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A Kerry career less ordinary: The Brian Clarke Interview

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25 years on from Kerry’s All-Ireland-winning campaign of 1997, Brian Clarke talks to Adam Moynihan about his role on the team, balancing football with basketball, and his ‘fraught’ relationship with Páidí Ó Sé

“I find that [decision] incredible. I think that was a brilliant piece of work by Brian Clarke… Maybe Kerry will get a point but certainly a piece of genius has been penalised.”

RTÉ co-commentator Colm O’Rourke is livid. The date is the 24th of August 1997, it’s a warm, sunny day in Croke Park, and the referee has incorrectly chalked off one of the greatest assists the game has ever seen.

The match in question is Kerry v Cavan in the All-Ireland semi-final, and the referee in question is Pat Casserly. Two years earlier, Casserly received an affectionate kiss from Jason Sherlock after he awarded the Dublin forward a free in roughly the same part of the same field. No kisses were forthcoming this time. In fact, he’s lucky he didn’t get the head eaten clean off his shoulders. (More on that later.)

Kerry went on to win the match and the All-Ireland, so the incident mattered little in the bigger picture.

But in many ways, this passage of play stands as a microcosm of one man’s entire intercounty career. A brief flash of genius that ultimately didn’t turn out the way it should have. This 15-second incident is the story of Brian Clarke.

A highly skilled full forward who made his senior debut at just 18 years of age, Clarke is considered to be one of the finest talents to come out of Killarney in the past 30 years. For scale, the players towards the top end of that conversation include Gooch, James O'Donoghue and David Clifford (if our near neighbours in Fossa will let me borrow him for a second).

Clarke started and scored in the league final, Munster final, and All-Ireland semi-final in Kerry's historic All-Ireland-winning season 25 years ago.

So how did he only wind up making four championship appearances in total? And why did he retire at 24?

The horse’s mouth is always the best place to find the answers so I popped over to his Killarney home to talk about a sporting career less ordinary. Our 45-minute chat unmuddied the waters.

*  *  *

Clarkey (as he is known around these parts) greets me at his front door with a handshake and a smile. It's quite a while since the now 47-year-old retired from team sports but he's still a unit of a man; I wouldn't like to be a full back tasked with tying him down for an afternoon, I'll put it that way.

He’s currently recovering following a meniscectomy – surgery on his knees to remove damaged meniscus. He attributes the wear and tear to a combination of his sporting life and working life. Many years pounding Killarney’s pavements as a postman has taken its toll.

He invites me in and some small talk about work leads to me revealing that I'm going to Las Vegas for a stag a few days later. He gives me a look as if to say, "Jesus, good luck to you". He has been there and done that. He recommends checking out some college basketball and visiting the Hoover Dam as we retreat to the living room. He mutes the golf on TV and I switch the voice recorder on.

*  *  *

Clarke the sportsman had a reputation for being temperamental. In fact, whenever his name comes up in discussions about football, chances are you’ll hear an assessment like this: “He was a class player, but...” The rest often remains unsaid.

I have to confess I was a bit apprehensive about asking a man who is said to have a fiery temper to tell me all about his fiery temper. But speaking very calmly in his distinctive, easy-going lilt, Clarke readily accepts that he was an emotional player. And he also accepts that it sometimes caused him problems.

“With Dr Crokes in 1994, I was actually sidelined (with red cards) three times in a row in finals. Other teams could see that it was maybe a weakness on my part but I never saw it as such.

"Most people that know me, know that’s just the way I am. If I get hit, I’m probably going to hit back.”

Was this attitude borne out of passion? A will to win?

“Yeah, passion, and I suppose growing up in Coolgrean Park and being the youngest fella running around the estate. It kind of hardens you up a bit.”

That hard edge didn’t prevent him from blossoming into a precocious attacking talent. In fact, were it not for his boldness he might never have been a forward in the first place.

