By Shaun Casey
WHEN Stevie Clarke looks his Glenn players in the eyes and tells them to do whatever it takes to be successful, he’s speaking from experience. That’s the mentality of the former Glenn captain. Whatever it takes.
The last time Glenn tasted championship success, Clarke missed out on most of the season through injury. He tore his right cruciate ligament at the end of the 2018 season but within five months, he was back in the thick of it.
Looking back, it was the wrong decision as halfway through the league his ACL went again. But even that wasn’t enough to restrain him. Clarke’s will to win never wilted and he was determined to get back for the championship. And he did.
“I was back playing in five months whereas the cruciate normally takes eight or nine months,” recalls Clarke, who also tore his left ACL earlier in his career as well.
“To be honest, it was a totally selfish thing. I wanted to be considered for the captain and that’s why I pushed myself back and it was totally the wrong decision.
“I got back and played eight league games and in the eighth game the cruciate went again. I was definitely pulling the pin then. I didn’t get an operation and I was just really annoyed about the whole thing to be honest.
“Tony Bagnall, our manager at the time, a brilliant, brilliant man, was straight in seeing about me the next day and asked me would I come in and help out the management team. So I did that for three months and the whole time I was still working away in the gym.
“I work for myself and for those five months there was very little work done. I was in the gym twice a day every day and having that freedom to do that helped. I was ready to come back and physically I was ready to come back but the cruciate just wasn’t ready.
“I spoke to a couple of different people, I actually spoke to Kieran McGeeney about it, an absolute gentleman. He met me for a coffee, and I have really good time for him, a really good guy.
“He talked with me through what he did – he played without the cruciate, so I decided I was going to give that a go and be back for the championship. I played every game and I re-hurt the knee in the semi-final.
“I came on in the last couple of minutes in the final, but it was really just Tony giving me a few minutes to be fair to him. But it went well, we ended up winning the championship, so it was a good finish to the whole thing.”
Getting on to that Newry turf, even just for a few minutes, meant the world to Clarke. If anyone deserved it, he did. Glenn captured the Intermediate title that season and for the four years that have followed, they’ve been plying their trade at the top table.
Bagnall hung up the bainisteoir bib last year while Clarke decided enough was enough. His body simply couldn’t do it anymore so he swapped the boots for a whistle and stepped into the vacant management position.
“I retired last year, I wanted to get into coaching and management. I’ve taken underage teams the last number of years, but it definitely wasn’t my aim to get involved with the senior panel that I just got out of.
“Because I stayed on so long, I played until I was 39, a lot of the guys that I would have come up with had retired, long retired,” explained the Glenn boss.
“I would have been quite hard probably in the team anyway. I would have been driving them on and demanding of them all the time anyway so it wasn’t as difficult a shift for me, but I would say it was a difficult shift for the players.
“When I was playing, it was very easy to turn around and tell me to bugger off but when I’ve now gone to being the guy on the line, you just can’t do that. That was difficult for them and there was a bit of teething at the start.
“But to be fair, the lads have been brilliant with it and there was a lot of conversations at the start before I even took the job. I’d say I met maybe 10 or 15 players.
“I sat down with them and outlined what I was going to be doing and what I wanted and if they were going to be accepting of that. To be fair all the feedback I received was positive and that’s why I’m in now.”
It has been a difficult first year as Glenn suffered relegation to Division Three in the league. At an early pre-season training session back in February, at St Colman’s running track, Glenn had 12 players turn up. But things have certainly taken an upward curve since then.
Three championship wins on the trot over Saval, Longstone and Mayobridge has allowed Clarke’s charges to progress to the final four of the Senior Championship for the first time in 37 years.
The return of their county contingent, namely captain Niall McParland, Shay Millar and John O’Hare, along with the addition of another few others from injury and from their travels, has propelled them into the semi-finals.
“Our take on it is that we really have two different teams for the two different competitions,” reflected Clarke. “Ultimately, we were playing the league without a full pick of our full panel for 14 games out of 18.
“We didn’t have our county guys and then we had a few injuries and stuff, but with the split season we don’t get access to them guys for two thirds or three quarters of the league.
“We had a couple of guys away to America and to be fair Conor Laverty did release an odd player here and there but it’s just not the same bombing them into a team that they’re not training with.
“The whole level of the team drops and the whole level of training drops when you take three of your top five or top six best players out of the team. But since we’ve had those guys back, I think we’ve won six out of seven games.
“We had the county boys and then there’s Jack McCartan, who would have been another guy that would have been flirting with the county this past couple of years, as well as Denis Murtagh who would have been part of county panels, they missed the majority of this year.
“I think Denis played two league games and Jack maybe only three or four, so everyone seemed to come back at the one time after the July fortnight. We put a bit of a run together, but it wasn’t enough (to survive relegation).
“That’s probably the one disappointment from our point of view as a club, that there is no failsafe there for a team that has three county lads in Division Two. We don’t have big squad numbers.
“There’s just nothing there to give them a chance to say that’s not actually a true reflection on our team given we’ve been missing that many players all year. I think we were four or five years in Division One and a lot of them guys would have played in that.
“But we have a lot of talent within our squad. Guys like Paddy Brooks was on the Down u-20 panel, we have another could of lads that were on the Down u-20 squad at the early part of the year as well.”
Now as they embarked on an even bigger voyage, Clarke is demanding the best of his loyal group of soldiers. Their quarter-final win over Mayobridge showed that they can mix it with the best in the Mourne County, but Friday’s showdown with Burren will be another step up.
“Burren would be up there as the top two or three in the county. I have a lot of respect for them, but I think we match up against them okay and I know some people will think that’s ridiculous, but I genuinely think we do.
“There’s a lot of belief in our camp. Every game really has been a step up from the start against Saval, which we scraped through in the end, but then they stepped up again against Longstone in the next game and the same again against Mayobridge.
“Our lads have stepped up every single game so if we can keep doing what we’ve been doing and we play the level that Burren are playing at, I think we’ll be okay. We can definitely give them a game and hopefully it’s tight on the night.”