HE waited over a year for this day, but for Darren Clarke, it was the perfect time to be recalled to the Louth starting 15.
Clarke’s last start for the Wee County came in March 2010 against Cavan in a Division Three fixture. He would later be called upon as a substitute against Dublin the All-Ireland Qualifiers, but Clarke has not seen plenty of county football in recent times, that is until Sunday in Dungarvan.
After recovering from a serious knee injury, the former St Mary’s man, now St Sylvester’s opened the scoring for Louth in their crucial tie against Waterford.
At Darver on Thursday night, the corner forward was ecstatic to learn that he would be lining out for the do or die clash.
Speaking post game, he said: “I was delighted to get the nod to be honest”, said Clarke. “It’s been my main aim all year to try and get into the starting 15.”
Clarke revealed that he had a frustrating time since the new year, working in the gym with strength and conditioning coach Tony McParland on rehabilitating his knee for the coming year and getting back to match shape.
“I owe it all to Tony. I’ve been in the gym with him twice a week every week. He was a great help to me.”
Despite the lack of competitive games, Peter Fitzpatrick knew he had to shake up his side and bring in some experience for their last game in Division Three. He had to look no further than Clarke, who showed he is still pinpoint accurate with frees.
“I had not played a competitive match since the new year and I need to work on match fitness now. But I was delighted to get out there. When I went to the knee specialist, he saw a defect in the cartilage.
“So I had a procedure done that’s relatively new here in this country. A lot of top NBA players have had it done, but it’s still relatively new here. But I could not do anything for three to four months, which was very tough, considering the timeframe of games in football. It’s not easy to be out for that long.”
Clarke had to sit through the O’Byrne Cup run and then wonder would he ever get a starting place as Louth raced into an early lead in Division Three, winning their first three games.
“The lads were flying in their first few games”, said Clarke. “We were winning games without really setting the world on fire.
“But we were putting in the effort, training four times a week and thought we deserved something out of this campaign for the work we put in. Perhaps the bit of luck we were due, after what happened in the Leinster Final last year, came into play today.”
As a result, Louth will now play Westmeath in Croke Park on April 23 under lights something Clarke and co are certainly looking forward to.
“It gives us something to prepare for and another competitive match before the Championship match against Carlow. Along with that, it’s a chance to play at Croke Park before the Championship.”
However, the game against Westmeath looked unlikely due to the slow start Louth made against Waterford under the sun split sky in Dungarven.
“It was scorching. Some of the lads were saying to me I couldn’t have picked a better day to come back. It was nip and tuck all game, but the boys dug in deep at the end and Paddy stood up and got us out of a hole.
“The last ten to 15 minutes, when we got going, it gave us a kick. We knew we would get a purple patch and when the game opened up, we got the right balls into the right people.
“We were not clicking in the first half, but I thought we did well in the last 15 minutes.”
At the end of a tough game, the Louth team did not know whether to celebrate or take the blow of losing out on promotion on the chin.
But after some calculations were done, the news broke through that Louth were promoted.
“There was a bit of confusion at the end”, laughed Clarke.
“When it came through that three teams were on joint points, we thought that was it because we lost to Offaly, but then when we heard differently, we were ecstatic. It’s brilliant to get up after the season we had.
“We got a bit of luck, but we really need to be playing against a higher standard like the teams that are in Division Two if we are going to do well in the Championship every year.
“In 2006, we won promotion in Dungarvan to Division One, so maybe it’s a good ground for us.”