“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 all announcing their arrival on the inter-county scene.
However, the breakout star that stood tallest in 2002 defeating all three en route to an All-Ireland title and a Young Footballer of the Year award was Armagh’s, Ronan Clarke.
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 17-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 title 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. The Orchard county 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 prime.
The change came in the form of Joe Kernan, a legend in Armagh GAA circles, the mastermind behind Crossmaglen’s three All-Ireland club titles in four years.
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What a day in front of the TV for Armagh GAA fans! 🔶◻️ At 2.40 pm, TG4 will broadcast the 2002 All-Ireland SFC semi-final win over Dublin as part of their All-Ireland Gold series. Following that at 8.15 pm, BBC Northern Ireland will delve into the archives with coverage of the Orchard County's 2005 Ulster final win over arch-rivals Tyrone. To cap of an excellent day, at 10.30 pm, BBC will also re-run their riveting documentary on Crossmaglen entitled "Field of Dreams" which tells the amazing story of an area that won six All-Ireland titles despite a British Army barracks blighting both the village and club.
Kernan’s appointment was widely celebrated and it led to the most successful period in Armagh’s history, however, the introduction of 19-year-old, Ronan Clarke brought a new dynamic to their 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 Championship debut in the 2002 Ulster quarter-final win over Tyrone. Armagh 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 against the Yeats men bagging 1-2 as Armagh sneaked over the line on a scoreline of 1-16 to 0-17.
The semi-final and final proved to be memorable occasions for Clarke as he took a couple of GAA stars 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 defenders in Gaelic football history.
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 forced his way back in at right-half-forward as the Orchard navigated their way through the qualifiers to an All-Ireland final meeting with arch-rivals Tyrone.
Clarke soon returned to form and to the full-forward line. He was crucial to Armagh as they claimed Ulster titles in a row from 2004-2006 with a first-ever National League title sandwiched in between in 2005.
Clarke picked up an 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 the 2007 season.
Incredibly, he bounced back once more in 2008 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 it took its toll and forced him to retire. For fans of the Orchard county, his partnership with Stevie McDonnell kept Armagh relevant as their powers began to wane. For fans of the Gaelic football, his partnership with McDonnell must go down as one of the greatest in history as the pair worked in tandem perfectly.
On the club scene, Clarke reached numerous county finals but Pearse Óg fell to a dominant Crossmaglen each time, however, it was to be Clarke and the Ógs who ended Crossmaglen’s winning streak in 2009 when they dumped them out of the county championship at the quarter-final stage before going on to defeat city-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).
One of the most underrated players of a generation, while the appointment of Joe Kernan is widely credited with being the catalyst for Armagh’s decade of dominance, the arrival of Ronan Clarke cannot be understated.
He arrived on the inter-county scene when Armagh needed him most.
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.