Wherever Killian Clarke though he'd be in November 2020, he didn't think he'd be here. A year ago more or less to the day, he told Cavan manager Mickey Graham that he had had enough. He'd been on the go for nine years and it was time to stop and look around. Not forever, not definitely. But for the time being.
There was no bust-up. Nothing scurrilous bouncing around the rumour mill to get on top of. He talked to Graham and a few days later he talked to the Anglo Celt newspaper and he laid it all out. He was 26 and ever since he'd left school - and maybe even for a while before it - football had eaten his life whole.
And for what? Cavan had made an Ulster final, their first in 18 years. But by the time Donegal had rinsed them by (a very flattering) five points in Clones and Tyrone had done them by 16 in the qualifiers, a lot of the good had been sucked out of the experience. It was their best season in years and it left him feeling empty.
“I just fell out of love with the game a wee bit to be honest,” he told the Celt. “I wasn’t enjoying it. I struggled through the club championship and then I went on holiday and had a long time to think about it. I just want time to concentrate on myself, to look after number one for a change instead of putting football first like I have done for the last eight or nine years.”
So he walked. Became a civilian for the first time in his adult life. Ate what he wanted, socialised, stayed for another round when he felt like it. He turned up at family gatherings and didn’t have to look at his watch to find a leaving time in the sweet spot between rudeness and necessity.
“Just small things,” he says. “Being able to go to a wedding or even just to meet people at the weekend. I was able to give time to things that I wasn’t able to before. I was able to stay up late on a Saturday night.
“I don’t mean lie at home and look at the four walls until three in the morning but if I was at a function or a family thing, I wasn’t having to get out of there at 10 o’clock to be heading home to get to bed. Or even something like being able to have a holiday that you could plan a month or two in advance. That opportunity made a big difference to me for a while.”
The year turned, the world turned. Cavan scraped through the first few rounds of the league and in all honesty, Clarke barely gave them a backward glance. He works for the stockbroker firm Cantor Fitzgerald and divesting himself of the rigours of intercounty football allowed him more scope on that side of his life. He was made captain of his club Shercock and appreciated the time he had to get stuck in there too.
And then, overnight, he had to hit the pause button like everybody else. Life ground to a halt in the middle of March and he scrambled to find a way to live in it. The car stayed in the driveway and he set up an office with three screens and a phone. The club captaincy became a logistics operation - the 5k runs, the Zoom quizzes, the PlayStation tournaments, all that jazz.
As for missing intercounty football, it helped that there was none of it to miss. The onset of spring, the good weather, the run-in to championship - it could have all been tricky for him to deal with. But you can’t miss what isn’t happening. You’re a non-playing Cavan footballer? You and everybody else, champ.
“I had a few niggles and knocks early in the year but got those issues resolved during the break. And I was playing a good bit of golf as well which I think probably helped me. Between those two, it meant that the body got a rest but I was kept active as well.
“I never had anything too bad but I had a bit of a weakness in my left quad and I think playing a bit of golf, doing a bit of walking and a bit of running through the first lockdown, it help me get it right. Essentially it was just taking a break and letting it mend itself.”
All of which meant that when summer came and the club scene got up and running again, he was in a different place. Shercock weren’t any great shakes this year and didn’t scare any horses in the Cavan championship but Clarke felt stirrings all the same. Training sessions, games, slagging, testing yourself, pushing yourself. Civilian life only has so much of that stuff to go around.
Plus, when you’re out, you’re out. Some of the Cavan panel have been friends of his since he was a teenager. He played on the first Cavan minor team to win an Ulster title for 37 years in 2011. He was on three of the four-in-a-row Ulster champion under-21 teams. They went all the way to the senior All-Ireland quarter-final in 2013, the furthest any Cavan team had been since 1997. For a decade, they shared everything, good and bad. When you walk, it’s not just the football you leave behind.
“Oh, I definitely missed it, yeah,” he says. “You’re going from meeting lads five days a week for seven or eight years to not seeing them at all. To go from there to no contact at all is hard. You might do the odd text or the odd phonecall but it’s not the same. That was definitely a factor in the decision to go back.”
In the end, there was no big decision to stress over. Once he was enjoying the game again, thoughts of a Cavan return came fairly naturally. He bounced the idea off a few of the squad and when he sensed it wouldn’t cause any friction, he got in touch with Graham. The manager made it clear that he hadn’t exactly been sitting by the phone waiting on him to call.
“I contacted Mickey two weeks before the club championship finished up just to express my interest and to see what he thought of it. He told me I was probably a bit off the pace, just from watching me in the club championship. And that I would need to tighten up on a few things, fitness-wise first of all and a bit of strength work as well.
“I had probably put on a bit of weight. I would always have been fairly aerobic but I would have found myself a bit down the field in the runs when I went back first so that had to be worked on too.”
Clarke was one of eight players to leave the Cavan panel last winter. These weren't fringe players either. Of the eight, seven had played in that Ulster final defeat to Donegal. Three of them were current or former All Star nominees - Clarke, Cian Mackey and Conor Moynagh. Dara McVeety was their best forward, Conor Rehill their best newcomer. Graham had sucked it up and got on with it and was getting his panel close to where he wanted it.
Clarke was the only one of the eight to come back knocking on the door and the fact that there was no fattened calf sitting ready for him was something he found encouraging. He is far from the first player to come back to the Cavan panel after taking a little break for himself. Indeed he has often sat in the dressing room and watched the door revolve a little too easily for his liking. Graham needed him to do some impressing. Good.
“I think it’s a positive culture change with Cavan,” Clarke says. “It wasn’t a case of just walk straight back in there, as would have happened with a few players on and off down the years. I wouldn’t have been happy to be told I could come straight back in either. It’s good to be made jump through a few hoops and to prove that you’re worth a place on the panel. Whether it be in the gym or on the pitch or out on the runs, I think it’s great to see that attitude coming from Mickey.”
Prove it he did. The rest of them too. Cavan haven’t been in back-to-back Ulster finals since the end of the 1960s. Clarke has won as many Ulster championship games in the past month as he did in his first seven seasons playing senior. Was it worth coming back for? What do you think?
“Probably my family would be able to answer that question better than me. The last few weeks they’ve probably seen me happier than I was in the months I was away. It’s probably bred into my really. As much as I like to say, ‘Aw, I’ll take it easy or I’ll take time out,’ I don’t think it’s going to go that way.
“I needed a break from football at the end of last year. I know that. But I have probably changed the way I look at it a little bit. The break put a lot of stuff in perspective. I re-evaluated my values and saw what was important to me. It’s the friendships, the teammates, the respect and bond that you have with them.”
In an Ulster championship where Cavan have been kept alive by unlikely comebacks, Clarke’s might be the most out there of them all. Yet here he is, back in an Ulster final, unfancied as ever. Donegal are 1/14 on Sunday, the kind of price a sensitive Cavan soul might take offence to. But he’ll get on with it. Nobody expects anything so there’s no sense in giving them a reason to expect a surprise.
“The thing with Donegal last year is that they were probably a good few years ahead of where we were and where we wanted to be. Naturally, we would have reviewed what happened there and we’ll look at their games this year as well to see if we can pick a few holes in them. But it’s down to us to learn from last year.”
In the panel or out of it, he’s been doing that all along.