“Initially I started off playing in goal with the Crokes. I always played a year or two ahead of me, so when I was nine I was goalkeeper for the U12s. It worked out like that until one day when I called to our trainer, the great Jackie Looney, and threatened him that my mother (Marie) wanted me to play outfield. He gave me a chance. He said, ‘you can go in goal for the first half and we’ll bring you out for the second’. That’s how I started playing in the forwards.”

Lining out on strong Dr Crokes teams that included the likes of his brother Dessie, Maurice O’Donoghue, Brian O’Donoghue, Pa McCarthy, Geoffrey O’Donoghue, John Cronin and Brian McCarthy, Clarke soon caught the eye of the Kerry minor selectors. There would prove to be one significant stumbling block, however: his love for the game of basketball.

Clarke was called into the minors when he was 16 – setting him up to potentially be a three-year minor – but he was also playing basketball for Ireland at the time. The Irish team travelled to the States that summer and it was an opportunity that Clarke wasn’t willing to miss. The minors would have to wait.

This friction between basketball and football would be present for much of his career. In Kerry, the vast majority of intercounty footballers simply park their other sporting commitments (if they have any) and focus on the green and gold. That was never an option for Clarke, who says his grá for basketball stemmed from watching legendary local figures like Paudie O’Connor and Mervyn Griffin playing for St Vincent’s in the Pres Gym.

He played for Vincent’s himself and later St Paul’s, starring as a versatile point guard in Paul’s National and Super League teams throughout the nineties.

“Basketball was always there, but football was the big thing for my father (Desmond),” Clarke explains. “He used to always bring us up to Kerry training in the Fitzgerald Stadium. That was when the Kerry team were going really well, back in the late seventies/early eighties. That was his first love, and my grandfather loved it, so I did too. But then when I realised basketball was such a good game, I moved towards basketball.

“In terms of missing out on the Kerry minors in 1991, my father just about forgave me for that. But just because it was the Irish team!”

*  *  *

Clarke eventually played for the Kerry minors in 1992 (his bad year), scoring 1-7 on his championship debut against Tipp and following that up with 2-1 against Limerick in the Munster semi-final. He was also a key figure on the Kerry Vocational Schools team that won the 1992 All-Ireland.

The minors came up short against Cork in ’92 and again in ’93, but Ogie Moran had seen enough of Clarke to immediately draft him into the senior panel. The 18-year-old started at half forward in the league against the reigning All-Ireland champions Derry in Killarney on November 7. He scored a point.

“From growing up kicking the ball out to Bomber and Jack O’Shea and these fellas at training, to actually being in the Kerry jersey in the Fitzgerald Stadium… It was an important moment for me and important for my family too.”

He went on to start three more games in the 1993-94 league, but for the next two years his intercounty appearances were limited to the U21s.

After featuring at that grade in 1994, he missed out on the 1995 All-Ireland run due to issues with bainisteoir Páidí Ó Sé and his management team over work commitments. Clarke, then 20, had just started working in the post office.

“There were split shifts and this and that, so I couldn’t make training sometimes. That was looked at the wrong way. Fellas weren’t as forgiving at the time.”

Clarke returned for the 1996 season, however, and playing under Jack O’Connor (Ó Sé was now the senior manager, though he was still involved as a selector), Kerry won another All-Ireland.

By this point Kerry’s stranglehold over Sam had well and truly left the building. It was 10 going on 11 years since the county’s last All-Ireland. But with this stacked U21 team ready to burst onto the scene, fans finally had cause for optimism.

“Beginning with the achievements of the Crokes, and St Brendan’s College and the Vocational Schools team in 1992 (all three won national titles), and then with the U21 All-Irelands, it just gave people faith that there might be players coming through,” Clarke recalls. “And that’s how it transpired.”

Clarke was back in the mix for the Kerry seniors for the 1996-97 season, although clashes with basketball meant that his appearances were intermittent.

“One weekend I’d be with the basketball and one weekend I’d be with the football. That’s the way things were allowed to work out, just to give me a chance to play both.”

