Clarke's the man for the big occasion says former AFL mentor
IF anyone knows Down star Martin Clarke it's Collingwood's national recruiting manager Derek Hine. Not only did he scout and sign the Gaelic footballer to Australian Football, but when Clarke arrived down under he moved in with Hine and his family.
Hine refers to Clarke with a familiarity that suggests he thinks of him as more of a friend than a former club player and says that such is his composure in the lead up to big games, that not even those closest to him will have noticed a change in his behaviour in the build-up to the biggest game of his life so far.
"There's no change whatsoever. You'd never detect whether Martin is playing in front of 100 people or 100,000 people," Hine says.
"It's a special quality and it's just something internal in him. It's not something you can practise (composure), it's just innate."
Despite the fact that Hine believes Clarke will be completely unaffected by Sunday's All-Ireland final against Cork, he said that he will relish the enormity of the big occasion. What's more, he says the Down man's time in Australia playing for the Pies in front of big crowds on a weekly basis will help him.
"He really looks forward to big games in front of big crowds. He thrives on the big occasion, it's his time to display his skills. When he was here, he was playing in front of 60 or 70,000 people week in, week out. There's no doubt that will help him."
Hine says Clarke's temperament was the standout feature that prompted the club to chase his signature when they first watched him play.
"If you take it right back when we first went to watch him play at Casement Park (McRory Cup Colleges), that was what attracted us to him you could say.
"You could see that he was a big game player with a fantastic temperament. We knew that he was a player that could deliver when the stakes were high.
"That's something that's hard to measure because it comes from within but right from the start we knew he had it. And when he made the transition to AFL, he brought those traits with him."
On one occasion in particular, Hine recalls Clarke's level of calm in the build up to one of Collingwood's biggest matches. Hine met Clarke in the changing rooms before the Pies ran out on to the field to take on Geelong in the 2007 preliminary final (equivalent of All-Ireland semi-final).
"Martin was supposed to organise a car pass for me for the game so I could park closer to the ground. For whatever reason, it didn't happen but I remember going into the rooms with my sons before the game and seeing Martin. He was just about to run out onto the ground before the game and he came over to me and started apologising about the car pass. I just said 'don't worry about it, get out on the field'.
"It was so funny because he was almost late going onto the field because he was talking to me. And that's him. About to go out and play in front of 100,000 people and he was just having a chat. He was the exact same in his very first senior game. He was playing in front of about 50,000 people and was completely calm."
More importantly though, Hine said the former Pies midfielder always delivered on the big occasion.
"If you look at all the finals games he played during his time in Australia he featured among the top players on the day. And I'd be very surprised if he doesn't do the same this Sunday."
His former team-mates in Melbourne have been keeping a close eye on his progress through the championship, as has Hine.
"The IT department at the club have been very busy recording games and making DVD copies for the players. A lot of them have kept in touch with Martin and have been in touch with him this week by text and a few of them have spoke to him also.
"One of the players came into my office the other day and was asking how he's going and I was saying to them that nobody over here realises just what it is that he's done.
"When Tadhg Kennelly went back to Ireland he went to a very successful county but Martin's gone back there to a team that haven't been successful lately and had a huge influence, and that's having not played senior Gaelic football before."
Despite being very popular with the Collingwood playing group, Hine says that Clarke is essentially a very private person.
"He's his own man and always had his own time. He would grab the football and go for a walk. He needed his own space. That was part of his preparation too."
Hine isn't shocked that his former player isn't engaging in a whole lot of media since his return to Ireland.
"That doesn't surprise me at all. In Martin's case it's not a disrespectful thing towards the media. He just feels there's no need for it. When he was here there was enormous interest in him and his story but he was always really reluctant to do any media.
"The only way we could twist his arm to do it was to say that if he did something, then at least he wouldn't have to do anything again for a while. He just felt that he was here to play and learn his craft and that there was no need to do it."
Tomorrow night the Pies again face Geelong in a preliminary final, but this time without Clarke who instead has All-Ireland silverware on his mind.