By Kieran Lynch
“MY goal is to win an All-Ireland with Armagh, that’s number one. And we’re so close; we’re really, really close.”
Alex Clarke has big ambitions. At the age of 20, she has her whole career ahead of her, but she has only one goal in mind. And she believes that she is very close to achieving it.
“We set out every year to win it and growing up you always dream about playing in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. So that’s what I want to do above anything else – win an All-Ireland with Armagh.
“Hopefully next year we will do it, because it’s wide open at the minute; we drew against Meath this year and obviously losing to Kerry was a shock, but they’re a phenomenal team in their own right.”
Having had an excellent campaign for her county in 2021, Clarke was ready to set the world alight in her third year on the panel, but unfortunately for the Crossmaglen sharpshooter, it didn’t look like she was going to get the chance.
“I knew something was wrong. It was in mid-January when I first tweaked it,” she reflected.
“But this was my third year in the team, I had a great year last year and I was flying in pre-season. However, with the injury the physio had thought it could be tendonitis and that I should take the intensity down. We played Down in a friendly, and I played half of that match, but I was sore afterwards.
“The following Sunday we were training up in Killean, and I went into a shooting drill. I remember that Aimee [Mackin] laid the ball off and it wasn’t that I was trying to prove anything to management, they had obviously known that I was sore; but I went at it 100 miles per hour, I took the goal really well. But as soon as the ball left my foot, I heard a bang, and I knew something was wrong.”
Clarke’s worst fears were realised. She had suffered a serious injury and was going to have to spend quite some time on the side-lines. Whilst she did her injury rehab, her Armagh teammates were off to a storming start in their league campaign, which led them to a Croke Park appearance to face Kerry in the final.
Clarke watched that game on crutches.
“The injury happened on a Sunday, I went for an MRI on the Tuesday, and on the Thursday it came back that I had broken my kneecap, the patella,” said Clarke.
“The physio had said that I could have had a stress fracture, that just got worse and worse as time went on, and the doctor said that my quad was that strong that when it contracted, the bone was too weak, and it just blew.
“It didn’t need surgery, but I was in a cast for six or seven weeks, and then I was into a knee brace. And at the time Armagh went on a great run, and I had a goal at the start of the year of getting to the league final and playing in Croke Park. We got there of course, and to play in Croke Park is my dream and it’s what I play for, but it was taken away from me.”
Having put in huge amounts of effort into her pre-season training, and harbouring big goals for the year, both personally and as part of the Armagh team, Clarke saw her script for 2022 ripped up in front of her face.
However, keeping the presence of positive company uplifted her spirits, and got her back on the road to recovery.
“I’m lucky that I have good people around me, but for the first couple of weeks I was very low. I couldn’t believe it,” she conceded, when looking back on how the injury affected her mentally.
“Then I thought, ‘well there is nothing I can do,’ the only thing in my control was to keep my head up and do what I can to get back, but it does affect you; there were days where I didn’t want to leave the house. But then, there were other days where I was dying to get to the gym.
“But I took it easy, met up with friends and drank a lot of coffee – and you need that. Having positive people around was so important. My physio was Catherine Marley, and she was great and made sure I was positive coming out of every appointment.”
After doing months of rehab and gym work to get herself back to full fitness, it was time to begin training again, but thankfully for Clarke, she knew straight away that she was back on track.
“My biggest fear was whether my knee would be sore whenever I kicked the ball, but there was no problem. As soon as I had my first kick of the ball I knew, ‘I’m fine here,’ I had no pain in my knee at all.
“I was able to change direction fine, and I was flying. I was fast, I was sharp, and I was coming back to my best in training. I felt strong, and I was confident too going back into training, because if you go back in thinking, ‘I have catching up to do,’ then you’re going to fall behind.”
Clarke’s hard work paid off, as on June 19, less than five months after she suffered her injury, she returned to field for Armagh, coming off the bench in their drawn game against Meath. She followed that up with another substitute appearance against Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final, and she described how wonderful a feeling it was, to prove people wrong upon her return.
“It was unreal to get back out there. Those are the days you live for,” she explained.
“When I came back into training, I felt as though it was nearly too good to be true, because we were on a run in the All-Ireland Championship. When I came on, I wanted to get on the ball straight away and see how I felt and getting to play against the top teams and test myself again was an unbelievable feeling.