How did Páidí take to this arrangement?

“Yerrah, he took it…” Clarke pauses as he considers his next words, “…well enough at times.” He smiles. “If there was no football on the Sunday and the basketball was on the Saturday night, we’d train on the Saturday morning with Kerry and he’d run the shite out of us. He wouldn’t take into account the fact that I was playing a match that evening - it just wasn’t part of what he was thinking. He had his own priorities.”

After missing out on the first three league games, Clarke featured in the victory over Donegal in November of 1996. He returned for the final regular season game, another victory over Cork in March of 1997, and he came on in the league quarter-final against Down. He then started the subsequent semi-final and final wins over Laois and Cork, scoring 0-6 in total over the two games. By this point he felt as though he was settling into the team well.

A groin injury forced him to sit out the Munster semi-final against Tipperary but he was called straight back in for the provincial decider against Clare in Limerick. That match will be remembered for Pa Laide’s wondergoal more than anything else but Clarke (0-1) and his full forward line colleagues Dara Ó Cinnéide (0-2) and Maurice Fitzgerald (0-5) also played their part.

Clarke says he had a good understanding with Fitzgerald, a player whom he describes as a “genius”.

“I’ll probably be laughed at for saying it, but what he did on the pitch for Kerry… He could do more. We saw it in training. He was just a genius with the ball.

“I suppose I had a bit of nous myself from the basketball. I was used to spaces and things like that. Knowing that Maurice was as good as he was, I felt I complemented his game. Having played point guard for St Paul’s, I wasn’t one to be greedy with the ball. I was seen as a ‘win-the-ball distributor’ type player.

“In terms of the team’s tactics it was ‘get the ball to Maurice’ most of the time. I think sometimes too much weight was falling on him to do the scoring when the fellas all around him were more than capable also. I think Maurice felt that pressure. He was 27 when the rest of us were 22, so he just felt it was his time to prove how good he was. To get us over the line, he felt he had to do more.”

*  *  *

If the feel-good factor within the county had been slowly returning over the course of the previous few years, it shifted into overdrive once the All-Ireland semi-final against Cavan appeared on the horizon.

“Kerry people were starting to wear the colours a little more, you could feel that for the couple of weeks before,” Clarke says.

“Cavan brought a great atmosphere with them, but we were well prepared for what Ulster football had to throw at us on the day. It was the type of game where every man had to win his own ball. Football is played a little differently now.”

The first half was tit for tat as Cavan, who were aiming to reach their first All-Ireland final since 1952, gave as good as they got. The scores were tied at 0-7 when substitute Billy O’Shea kicked a long, accurate pass in towards Clarke down at the Canal End of the ground. When I ask him to explain what happened next, Clarke’s description is incredibly matter-of-fact. He could just as easily be talking about one of the thousands of times he reached into his mailbag and successfully delivered a letter. In reality, the play was a thing of beauty.

“Billy O’Shea knocked it into me. I got the ball probably 25 yards or so out from goal. We used to try and work the ball in the field and have a runner coming off the shoulder. My role was to be a distributor. So, I saw (Eamonn) Breen out of the corner of my eye – the basketball was a help there. He was going so fast I had missed him by the time I got possession. But I was fouled also, so the referee blew his whistle.

“Breen passed by, I jump-stopped, as I would do in basketball, and kicked the ball over my head to Breen. He got it and rounded the keeper. It was a basic enough kick to make really, if you were doing it all the time in training.”

Kerry fans in attendance and watching around the world knew they had just witnessed something special. A unique and magical piece of ingenuity, executed to perfection. Sadly, Pat Casserly was having none of it.

“The referee blew it back. I said, ‘what was wrong with that, ref?’ and I used a couple of other words. He said, ‘you kicked the free too quick’.

