“Armagh have the best forward in the country in Ronan Clarke” Ross Carr.
The year 2002 saw breakout stars aplenty in the GAA with names likes Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper, Stephen Cluxton and Sean Cavanagh standing out.
However, there was one breakout star that stood tallest in ’02 defeating all three en route to an All-Ireland title and a Young Footballer of the Year award.
The Armagh man is our subject on this week’s edition of ‘Forgotten Friday‘.
Clarke broke onto the Armagh side at a time when the Orchard County probably needed the 19-year-old more than he needed them.
Following the end of a 27-year Ulster famine in 1999, Armagh lost narrowly to Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final as the Royals went on to lift their seventh Sam Maguire title.
They reclaimed their Ulster crown in 2000, but again fell to eventual champions, Kerry, following a replay in the All-Ireland semi-final. They relinquished their provincial honours in 2001, however, they qualified for the All-Ireland quarter-finals through the inaugural ‘back-door’ system before falling to Galway.
For the third year in a row, Armagh were dumped out of the championship by the eventual All-Ireland champions.
Something had to give. Armagh were clearly on the cusp of something special. Crossmaglen Rangers were dominant on the club scene, while players like Paul McGrane and Diarmuid Marsden (1992 All-Ireland minor finalists) were in their pomp.
The change came in the form of Joe Kernan, a legend in Armagh GAA circles and the mastermind behind Crossmaglen’s three All-Ireland titles in four years.
Kernan’s appointment was widely celebrated and it did indeed lead to the most successful period in Armagh’s history, however, the introduction of 19-year-old, Ronan Clarke brought a new dynamic to Armagh’s play, one that would secure them a first All-Ireland crown and make them one of the teams of the decade.
A native of Pearse Óg GAC in Armagh City, Clarke made his Armagh championship debut in the 2002 Ulster Championship quarter-final win over Tyrone. They went on to defeat Fermanagh and Donegal en route to a third Ulster title in four years before drawing with Sligo in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Clarke proved to be the hero for Armagh in their quarter-final replay with Sligo bagging 1-2 as Armagh sneaked over the line on a scoreline of 1-6 to 0-17.
The semi-final and final proved to be memorable occasions for Clarke as he took two stars of the GAA to the cleaners as Armagh reached the Holy Grail.
He scored 0-2 in the semi-final when pitted against Dublin captain, Paddy Christie, before going one better in the final, kicking 0-3 from play whilst being marked by Seamus Moynihan, widely recognised as one of the greatest players to ever play Gaelic football.
Clarke scored in seven of Armagh’s eight games and finished the year as GAA Young Footballer of the Year.
Clarke may have suffered slightly with a touch of second-season syndrome in 2003 as he fell out of the starting XV at one point. However, he was able to force his way back in at right-half-forward as Armagh made it all the way through the qualifiers to an eventual All-Ireland final meeting with Tyrone.
The full forward returned to form and was crucial to Armagh as they claimed the next three Ulster titles in a row from 2004-2006 with a first-ever National League title squeezed in between in 2005.
Clarke picked up the Ulster Footballer of the Year award in 2006 and capped off an amazing season personally with a maiden All-Star award.
However, disaster struck later that year when knee surgery ruled him out for the entirety of 2007.
Incredibly, Clarke bounced back in 2008 with great effect as Armagh picked up their seventh Ulster title in 10 years before he was honoured with a second All-Star award.
No stranger to injuries, Clarke continued to battle on with Armagh before injury eventually took it’s toll and forced him to retire. For fans of the Orchard County his partnership with Stevie McDonnell kept Armagh relevant as their power began to wane.
On the club scene, Clarke reached numerous county finals but Pearse Óg’s fell to a dominant Crossmaglen each time, however, it was to be Clarke and the Óg’s who ended that Crossmaglen winning streak in 2009 when they dumped them out of the county championship at the quarter-final stage before going on to defeat arch-rivals, Armagh Harps in the final to give Clarke his first senior county championship medal.
He was also an ever-present on the international scene throughout his inter-county career, representing Ireland on four occasions (2002, 2005, 2006, 2008).
1 x All-Ireland Senior Championship
5 x Ulster Senior Championships
1 x National Football League
1 x Armagh County Championship
2 x GAA All-Star awards
3 x Irish News Ulster All-Star Awards
1 x Ulster Footballer of the Year
1 x MacRory Cup w/ St. Patrick’s Armagh
1 x Ulster Club Minor Football Championship.