“It’s not so much that people wrote me off, but I think everybody thought that because I broke my kneecap I was done for the year. But in my mind, I was always getting back. I worked too hard in pre-season to let it all go.”
However great it was for Clarke personally to return to action, ultimately Armagh’s campaign ended in disappointment, as they lost out 4-12 to 2-14 against Kerry, in what Clarke could only describe as a ‘shock.’
“We have regrets, in terms of there are things that we should have done against Kerry; but we had a really positive year, and there was a great buzz in the camp,” she reflected.
“But getting beat by Kerry was a huge shock to the system, because I was just back in with the team, and it never crossed my mind that we were going to be beaten in that game, and I think that goes for all of the team.
“Unfortunately, I never really got a great run at it this year, and I felt as though I couldn’t give a lot. I know you’re doing what you can from the side-line, but it’s not the same as being on the pitch.
“We’ll definitely have our regrets, and we’re right up there with the very best, but that’s sport, it can break your heart at times. You see those girls four or five nights a week, and it’s all you know, and in an instant, all of that gets taken away from you. It’s heart breaking.”
Following the end of the inter-county season, Clarke made her return to Crossmaglen action, and what a return it was. She had a stormer, as she blitzed home 4-6 against local rivals Killeavy, and reminded everybody of what she’s capable of.
“The Killeavy game was my first full 60 minutes in nearly six months,” she said, before discussing her excellent performance.
“My goal earlier in the year was just to get back out on the pitch – anything else is a bonus.
“And subconsciously, there’s a comfort that comes with playing with Cross, because you’re playing with the girls that you grew up with. With Cross for me, it’s just about relaxing and enjoying it – but there are probably expectations to live up to, whenever you’re coming back from playing with Armagh.”
The idea of having expectations thrust upon her is nothing new for Clarke. Her older brother Jamie has been one of the best forwards anywhere in Ireland since making his inter-county debut in 2010, and when she burst on the scene, her surname alone struck fear into the hearts of her opposing defenders.
But does Jamie’s fame add pressure?
“No l don’t think so. I’m very lucky to have someone like Jamie. I still think that he’s one of the very best players in the country,” she said, regarding living up to her older brother.
“Some people will always know me as, ‘Jamie Clarke’s wee sister,’ but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel any added pressure as such, because I’m my own person. But I’m really lucky to have him, and I’ve learned a lot from him over the years.”
Jamie of course would have been a role model for her growing up, but it’s one of her current teammates who Clarke now strives to emulate.
“You look at the likes of Aimee [Mackin] there. Aimee is on a different level at the minute,” she said.
“I feel like Aimee is a natural footballer and she has that skill, and not a lot of girls have that skill about them that she has. I played soccer too, and I think that we have that bit of skill that’s in us, and Aimee would be one of my favourites to watch – she’s unbelievable.”
One of the biggest talking points in Ladies’ Gaelic football is the turnover rate of some of the country’s best players, who have moved or are going to move to Australia and play Aussie Rules Football.
Clarke’s teammate Blaithin Mackin is one of the latest players to try her hand at the professional sport, but the idea of leaving
Ireland for a new life isn’t alien to her.
“Jamie was one of the first to go away (in 2016), and people couldn’t believe he was leaving, but now everyone is going,” said Clarke, when discussing emigration.
“Some people maybe turned their noses up when he left, but why wouldn’t he go? At the end of the day, there is more to life than football. GAA is a big part of everybody’s life, especially in Cross, and it’s all you know, so when he first left it was massive.
“But now it’s so normal for people to travel abroad. Look at Blaithin there, she deserves that (move to Australia). She’s a great girl and I wish her all the best. She’ll be a rockstar out there.”
The growing trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, and despite her current attentions being fully focused on success with Crossmaglen and Armagh, Clarke wouldn’t rule out the opportunity to travel the world, if it ever came her way.
“I think that if I got the opportunity, I would go,” she affirmed.
“I would have to think about it, and sit down and talk it over, but it’s probably not something that I’ll think about for a couple of years anyway, I still feel like I have a long career ahead of me.
“I would love to go to America – New York is one of my favourite places, but we’ll see what happens.”