One for the future
November 20, 2004
Darren Clarke is the talk of the town . . .the town of Ardee. More especially the St. Mary's domain where Gaelic games predominate. Kevin Carney reports
A totem among the Louth town's most earnest gaels, the rising star has been fingered as one for the future - a talent destined to be harvested by club and county brigades for many years to come.
Thing is though, the 21-year old is already making big waves on both fronts at senior level.
Certainly in relieving some of the burden on club mate Niall Sharkey to come up with the scores for the 'Mary's and in putting pressure on the Ollie McDonnells, JP Rooneys etc of this world on the county scene, our man Clarke has been doing the business over the last 12 months and more.
In another year best forgotten really by Louth football fans, Darren caught the eye.
Darren was one of a coterie of rookies introduced by county boss Val Andrews to league and championship football in 2004.
A lot of observers say he was one of the starlets to shine the most for the former Cavan supremo.
The Ardee ace made his inter-county debut against Antrim on February 1st last in, conveniently enough, Ardee.
It was a Division 2A NFL clash which went against the homesters though as the Kevin Madden-inspired visitors edged home by 1-9 to 1-7.
Darren was one of eight league newcomers for Louth that day and they did sufficiently well to lead until the 23rd minute of the second half, despite having half-back David Brennan dismissed 19 minutes earlier.
It was a wet and windy Ardee that day and a losing debut for the hometown younster.
"It was disappointing to lose the game but it was good to make my debut, especially in Ardee where I had learned to play football over the years.
"Knowing the ground so well was good for my confidence, especially in taking free-kicks," Darren confesses.
Such is the nature of playing for Louth that Darren is only too used to taking on board knocks and rebounding off the ropes fuelled by eternal optimism.
He's had more downs than ups with Louth and remembers when he featured in the full-forward line on the Wee County's under 21 team in 2002.
Darren remembers, after beating Kildare, in the first round (again in Ardee) after extra time, the red and whites facing up to would-be All-Ireland champions Dublin in, you've guessed it, Darren's home patch.
"It's not that long ago that I bumped into Alan Brogan at a coaching course up in Dublin and he reminded me of how hard a game we gave them then.
"Alan reckoned they got out of jail in a big way that day."
Currently studying sports therapy in Crumlin College in the capital where Mattock Rangers' David Reid is a colleague, Darren says the years he spent playing for Louth at minor and under 21 levels helped prepare him for the step-up to senior county level.
Along with his cousin Paddy Matthews, the aforementioned Reid and Paddy Keenan, the Dublin-based student has worked hard to make the step up in class from that 2002 under 21 team.
"No more than myself, the other new young recruits to the senior panel are very hungry for success.
"Most of us have had no success with Louth from under 14 upwards so it's important that we get on the winning track sooner rather than later otherwise you could see the danger of self-doubt creeping in which would be understandable."
But Darren is a glass half-full type individual and he says that Louth can take inspiration from the achievements in recent years of unfashionable counties such as Laois and Westmeath.
"If they can do it, I don't see why we can't. Our day will come, I'm nearly sure of that.
"It might be five years but the way Val Andrews is building the squad together, I definitely think we'll be a force to be reckoned with over the next few years.
"The average age of the squad in 2004 was just around the mid-twenties and I personally came on a lot in my opinion over the past year and I'm sure a lot of the other fellas would say the experience of playing in the national league and the championship was great too."
Having taken a sabbatical last summer to go to Chicago and see how the other (non-sporty youngsters) live, Darren feels he has a good appreciation of just what it takes to make your presence felt on the big stage.
In this respect, he says that the two hours travelling to and from Termonfeckin for county training each week during the season is something he just has to get on with. "Myself and Paddy (McGuinness) leave Dublin at about half-six in the evening and we might not get back to the city until after half-eleven so it's not easy."
2004 wasn't easy for Darren and co. in general on either the league or championship fronts.
It was a "rocky" journey as he says himself. He featured at centre-forward against Wexford in Parnell Park in the opening round of the Leinster SFC but wasn't a happy camper.
"I hadn't trained for the Wexford game until a week before the game because of a knee ligament injury I picked up in a club match a month before that.
"The game didn't go well for me or the team even though we fancied our chances beforehand.
"We felt that if we could keep Matty Forde quiet, we had a great chance.
"From my personal point of view, I wasn't exactly flying fit and I think, mentally and physically, I wasn't right for that game.
"I had a chance of a goal in the first half but shot straight at the goalkeeper from about 20 yards.
"I was mad then and I'm still mad about missing that one," Darren confesses with refreshing honesty.
And then came the Antrim clash in Drogheda.
"It was another tight game and having lost to them in the league we knew that we'd have to be at our best.
"But the crowd in Drogheda that day were great and really got behind us which helped a lot in beating them after extra-time.
"Unfortunately for me, my knee injury flared up in training before the game.
"At least I got on at half-time but I wasn't that confident about my knee and so I was a bit nervous.
"I didn't feel I did myself justice against Antrim or Wexford."
Reflecting on the Antrim game specifically, Darren reckons that that win helped raise Louth's profile a great deal and the feedback from the supporters around the county was quite positive.
Louth's subsequent 0-9 to 2-8 defeat to Galway in the qualifiers at Parnell Park was one Darren would rather not reflect on too much even though he was glad to be introduced for the final eight minutes in place of Ollie McDonnell.
"With about six minutes to go we were only two points down but we squandered a couple of chances after that and paid the price.
"It was disappointing to lose, even to a quality side like Galway, but considering how tamely the team went out to Dublin in 2003, I think the team did show that it's improving."
Still, the skilful attacker knows that consistency has been the bane of Louth teams over the years and he aims to work extremely hard to find a level of consistency in his own game which will help the county cause.
It can't be easy gaining a berth in the forward line though?
"No. Louth have nearly always had a good set of forwards and with the likes of JP Rooney, Ollie McDonnell, Mark Stanfield and the rest around, I have to play really well to hold my place when I get the chance.
"I remember cheering on the likes of those fellas when I was still only 16 but it's no point in being in awe of them otherwise my game would go to pieces.
"Sometimes I did have to give myself a reality check though when I'd be lining up with them in the dressing-room but I have confidence in my own ability and when I'm fully fit, I think I can do myself justice in any company."
Indeed when he was in Chicago in 2003 playing for the Wolfe Tones club (alongside such vaunted players as Paddy Bradley of Derry and David Brady from Mayo), Darren felt that he didn't do at all bad in coming up against the likes of Sean Martin Lockhart (St. Brendans), scoring 2-2 as his team won the Chicago championship final.
Back then things didn't go well on quite every front though and losing the county final to St. Pat's, after a replay, with the 'Mary's was a real downer.
"We were in control the first day but they got a goal with the last kick of the game and then the made the most of the chances in the replay."
Can St. Mary's reach the summit in the coming year?
"I think so. The team is good enough on our day to beat any of the rest of the teams and I'd be more than hopeful."
And big things ahead for the Wee County?
"If we can take on board what Westmeath and Laois achieved and have the right attitude we could surprise everyone and finally go the distance in Leinster if not next year then within the next couple of years."
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