Ciaran Clark looking to put frustrations behind him with Ireland
Newcastle defender’s string of injuries have prevented him from having a run in the team
Ciaran Clark in action during the friendly international against New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in November 2019. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
It’s just over a decade since Ciaran Clark declared for Ireland and though the now 31-year-old has 34 senior caps to show for his involvement with the squad, even he might admit that there were higher hopes when he arrived into the set-up, a versatile left-sided player at Aston Villa where many regarded him as the next big thing.
In the years since, there were times when he seemed set to become a fixture in the Irish side, and others when the succession of injury problems he suffered prompted doubts about his future. But ahead of a game in Belgrade that marks the start of another World Cup campaign, he is adamant that he never believed his international career was actually over as he endured prolonged spells on the sidelines over the past year or two.
“No, I never felt that,” he says. “It’s tough when you get injured and stuff like that, especially when you get a serious one and you’re out for a number of months. It’s hard to get back into the swing of things, it can be frustrating at times, but that is football.
“I always thought to keep training hard and trying to play. You have to take the highs with the lows and work hard in training to put yourself back in the position to get back involved and that is what I’ve done. I’m happy to be picked in the squad and really looking forward to it.
“It has been a while really. I wasn’t playing when Mick [McCarthy] was in charge but you need to be playing games to get called up. It was pretty straightforward, though; I knew I wasn’t going to get called up when I haven’t been playing.”
In fact, Stephen Kenny couldn’t quite wait for him to break back into the Newcastle team in November when two appearances as an unused sub for his club was enough for the Ireland manager to bring him back in as a much needed replacement for players being forced out of the squad.
“I know it was only a short one for me but it was great to be back involved and between then and now I managed to stay fit and play games. That was my aim to play games and come back in and give myself the chance of getting back into the squad which I managed to do. There are some new faces and that is football – you’re out for a little while injured. But I can’t wait to get going.”
His best spell for Ireland seems a slightly distant memory at this stage, around the time of the 2016 European Championship under Martin O’Neill with the Harrow-born defender earning a quarter of his caps that year. After the resounding group stage defeat by Belgium he was dropped for the Italy game and subsequent knock-out encounter with France but he got back in a few months later, coming on in the World Cup qualifier against Serbia, then starting the final three matches of the year.
There was a run of six starts towards the end of 2017 too but a succession of knee, ankle, thigh and calf injuries have repeatedly sidelined him since, with just four further caps to show for the next two years. During that time John Egan established himself as Shane Duffy’s regular partner in the heart of the Irish defence and, more recently, Dara O’Shea emerged to stake a serious claim.
Kenny has been to see him play for Newcastle more than once over the past few months and though the team is in crisis, the defender’s form has generally been regarded as having been as solid. It has been enough to put him back in the Irish frame at a time that Egan is out and Duffy’s confidence has taken a hammering.
Understandably anxious to bolster that to whatever extent he could, Kenny talked the Celtic defender up last week, highlighting his past contributions to the Ireland cause. His tone suggested that he would stand by the Derryman, whose goal in Bulgaria remains the only one scored since Mick McCarthy’s departure, but there some big calls to be made with regard to the defence ahead of the Serbia game.
Séamus Coleman’s form at Everton would certainly suggest he is in line to reclaim his place at right back but Kenny spoke when naming his squad about the fact that both he and Matt Doherty would have played in the same Irish team by now had the Donegalman been available for all of the games in the autumn.
Doherty may have struggled since his move to Spurs but he remains one of Ireland’s better players and a switch to a back three in Belgrade would potentially address a couple of issues for Ireland while accommodating both men and catering to the 29-year-old’s strengths.
It would almost certainly mean Coleman starting on the right of a three alongside two from Duffy, O’Shea or Clark, which is a big shift in an area of the team that really wasn’t the problem before Christmas. But it should provide more protection to a less experienced goalkeeper, Mark Travers, and would also allow Enda Stevens more freedom to get forward more down the left, a key part of his game.
With Kevin Long, who started three games in the autumn, also gone this time Clark’s return at least provides the extra option and after so many setbacks, the versatility that was celebrated when he first arrived on the scene may well mean it is the 31-year-old’s best chance of a return to Ireland’s starting line-up.