“When he gave me that answer, I wasn’t very happy with it. Maurice Fitzgerald was there and he grabbed me by the hand and said, ‘Clarkey, tis alright, I’ll kick it over’. That’s how I settled for a point, because Fitzy said it.”

Fitzgerald swung over the free and Kerry eventually powered to a seven-point win, thanks in part to a goal from the boot of substitute Mike Frank Russell, who had replaced Clarke in the second half. When the final whistle sounded, one of the first people on the field to congratulate Russell was Clarke. “Coming from basketball where a player can be substituted or fouled out, you’re still part of that team,” Clarke says. “The most important thing was that the team got over the line.”

Despite the fact that he had been taken off in the semi-final, Clarke was still expected to start the final against Mayo. That’s what he expected too. Unfortunately, that’s not how things played out.

“I’m not sure where it came from. I had trained for the month between the semi-final and final and there were no signs that I was going to be dropped, until I received a phone call at home at 10 o’clock on Tuesday night. My mother answered the phone and Páidí said, ‘can I talk to Brian, is he there?’ And I was dropped over the telephone, which I’ve always been insulted by. I was disappointed at the way I was treated, really. But it was said to me on that call that I would be very much part of what went on that Sunday (in the final).

“On Wednesday I was dejected, but when Thursday comes around you have to pick yourself up and go to training. We met on the Saturday then again and of course I was talking to the guys in the forwards in particular. Myself and Dara Ó Cinnéide spent a lot of time together over those few days (Ó Cinnéide took over Clarke’s full forward spot with Billy O’Shea coming in at corner forward). He’s a very easy-going, cool character. He suited me well. You can’t have too much fire around the place.”

Kerry famously defeated Mayo in the final with Maurice Fitzgerald putting on an unforgettable display of point-kicking. The man who replaced Clarke in the starting 15, Billy O’Shea, was stretchered off in the first half after Fitzgerald inadvertently broke his leg, but Clarke wasn’t brought on in his stead. All told, Kerry made three substitutions, all in the forwards. The young Dr Crokes man wasn’t one of them.

“I felt part of it all morning and during the game but I suppose when your name isn’t called out to even warm up, having been an integral part of the squad… There was elation first of all when the final whistle blew. But then, after a couple of congratulatory slaps on the back from Kerry supporters as we went across the pitch to collect the cup, a bit of reality sunk in. There was fellas congratulating me for something I wasn’t really involved in, at least not on the day of the final.

“That was a long trip home. We had the celebrations in Dublin which was a brilliant night. But I was a bit annoyed at the time and I let things get on top of me. I didn’t get down with the team on the Sunday because I had a late night the night before. I missed the bus. I travelled down by train and my parents picked me up in Mallow.

“But I met the team in the Gleneagle Hotel then. The craic around Killarney was massive.”

Clarke soldiered on for the first few games of the 1997/98 league but in 1998, at just 23 years of age, he decided to walk away from the county team. By this stage, mainly due to the manner in which he was left out of the All-Ireland final, his relationship with Páidí Ó Sé was well and truly on the rocks.

“What do they call it, ‘fraught’? Is that the word?” Clarke laughs. “The trust from my side was gone really. If Páidí told me it was raining, I’d have to look outside.”

There was to be one final swansong. When two local teenagers, Seán O’Connor of the Legion and Martin Beckett of Dr Crokes (both 18), were tragically killed in a car crash in September of ‘98, Clarke decided to give Kerry football another go.

His voice breaks as he says that Beckett, a talented member of the Kerry U21 panel, would have been part of the Kerry senior team in 1999. His own return to Kerry colours was a tribute to his fallen clubmate.

He played in the league and made one final championship appearance in 1999, a Munster quarter-final victory over Tipperary. However, after being overlooked in the Munster final against Cork, that was that. The 24-year-old walked away from the intercounty game for good.

“I still had to go to work the following morning. All of the commitment with Kerry is grand when you’re involved. Nowadays there’s always an opportunity for a player to get into a game, but back then if they made two subs it was a lot. You have to really love things [to stay committed when not playing], and for me the love was gone from two years previous and that phone call.”

