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Tuesday 21 May 2019

This means the world

Clarke: 'It's been a long hard wait for a title at St Pat's'

IN NORMAL circumstances, a player sending out a tweet at 3am informing the world that he's headed for McDonald's, presumably after a big session and more than a pint or two, would expect to encounter a bit of bother from his club.

But when you have just been confirmed as champions of Ireland, the rulebook tends to go out the window a bit, and that's why the St Patrick's Athletic players have been enjoying their time since Sunday's 2-0 win over Sligo Rovers saw them win the Premier Division title.

It's not a case of non-stop partying, though.

"We got a text yesterday to say that we were back in for training on Tuesday, that didn't go down too well with some of the boys," jokes Brendan Clarke, the Saints keeper who played a massive role in their title success with his record of 18 clean sheets.

"We have been able to enjoy the celebrations since then, though.

"It was a bit of a late one on Sunday night, we met up again on yesterday and some of the lads were still in their tracksuits, I don't think they had been been home at all. Inchicore was buzzing on Sunday night and again yesterday, just to see all the fans out celebrating and seeing so many people happy brought it all home to the players.

"So we will enjoy the celebrations, but we'll get back to work now, we have a game against Derry on Friday night.

"It's a big night for us as we will get the league trophy, but it's an important game as well because Derry are still trying to get into Europe so we can't just turn up on the night."

Having endured a 14-year wait for the league title to come back – though Saints fans dispute that timeline as they claim the title from the controversial 2001/02 season – the Inchicore faithful will relish every moment of their hard-fought but well-earned status as league champions.

But apart from having two league games left to deal with, the club also need to look to the future.

Due to the current trend in League of Ireland football, uncertainty is already there as just one Pat's player, back-up keeper Rene Gilmartin, is under contract for next season, while the contract of manager Liam Buckley is also up.

Yet with Champions League football on offer next season, Richmond Park will be a very attractive place to work in 2014, so none of the current squad will be keen to leave, while players from rival clubs who are out of contract could also be attracted to Pat's.

"No one will want to leave this place, that's for definite," says Clarke.

"Everyone wants to be here for the Champions League next season, and Liam's job now is to assemble a squad that can compete on all fronts next season, whatever changes he feels are needed, he will make.

"Liam comes across as a nice guy but he can be ruthless when he needs to be, and that will be his job over the close season.

"We are all in the same boat, bar Rene Gilmartin, as we are all out of contract. But there is no major panic in terms of contracts, winning the league has been the goal for the last few weeks. Now that it's done, Liam knows what budget he will have and he can plan on that basis, so he will sit down in the next week or two and get some deals done."

The win was also a sweet success for Clarke, who is a life-long Pat's fan and also claims the title of their longest-serving player, having joined the Saints nine years ago (although club captain Conor Kenna, with four years' unbroken service, insists that he is the longest-serving as Clarke had two spells away from the club).

"Conor is here for four years straight so that's a decent record but if I sign back next season it will be 10 seasons since I came here.

"I was away for a while with Sporting Fingal and Sligo Rovers; we can argue over who is the longest-serving Pat's player.

"But I know what it means to people here. I saw the club have success when I was just a fan, but also saw the hard times, like losing cup finals and when we were nearly relegated in 2009.

"I was talking to my Dad about it on Sunday night. We saw Paul Campbell score the league-winning goal in Dundalk in '96, we were there for Eddie Gormley's goal in Kilkenny to win it in '98, we saw Jeff Clarke's goal against Bray in '99, and now we have the memory of Greg Bolger in 2013, and for me to play in that game, play in a league-winning team with Pat's, means the world to me."

Midfielder Bolger earned deserved praise for his stunning goal in Sunday's win, but the Wexford lad came up with the moment of the game for Clarke. "People ask me if there was one moment in the season when I knew the league was ours, but for me it was when Greg got me out of a hole by clearing a Sligo chance off the line near the end of the game on Sunday, that's when I knew that this was our time," he says.

"It could have gone the other way on Sunday, especially when we heard the PA in the stadium playing the Champions League music at half time. We were in the dressing room, Liam was telling us that the job wasn't done yet and how we needed to improve, and then we heard We Are The Champions coming through. We're just glad that it didn't come back to haunt us and we can just enjoy this now."

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