'Every young lad in Kerry wanted to be the Gooch. Now they all want to be David Clifford'

Whether it was pulling 99s in the shop or carving up opposition defences on the pitch, everyone could see something very special in the Fossa youngster, writes Christy O’Connor.

'Every young lad in Kerry wanted to be the Gooch. Now they all want to be David Clifford'

Whether it was pulling 99s in the shop or carving up opposition defences on the pitch, everyone could see something very special in the Fossa youngster, writes Christy O’Connor.

One Sunday morning in Fossa 13 years ago, a young friend of the Clifford brothers asked after Academy training if he could spend the day at his neighbours’ house.

After being given permission from his parents, the young fella travelled back in Dermot Clifford’s car alongside his two sons, David and Paudie. As soon as they arrived home, the three boys headed straight to the lawn with their football.

They only stopped briefly to eat the lunch that Ellen Clifford had made before Dermot took them off to south Kerry to watch a championship match.

When they returned home, they started up their own game, which continued until dinner-time. The young Clifford boys then took out the video ‘Kerry’s Golden Years’.

They’d already watched it so often by then that they could provide a running commentary for their friend.

It was a standard Sunday. But that was the last time their young neighbour ever asked to go to the Cliffords for a day again.

David Clifford was just seven but his fanaticism and love of the game was boundless. Football always had an organic presence in the Cliffords’ lives but it grew at a rapid rate within David once he understood how much the game actually meant to him.

He was five when James F O’Shea spotted him in the Fossa Academy.

“It was obvious even then that David had a special talent,” says O’Shea.

Fossa is so small that they say if you were tall, and you fell, you’d fall out of the parish. Maximising limited resources is a way of life in small clubs but having a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Clifford was Fossa’s most efficient way of asserting that advantage, across all levels.

“When David was playing on teams four years older than him,” says O’Shea “he was still always the star player.”

Fossa lost a John Egan U14 tournament to Laune Rangers one year by one point. The final score was 4-13 to 4-12. Clifford kicked the 4-12.

“David was always a unique talent but he was lucky too that he was surrounded by very grounded people,” says O’Shea.

If David scored 4-12, someone in the club might point out that he missed two frees. There’d be no getting carried away down here, boy.

“Coming from a small club, you have to be exceptionally good to get the same break as a guy from a big club. You can say that David was exceptional and that he was always going to make it anyway but this is Kerry. For every fella that will push you up the ladder, there are four more pushing you back down. To get to the top of the ladder in Kerry coming from a small club, you need to be a fairly determined bucko.”

That humility and determination was instilled in Clifford at home. Dermot Clifford grew up in Derrynane before moving to Dublin for work and then relocating to Two Mile in Fossa.

He had played football with Derrynane but, as a former referee, Dermot Clifford taught his son the value of respect from an early age.

His mother hailed from Ballymacelligott and, similar to her husband, Ellen Clifford is a walking football encyclopedia.

With their passion for the history, tradition and lore of Kerry and Kerry football, the game was always deeply woven into the fabric of the Clifford family.

“The family home is unreal,” says O’Shea.

“It’s kinda what you would call old Ireland, like where our generation were reared. It’s a great place to call for tea. The chat will always be football-related but it’s such a homely place. There are always buns on the table and David would be the first to make the tea. Even now as a superstar, it’s hard to believe how down to earth he is.”

During the summers of 2016 and 2017, when Clifford was the hottest property in minor inter-county football, he worked at Seamus Kelly’s Londis Topshop in Milltown.

Kelly had known Clifford all his young life from watching him with Fossa and his aim — especially during the 2017 summer when Clifford went supernova — was to protect him from over-exposure around the business.

“I’d be trying to keep him in the store or out the back but he wanted to be serving customers,” says Seamus Kelly.

“Everyone knew who he was and it never bothered him. Anything you ask David to do, he’d do it for you. He’d stay going all day, there was never any slackening. When he left, everyone was asking when he was coming back.”

When the weather was warm during those summers, Clifford spent his time pulling cones from the ice-cream machine.

“All the young lads around the place thought that Santa was in the shop,” says Kelly, “because David Clifford was serving them 99s.”

When O’Shea was Fossa minor manager, Clifford was often tied up with Kerry, but was still always available to lend a hand.

“I travel a lot and if I was away, I might ring David to take the session,” says O’Shea. “He never refused. He would do anything for you. If he couldn’t play, he’d be on the line doing whatever he could. David has an unbelievable footballing brain. He has an understanding of the game that fellas 30 years older than him wouldn’t have.”

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Clifford always stood out but at 14 he was already showcasing just how special he could be. Low-key underage matches would be regularly lit up by another magnesium flash of Clifford genius.

“He was only 14 when we played (Dr) Crokes one year in an U16 game,” says Kelly.

“David caught a ball 30 yards out and he almost had it kicked before he caught it. He stuck it in the top corner. I was standing beside a buddy of mine and we just looked at each other as much to say, ‘How in the name of sweet Jesus did he do that?”

At that time, Clifford was quick over the first five or 10 yards but he made straight-line runs rather than making a run in an arc to get away from his man. His coaches noticed his running style was slowing him down so he did a lot of work on his gait.

Clifford was growing faster that everyone else so his running style was deconstructed and reconstructed at the same time.