*  *  *

Sitting in his living room, 25 years on from his best run in green and gold, does Clarke have any regrets when he reflects upon his Kerry career?

“No, I think I walked away at the right time for me,” he insists. “You can’t keep everyone else happy when you’re disappointed and annoyed about things yourself. I felt it was the best thing for me to do. There was no such thing as a retirement back then. I was surplus to requirements, and I felt that way. I didn’t want to rot on the bench.

“Overall, having started with the seniors in ’93 and having played minors and U21s as well, I have a lot to be proud of really.”

He continued to play basketball with Paul’s and club football for the Crokes, although it wasn’t all smooth sailing with the latter.

“I’m a controversial character,” he declares, with more than a hint of humour in his voice. “There was a small falling out within the club in 2000, so I decided it was best to stay away from the team. It was great for Crokes to win the County Championship that year but I wasn’t involved towards the end of the season. I played again in 2001 and then I moved from senior to junior for seven or eight years. I enjoyed playing at that level at that point because I was still keeping in touch with the game and still keeping in touch with the club, but it was on a more leisurely basis. Which suits me!”

Nowadays he gets his sporting fix at the picturesque Killarney Golf and Fishing Club. “I love the golf. There are good characters back there and a great club spirit. The golf to me is an extension of being competitive. That’s what I miss most of all.”

Does that competitiveness sometimes spill over on the course in the same way it did on the football field?

“Moreso when I was starting out. I suppose I realise at this point that I’m not going to make any money out of it! When I started out, an odd club went flying left or right. But now I’m much more settled and I can appreciate that I will hit the occasional good shot, rather than expecting every shot to be good.”

Whether he’s talking about the good or the bad, his achievements, his talents or his moments of indiscipline, Clarke seems quite happy to accept that it’s all part of what makes him.

As he says himself, “that’s just who I am”.

You get the impression that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Kerry will need more intensity, more physicality and more collaboration to bounce back from Dub drubbing

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by Adam Moynihan

In the 22nd minute of last Saturday night’s league match in Croke Park, Lee Gannon collected a pass on his own 65 and carried the ball unchallenged right into the heart of Kerry’s defence. Brian Fenton took over and a tackle by Diarmuid O’Connor slowed the attack.

Then Fenton looked up and saw that Niall Scully was standing at the top of the D, completely unmarked. It was a simple five-metre handpass to the centre, and Scully had all the time in the world to steady himself and shoot. His point made it Dublin 2-8 Kerry 0-5. Ten shots for Dublin. Ten scores. One-way traffic.

The Dubs deserve credit for their accuracy in front of the posts – Con O’Callaghan was particularly excellent – but the ease with which they were creating their openings was startling from a Kerry perspective. For Scully’s score, the resistance was non-existent. If the same thing happened in a training match, the manager would be well within his rights to call off the session and send everyone home.

The cameras may have been trained on Kerry’s full back line and, yes, Jason Foley and Dylan Casey were struggling against O’Callaghan and Paddy Small, but Kerry were found wanting all over the pitch. You could have sailed the Titanic down the centre of their defence and O’Callaghan exploited that space to great effect for his third goal. Foley got hoodwinked by a lovely piece of movement by the Dublin full forward, but where was the help?

Centre back Tadhg Morley was pushing up on Dublin dangerman Seán Bugler but that’s the thing with Dublin: all their forwards are dangerous in one way or another. Maybe Tadhg was following instructions but you wonder if he could have cheated off Bugler when the all-action centre forward was outside the 45.

Whether it’s Morley or someone else, that gap in front of the goal needs to be filled – especially against teams of Dublin’s calibre.

What we saw in Croke Park last Saturday was a far cry from the solid defensive structure that won Kerry an All-Ireland in 2022, that’s for sure. You can be certain that Jack O’Connor will be demanding a far more intense, more physical and more collaborative performance against Tyrone on Sunday (1.15pm).

