Earlier this month, former Down star Martin Clarke announced his retirement from gaelic football at just 29. As Down fans reflect on Clarke’s career and remember that wonderful summer in 2010, one question springs to mind – what might’ve been for Down and Martin Clarke?
Nestled deep in the mystical Mourne Mountains, Dunavil Road is just like any other unassuming country road in Ireland. Surrounded by farmland, a few houses and the vast undulating landscape of the Mournes, a passing driver wouldn’t pay it any notice. But, Dunavil Road is home to one of Down’s most renowned clubs; An Ríocht. The Kingdom. The walls of the clubhouse, which looks more like a large converted barn, are adorned with silverware, photos and signed jerseys. An Ríocht is a club with serious pedigree. The playing facilities are very impressive, especially given the club’s unassuming location, and there is even a small concrete stand to keep supporters dry in the unforgiving mountain weather. But, despite the impressiveness of the facilities, it is a far cry from the 82,000 capacity ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Australia. And yet, it was in that very stadium, that a young Irishman, born and bred in An Ríocht, made his AFL debut at just 20 years of age.
From an early age, Martin Clarke displayed enormous talent. As a student at St Louis’ Kilkeel, he played in two MacRory Cup finals, and helped the school to a McLarnon Cup title and an All-Ireland Colleges B title. He was a key part of the Down minor team which won the 2005 All-Ireland Championship, prompting AFL club Collingwood to come calling.
After four successful years in Australia, Clarke returned to Ireland, citing playing gaelic football as “what I want to do more”. The lure of pulling on the red and black jersey again was too much to turn down. Clarke played an influential role in Down’s astonishing run to the 2010 All-Ireland final, which the Mourne men narrowly lost by a point to Cork. He picked up an All Star and the Irish News Footballer of the Year in the process. In 2011, Down failed to hit the heights of the previous season and, after a 12 point defeat to Cork in round 4 of the qualifiers, Clarke returned to Australia.
It was during his second spell Down Under that Clarke was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease, an extremely rare and incurable illness which prevents the adrenal glands from producing enough steroid hormones. As a result, Clarke’s ability to play in high intensity matches lessened and his fitness deteriorated and at the end of the 2014 season, he was delisted by Collingwood and returned to his native Down.
Despite his illness, Clarke had always harboured intentions of pulling on the red and black jersey again. However, despite his interest being known, no call came from new Down manager Eamon Burns, and Clarke was forced to watch on as the Mourne men were swiftly relegated from Division One, failing to win a game.
Speaking to BBC Sport, Clarke said:
“Once [Burns] came into the job, without wanting my hand held or to be treated any differently, I suppose a phone call would have been nice just to see where he’s at and where I’m at. It could have potentially shifted a few things and even if it wasn’t this year, then maybe the foundations for next season, to start on that. But look, it didn’t happen and we have to move on and deal with that.”
Clarke continued to star for An Ríocht and helped them to the final of the Down Intermediate Championship, and he also played a starring role for Queen’s University in both their Sigerson Cup and McKenna Cup campaigns.
Clarke’s playmaking performances for both his club and university had Down fans hopeful of a return to the county fold, with Down forward Mark Poland supporting calls for his return, describing Clarke as a “phenomenal talent” in an interview with BBC Sport.
As it turned out, Clarke would never line out for Down again and, following his retirement announcement at the age of just 29, it is with a sense of sadness and regret that Down fans look back on Clarke’s career and wonder if things could have, and should have, been different.
Clarke’s performances throughout 2010 led many to believe that he could go on to be one of the greatest ever to grace the game. Accuracy, confidence, vision, pace – Clarke had all the hallmarks of a great GAA forward.
Kevin McKernan, who played both against and alongside Clarke in the MacRory and All Ireland finals respectively, told Balls.ie that players would watch Clarke in awe at training and were “flabbergasted” by his ability.
Clarke’s flair, technical ability and his knack for being the match-winner drew comparisons with Down greats Greg Blaney and Mickey Linden – high praise indeed considering Blaney and Linden won four All-Ireland senior titles and three All Stars between them.
He also drew comparisons with Down legend Benny Coulter, and it was the relationship between Clarke and Coulter that helped Down flourish in 2010 – the pair grabbed 5-70 between them throughout the league and championship. Both were extremely unlucky not to win a senior All-Ireland title.
Since the heroics of the 2010 season, Down fans have been starved of big days out in the summer sun in Dublin.
Clarke’s potential return had tails wagging, and some dared to dream that maybe, just maybe, Clarke would bring the Mourne county back to the big time once again.
With Clarke’s retirement announcement, that dream is dashed and Down fans must now turn to the future to dream of another Sunday in September.
The reaction to his retirement has been one of regret. Regret that the game has been robbed of one of its greatest talents; regret that an extremely rare illness has cut short the career of a player who lit up Croke Park in two finals; and regret that we are unlikely to ever see Martin Clarke kick a ball on GAA’s centre stage again.
Kevin McKernan summed it up well:
“I think the glimpses we got of him in 2010 probably left everybody with that question of, what if we had got the full lifespan of Marty Clarke in terms of his footballing career” (Balls.ie).
What if? As Down football lies in disarray amid poor results and player walkouts, one wonders what a Martin Clarke inspired Down could’ve gone on to achieve. Having said that, Clarke can look back and be proud of his career, safe in the knowledge that he is regarded as a legend in Down, despite only playing senior inter-county football for two seasons.
And that is testament to him, the boy from Cranfield Point, born and bred in An Ríocht, who took on Australia and almost took his home county to beyond their wildest dreams.
Conal Murnin, Pundit Arena