The former Kerry player, Seán O’Sullivan, once recalled a story from his time as Kerry U-14 coach in 2013, when Kerry travelled to a tournament in Waterford.

Clifford picked up an injury before they played Cork in the semi-final, but as the selectors huddled to pick a team, Clifford approached them. He suggested they start him so he could go about keeping the defence honest and busy, which would free up somebody else. Clifford set up 1-4 that afternoon.

“When he walked away, we just looked at each other,” recalled O’Sullivan, “I said to myself ‘We’ve got a different calibre of guy here altogether.’”

The first time Clifford pricked the wider footballing consciousness was the 2016 Hogan Cup final when he scored 2-5 against St Pat’s Maghera in Croke Park.

His second goal captured his capacity for sorcery but Clifford scored an even better solo-goal just five months later in the All-Ireland minor final against Galway, when first winning possession beyond midfield.

In the lead-up to the All-Ireland minor final a year later, Seamus Clancy, the Clare minor manager, advised Derry to put two or three players on Clifford.

Derry didn’t heed Clancy’s advice. “We thought he couldn’t be that good,” recalled Derry full-back Conor McCluskey.

Within ten seconds of the throw-in, Clifford had the ball in the Derry net. He ended the match with 4-4.

“I didn’t expect how good he was going to be,” said McCluskey in an interview with Declan Whooley for the RTÉ website.

The way he holds the ball makes it almost impossible to tackle him. His physical strength means he can throw you off like a rag doll. With those big hands, he holds the football the way you hold a tennis ball.

Derry put a taller player on Clifford at half-time but it made no difference. He concluded his minor career as an All-Ireland winning captain and with a haul 10-68 in 12 championship matches.

The last time a minor player triggered as much debate was Galway’s Joe Canning.

That was the status Clifford carried before his senior debut but the expectation was heightened again because of the inevitable comparisons between Clifford and Maurice Fitzgerald.

Clifford had the same graceful gliding movement and magic in his boots, something Fitzgerald first noted in a Kerry colleges game between St Brendan’s and Coláiste na Sceilge in 2016. Fitzgerald approached Clifford afterwards to congratulate him. A year later, the unavoidable similarities with Fitzgerald were being openly declared.

“A lot of people would compare him to Maurice Fitzgerald,” said Peter Keane, then Kerry minor manager, in 2017.

“I have first-hand experience of Maurice, we grew up together in Cahirciveen. I would say he’s actually ahead of Maurice at this stage in his development.”

That was a heavy burden to carry but Clifford has shouldered it impressively ever since. If anything, he embraced the responsibility.

“His maturity and readiness to be a leader at 18 was incredible,” says Kieran Donaghy. “It actually took me by surprise. When Dave speaks in meetings, he’s one of these players that whatever he says is spot on. It’s always on the money. His game intelligence is incredible. He’s one of the leaders in there now.”

Before Kerry played Monaghan in Clones last year, Donaghy agonised about telling Clifford how to try and handle the personal attention but, his own form was so patchy that Donaghy didn’t approach Clifford until after the kickaround.

“I just said, ‘Dave just play for us today, lead and score,’” says Donaghy.

After two minutes I turned around and Drew Wylie was having a go off him. If he did, Clifford caught him by the throat and walked Wylie ten yards backwards.

“He was incredible that day. The point he kicked when we were four down was something else. After he scored the equalising goal, I came off the pitch thinking ‘Jesus Christ we have something special here’. What he has in his locker is out of this world.”

In the modern game, where every player is naked to the camera, Clifford’s game is analysed to death. After Kerry’s Super 8s match against Donegal, Colm O’Rourke questioned his performance, and his credentials, even though he scored two points from play and had three assists.

When Stephen McMenamin came off the pitch that afternoon, he thought he’d been cleaned out by Clifford.

“I was in bad humour because I thought that he’d got more scores than he had,” says McMenamin. “He’s some operator for a guy so young.

“I had watched some footage of him beforehand and I thought that marking him from the front would be the best way of marking him. But I knew it wasn’t after the first five minutes because he would have had a goal only for a Shaun Patton save.

“From then on, I took a step back and was more marking from side-to-side. His movement is just mad. For a big guy, he seems to have a low centre of gravity. He’s long and strong and he can push you away handy enough. If the ball is coming in low, he can still get down and get it.

“He’s strong in the air too. He has no weakness. He ticks all the boxes because he’s a leader on the pitch too.

“Clifford and (Paul) Geaney were very vocal, they were speaking to all the other Kerry players. He never said a word to me. I never chat to anyone I’m marking anyway but he holds himself well. He certainly wouldn’t back down. He can handle himself rightly.”

Improvement has always been Clifford’s mark and master. He has got physically stronger this year. His body fat is lower than last year.

He hones his game intelligence from being a student of all sports.

Clifford was spotted at a raft of Kerry club hurling matches in recent weeks. Donaghy sees him at most Tralee Warriors games in the town.

Young players can always get better but Clifford’s class is ageless. “He inspires everyone else now,” says James F O’Shea.

For years, every young lad in Kerry wanted to be the Gooch. Now they all want to be David Clifford.

The essence of Clifford as a player is much greater than moments of brilliance. He has a warrior’s spirit, a fighter’s heart, a steel mind.

The road ahead of him is long but if he keeps improving and progressing, Gooch’s crown will soon rest easily on Clifford’s head.

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