Dick Clerkin’s Indian summer was richly deserved

Monaghan midfielder rides off into sunset after career spent fighting in the trenches

Farewell, then, Dick Clerkin. At least you won't be called a veteran any more. Back in April 2014, my phone pinged with a text from the Monaghan midfielder – by then, it should be noted, coming up on 15 years into his senior intercounty career. "I am growing a steady dislike for the term Veteran," he wrote, "since it now seems compulsory to precede my name with it!"

He followed up with a couple of emojis which were frankly unbecoming of someone of his advancing years. My advice then was to instantly retire and join the coaching staff. In the blink of an eye, he’d be a fresh-faced up-and-comer, one of the new breed, brimming with ideas and potential. Didn’t get a reply to that one.

Two-and-a-half years later, he’s finally pulled stumps. The last of the intercounty careers that started in the 1990s has come and gone. Seventeen years to the day after his debut against Cavan in 1999, he wrote a goodbye column and called time. Clerkin played 169 senior games and holds the Monaghan record for championship appearances at 54. By any metric, this was a career.

You’d have needed to carry a bleak darkness within you to be wishing a 17-year career on a young Monaghan footballer in October 1999. The county’s championship record for the decade that was just about to end read Played 17 Won 4 Drew 3 Lost 10. Their wins came against Antrim, Cavan and a famous one against Donegal in 1995 that still stood as their most recent win when Clerkin joined the panel.

Monaghan didn’t just lose every year in Ulster. They got minced every year in Ulster. Their average defeat through the 1990s was by 6.5 points. They’d been relegated to the bottom tier of the league again the previous spring and were about to head into a campaign that would comprise games against Tipperary, Waterford and Carlow.

In Clerkin’s third game, Carlow beat them in Dr Cullen Park. A couple of years later, he was in the side that drew with Waterford in Dungarvan and got blitzed by Declan Browne as Tipperary beat them by eight points three weeks later. A few years after that, he kicked three frees and another point from play to sticky-tape them through a 2-2 to 0-8 draw with Clare in Ennis. This is what it was to be a Monaghan footballer for most of the first half of Clerkin’s career.

In 54 championship games, he played against 18 different counties and lost to 15 of them at least once. Over the years, he was in teams that lost qualifiers to Louth, Longford, Wexford and Offaly. It was 2005 before he played championship in Croke Park, 2007 before he played in an Ulster final. The struggle was real.

Unknown and unheralded

It was, in short, the stuff of most intercounty careers. League games in front of crowds of a couple of thousand if the weather is behaving itself. Summers that are done in or around the solstice. The odd day in the sun, the occasional shout-out from The Sunday Game lads on a quiet weekend. We keep being told about the 99 per cent of GAA players who are club players only, but within the intercounty pool the majority of players plough through their careers unknown and unheralded.

Dick Clerkin absolutely belonged to that cohort for most of his time. He was never the best player Monaghan had, never a big scorer or a stand-out in defence. Monaghan have had 20 All Star nominees over the course of his time in the jersey and if there was ever a campaign of righteous anger at him having never been one of them, it died a quiet and unloved death.

But as they grew in stature from 2005 onwards under Seamus McEnaney, he was the key to their identity. Not as skilled as the Freeman brothers or Paul Finlay, not as devious as Dessie Mone or Dermot McArdle, but always, always the aggressive tip of the spear from whom they took their lead. It wasn’t always pretty and it was frequently over the top. But that’s who they were, for better or worse.

He later told Declan Bogue in This Is Our Year of his regrets over the player he had pushed himself to be in those years and his desire to be remembered as something more. Which is why you couldn't but be happy for him that his swansong years turned out the way they did.

Light years removed

Monaghan won two Ulster titles and he played his part in both. He started their first and only championship win in Croke Park since 1930, against Kildare in 2014. He boomed three points from play against Dublin in a league semi-final in 2015. Monaghan still lost by a point but it was light years removed from losing to Carlow in Dr Cullen Park in November 1999.

He’ll doubtless turn up on a pundit’s couch near you sometime soon (although he’d want to be careful about referring to his own career as “storied” too often – we’ll call yesterday’s a slip of the pen). He will make a sharp and articulate voice, someone who saw a relentlessly changing game from every angle for more years than most and changed with it as he went.

That ability to adapt is no small thing. Plenty of shinier careers than Dick Clerkin’s were killed off for the want of it.