“I would always encourage anyone who is feeling unwell to seek advice.”

Having attended Strabane Grammar School — which was predominately rugby-based — Richard’s football journey began with Killen Rangers before he moved on to Dergview. In between, he had a spell with Belfast boys club Dungoyne.

“I travelled up on Friday and stayed at the home of Paul Kirk, whose son Andy and I share the same date of birth,” he laughs.

“Andy and I played for Dungoyne on Saturday morning, usually at Victoria Park, before I got the bus home or my dad Jim would drive up for me.

“It was when I was sent up for Northern Ireland Schoolboy trials I first met Bob Nesbitt. He was also assistant to Ronnie McFall at Portadown, so he asked me down to Shamrock Park.

“I played in the youth team before breaking into the reserves. Ronnie would then give me a run in the first team in some of the lesser cup competitions.

“I was about 17 at the time. It was an experience going in with boys like Garry Haylock and Robert Casey.”

Richard was officially classed as a first-team member approaching the 1998-99 season.

He adds: “One of the first games was against Cliftonville at Solitude. We were all on a high after winning 2-0. Brian Strain scored the opener and I got our second.

“We were about to leave for home when news of the Omagh bombing filtered through. Most of the boys were worried about their families.

“Certainly, the people from my home town would travel to Omagh or Strabane to do their shopping on a Saturday. It was a long journey home for us. From the feeling of elation after our victory, to the depths of despair all inside a few minutes.”

In an ironic twist, both the Ports and Cliftonville were due to contest the Irish Cup final at the end of that season, but it developed into an anti-climax after the Belfast side fielded striker Simon Gribben against Linfield in the semi-final. He had played for junior club Kilmore Rec in an earlier round.

“It was so flat,” adds Richard.

“The players got together in their Cup final suits for the presentation of the trophy at Shamrock Park, but it was a surreal occasion.

“We beat Ballymena United in the semi-final. Strainer and I scored the goals to seal our place. We were really looking forward to the final. We may have been presented with the Cup but it was a major disappointment, if that makes sense. It wasn’t a good way to end the season. We would much rather have played the game.

“It was particularly frustrating for the likes of Strainer, Alfie Stewart and Gregg Davidson, who were all coming to the end of their playing days. It would have been a nice way for them to bow out.”

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Portadown central midfielder Richard Clarke with his 1999 cup winners medal.

Portadown central midfielder Richard Clarke with his 1999 cup winners medal.

Portadown central midfielder Richard Clarke with his 1999 cup winners medal.

 

Richard picked up his one and only title medal in 2002, but the Ports were deprived of a double celebration when beaten by Linfield in the Irish Cup showpiece.

“The old guard were still there when I broke into the side a few years earlier,” he remembers.

“Mickey Keenan in goals and the famous back four of (Philip) Major, Strainer, (Alfie) Stewart and Davidson — that line-up basically named itself for years. To come through with those boys was brilliant.

“There was a real good camaraderie among the squad, especially for the younger players like myself and Keith O’Hara, who was brought through to replace Gregg.

“With the team we had, we should have won the title a lot more. We never pushed on. There were a lot of stupid things that went on, people falling out and other stuff.

“Only Major and Keenan were in the side that won the League in 2002, the rest had gone. Ronnie did a rebuilding job, bringing in Gary Hamilton, Marc McCann, Peter McCann, Mickey Collins, Dean Fitzgerald and Cullen Feeney.

“And even though we won the title, the season finished in disappointment as we lost to Linfield in the final of the Irish Cup.

“It was a great occasion and we got off to the best possible start with Kyle Neill scoring early on. But the Blues hit back and Chris Morgan scored twice to win it.”

Another highlight was the Ports’ performance in the 2010-11 UEFA Cup when they were pipped for a place in the third qualifying round by Azerbaijan side FK Qarabag.

“We defeated Skonto of Latvia in the first round, winning 2-1 on aggregate,” he adds.

“Big Richard Lecky scored in both games. It was brilliant. And we almost did it against Qarabag, only to lose out 3-2. It was a fantastic experience.

“But I also suffered my lowest point in football when we were relegated to the Championship in 2008 when the club’s application to join the new Premiership was submitted half an hour late.

“It was a massive blow. Suddenly we found ourselves dumped into a lower division and it’s not a handy league to get out of. It was a culture shock for a club that was used to competing for trophies.

“We were classed as a big scalp to other clubs and everyone was out to beat us. Although we made hard work of it, we got back to the Premiership the following season.”

Being a loyal one-club man, Richard was offered the chance of a testimonial season — but surprisingly it was one he flatly refused.

“I told them I wasn’t interested,” he admits. “I was happy enough playing for the club; things like that didn’t interest me at all.”

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Richard Clarke celebrates scoring for the Ports against Crusaders in the Irish Cup semi-final in 2011.

Richard Clarke celebrates scoring for the Ports against Crusaders in the Irish Cup semi-final in 2011.

Richard Clarke celebrates scoring for the Ports against Crusaders in the Irish Cup semi-final in 2011.

 

When Richard did finally sever his links with the Ports, he was appointed manager of Dergview.

He concludes: “When I recovered from my cancer scare, Ronnie pushed me towards coaching. I was 34 and was probably coming to the end of my playing days.

“I took charge of the reserves for the rest of the season. But my home town club offered me the chance to step into management that summer.

“Like an eejit, I took the job. It soon brought home to me how difficult football management is. I simply don’t know how boys like Ronnie and David Jeffrey have stuck it so long.

“I was there for three and a half years and my head was done in! To be honest, I just didn’t have the time to commit to it. I was busy at work and then the twins came along. It was time I devoted more time to my family.

“In my last season we were sitting second bottom in the table, so I thought it was time for a new face to come in. I came from a club that were serial winners but managing in the Championship was a different proposition. There was a continuous strain on the finances — it was both physically and mentally tough.”

Fact file

  • Richard scored 50 goals in 530 appearances for Portadown.
  • He was capped five times at Northern Ireland Under-21 level, making his debut against the Republic of Ireland in June 1999
  • Portadown’s defeat of Larne in 2005 was Richard’s only Irish Cup Final win in four attempts.
  • He is back where his football journey started, playing for Killen Rangers Reserves.

Belfast Telegraph