KICKOUTS

Speaking after the Dublin game, O’Connor said that his side “malfunctioned” on the kickouts. While Dublin keeper David O’Hanlon was firing out his kicks like a machine gun, Shane Ryan was far more measured with his. Dublin’s press was brilliant in fairness to them but you’d have to question Kerry’s appetite for making honest, hard runs and receiving the ball in potentially tight areas.

Graham O’Sullivan and Brian Ó Beaglaoich (who is currently injured) are outstanding when it comes to breaking free and accepting that responsibility. You’d like to see one or two more backs getting in on the act.

As for Ryan himself, could he be a bit quicker and a bit more adventurous with his distribution? Look, if there’s nothing on, there’s nothing on, but I think at times he could back himself more resolutely. He has the range and the accuracy.

Of course, if he takes a risk and it gets intercepted he’ll be in line for even sharper criticism, so you can understand him being cautious when the kick isn’t 100% on.

Whatever the solution, on the evidence of the Dublin and Derry games, Kerry do need to try something a bit different to beat the press. Tyrone are unlikely to be as aggressive as Dublin were but when they do push up, it will be fascinating to see how Kerry deal with it.

Kerry’s midfielders also need to compete aerially against whoever they’re up against when it goes long – even if that’s Brian Fenton or Conor Glass or Brendan Rogers. It’s not easy to get the better of these guys in the air (or to break even, which would do) but that’s the level required.

Joe O’Connor showed that his ball skills have improved markedly by taking his goal and his point so cleanly, and he is doing well in general, but he and his namesake Diarmuid will have to be more impactful both from kickouts and without the ball if Kerry want to be a real force this season.

Personally, I would like to see Seán O’Brien getting some more game time. He has only played six minutes since being taken off early on his debut against Derry five weeks ago. Kerry will need back-up at midfield as the season goes on and O’Brien has a lot of potential.

FORWARDS

Up front, the main positive is that Cillian Burke continues to make his presence felt. Even when his more experienced teammates were faltering the last night, Burke stood tall and played his usual game. And he swung over a great score for good measure.

David Clifford will be disappointed that he didn’t convert one of his goal chances – the first one was definitely there for the taking – but you know that over the course of the season he’ll finish more of those than he misses. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if he comes out and strokes one in on Sunday.

It’s nice to see Tony Brosnan back on the pitch as well. He deserves some kind fortune following a tough spell with illness and injury.

Tyrone coming to Killarney gives the players the perfect opportunity to bounce back quickly and show supporters – and themselves – that the Dublin game was a glitch and nothing more. Improvements are needed all over the pitch but the sight of the Red Hand should bring focus and resolve.

A good performance, a win and two points would put a lot of minds at ease.

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Killarney girls will answer Ireland’s call

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A trio of talented young Killarney rugby players have been called up to the Ireland U18 squad for the upcoming Six Nations festival in Wales.

Ava O’Malley, Fia Whelan and Emma Dunican have all been included in Matt Gill’s panel for the tournament, which will take place between March 29 and April 6. They will link up with their new teammates for three weekend training camps at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin during the month of March.

Gill, the current Women’s Provincial Talent Coach for Leinster, will be assisted by Sana Govender, who has previously coached Munster Women’s teams.

“I’m really looking forward to continuing our Irish U18 Women’s Six Nations preparations and getting our camps underway,” the head coach said. “I’m excited to work with Sana and our management team, and to work with this incredibly talented group of players.”

O’Malley, Whelan and Dunican are products of Killarney RFC’s blossoming youth set-up and all three were on the U18.5 team that recently won the Munster League.

Including the Killarney girls, there are seven Munster-based players on the 35-woman squad with 15 hailing from Leinster, eight from Connacht and five from Ulster.

“It’s a very proud day for the girls, their families, teammates and coaches, and for Killarney RFC,” the club commented. “Best of luck, girls!”

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