The Armagh player continues to impress, writes Cathal Coyle
The unveiling of the GAA All-Star awards has concluded a memorable year for Armagh’s gifted full-forward, Rónàn Clarke.
Not only did he receive the Full Forward position on the All-Star team, voted for by his fellow players, but Clarke was also awarded the Ulster Player of the Year by the Ulster GAA Writer’s Association.
Such accolades add to an ever-expanding trophy haul for the Pearse Óg player, with the impressive tally of one All-Ireland Celtic Cross and four Ulster senior titles to date, during a relatively short playing career.
It seems to many observers that Clarke, who hails from the City of Armagh, has been delivering classic performances for his county for a long time. In fact, he made his debut in the National League campaign in 2001 aged only 19.
Armagh manager Joe Kernan has recently acknowledged Clarke's contribution to Gaelic football in the county.
‘Rónán has had his fair share of injuries over the past number of years, but you mature as you get older and he has matured into a leader. He is a man who takes responsibility and he’s still only 25, so there is a lot left in him.’
The platform that College Football offers teenage players is often understated, and Clarke's progression was remarkable over the next two years.
A Millennium McRory Cup victory with St Patrick’s Grammar School Armagh led to Clarke’s ability being widely recognised. When the newly-appointed Kernan named his squad for the National Football League campaign for the 2001-2002 season, Clarke was included for the first time.
Detractors were soon convinced by the attributes Clarke brought to the Armagh team.
Clarke soon became the focal point of the Orchard attack, and his introduction to the team for the crunch meeting of Tyrone in the Championship in May 2002 sparked a fruitful scoring return of 0-3 and helped cement a place in the lineup for the remainder of the Championship series.
Donegal were the vanquished Ulster Final opponents, with Clarke coming to the fore with another three point contribution. The penultimate game in the All-Ireland series against Dublin was a tense affair at Croke Park, and a crucial point from Clarke was vital in providing the platform for an Armagh victory by a single score, 1-14 to 1-13.
The 2002 final was where Clarke carved his reputation as one of the finest marksmen in the sport, scoring three points as he edged past an illustrious Kerry side by another minimum margin, 1-12 to 0-14.
Clarke's debut senior season for his county had delivered an All-Ireland medal - a fairytale ending to a memorable year.
His sterling efforts in helping Armagh win the Sam McGuire Cup for the first time led to Clarke receiving the inaugural GAA Young Gaelic Footballer of the Year award.
A deserved honour, his All-Ireland final performance displayed the qualities of a champion – accuracy in score taking, commitment, determination and above all else, a team-focused work ethic. This helped to compensate for the disappointment of narrowly missing out on an All-Star award that year to Dublin’s Ray Cosgrove.
Following the All-Ireland success, Clarke was in demand. There was a call to the Ulster Railway Cup squad in the latter part of the year, and the International Rules squad for the annual clash with Australia.
These representative honours also extended to the Pearse Óg Club and St Mary’s College, Belfast, in the Sigerson Cup. The Pearse Óg challenge for honours continues, halting the Crossmaglen hegemony has yet proved elusive in the Armagh club championship.
The 2003 All-Ireland final was a derby between Armagh and Tyrone, and the holders had the golden opportunity to become the first team since Cork in 1990 to accomplish back-to-back All-Ireland success.
This was Ulster Gaelic Football in its prime, and not even southern superpowers Kerry or Dublin could compete with the province’s finest.
While Tyrone won by 0-12 to 0-9 after a dogged contest, and Clarke's schoolmate Seán Cavanagh playing an influential role for the red hands, Armagh earned many plaudits for their valiant efforts and consistency during the season.
The next few years brought equal shares of joy and despair - Clarke endured a series of injuries in what was undoubtedly a frustrating time. While Ulster success became an almost annual procession for the Orchard County, the All-Ireland series provided more problems than had been anticipated.
Armagh entered the 2006 All-Ireland quarter final against Kerry in confident mood, but endured a second-half blitz by the Munster champions. Despite the promptings from Clarke and others, Kerry proved too strong and progressed to the semi-final on a scoreline of 3-15 to 1-13, while the Orchard men were left to reflect on another untimely exit from the All-Ireland Championship.
Clarke has received several personal awards since Armagh’s defeat to Kerry, with the Irish News naming him Ulster Player of the Year. He was included in his usual full-forward position on the Ulster Team of the Year for 2006.
Despite a sequence of defeats at the All-Ireland eliminator stages since 2003, Clarke remains defiant that Armagh can bounce back and silence their critics, many of whom insist that the team are caught in a downward spiral.
‘Teams wrote us off after 2002, but we kept coming back stronger and fitter,' he claimes. 'You just have to get on with it, get back to training and try and get it out of your system.’
These sentiments have stood Clarke and his Armagh team mates in good stead over the past decade.