Dick Clerkin is leaning back against the front wall of Monaghan’s impressive training base at Cloghan, just outside Castleblayney.
His arms are folded, one foot is propped up behind him against the building. He is a picture of contentment.
The veteran midfielder spent more years than he’d care for chasing success with Monaghan, with little beyond two Ulster final defeats and a few Division 2 medals to show for it. Now? Now, he is on the brink of playing a provincial decider as a member of the defending champions squad.
He didn’t see that coming two years ago, when Seamus McEneaney finally tired of playing Sisyphus, called time as manager and Monaghan slid into Division 3. It is 84 years since the county retained an Ulster title and the last time they did, they were stopped by the B Specials on the way to the game.
“There you are,” Clerkin laughs. “Hopefully we will be safe enough. It’s just a great time to be a Monaghan footballer. I’m just, in some ways, enjoying the moment but also very aware of the privilege to be involved in a panel that is capable of doing what we are doing at the minute.”
It’s not all sweetness and light. He’s 32 now and it takes an extra day or two for the bumps and bruises to leave him be, but he’s back starting games this summer — and finishing them, too — after an unfamiliar impact role off the bench 12 months ago. He feels like a new man, mentally as much as physically.
His secret? Hot yoga? Mental exercises?
“I could sit here and tell you I am doing 100 of these fancy things. I am actually doing the opposite. A couple of years ago, I’d have been into all that. This year I’m much more relaxed in my approach. I’m just focusing on enjoying it. I have a son now who is 18 months old.
“We have moved home [to Monaghan] the last month too, so there is a lot of focus on the home front the last few years. That has been the priority and to be able to enjoy the football the last few years I would have been doing something every night and sometimes you look back and wonder did you enjoy it.
“Not probably as much as you should have, so this year I just want to enjoy it, enjoy my family, and go to training and enjoy it. Minimise the amount I’m training so when I go train, I’m fresh. I probably trained less this year than any and I’ve been fresh and enjoyed it. Looking back, at 32, if I made those choices five or six years ago...”
Better late than never, though. He has learned from experience and profited from outside factors, too. Unlike most counties, Monaghan have ploughed ahead with the club scene and Clerkin reckons he has played nine times for Currin between the end of the league and tomorrow’s date with Donegal.
Games, as any player will admit, beat training sessions and Clerkin has been equally blessed by a lack of injuries in recent times, but it is his new, relaxed approach to life as a senior inter-county footballer that has paid most dividends, as he soaks up the twilight years of his career.
One anecdote from a fortnight ago sums him up now. It was the day before the semi-final replay against Armagh and Clerkin took his brother by surprise by treating himself to a bun with his cup of tea as they chewed the fat and watched sport on TV.
“That won’t be the difference in us winning,” he laughs. “I would always look after my diet, but life is too short to be cutting the bit of fat off the steak.”
Gone are the days when he would train Tuesday and Thursday and then flog himself on the roads or in the gym of a Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If he does weights now, it isn’t on an ‘off-night’. Instead, he’ll park in Cloghan early, hit the gym and join his team-mates for their session afterwards.
Off-nights are now his. And his family’s. If that meant he wouldn’t be in line to start, it was a hit he’d take. Malachy O’Rourke had no issues. Quite the opposite and Clerkin has been a regular this summer. A salutary lesson given the demands on players and pressure many feel to constantly seek an extra edge.
“There is still a huge amount of learning to be done in terms of preparation and how players are managed. Players have to take responsibility for themselves as well, know what works for them. I’m 15 years at it now. Weights and all that? You are talking about 1% or 2% gain versus the 98% from managing yourself right, balancing a demanding career and a demanding family life.
“If that’s not balanced right, all the rest is for nothing. I didn’t come back to training until after the New Year this year, and gradually got back into it, but you talk about the residual fitness that will always be there after years of hard training: once that is there the body will be right and you’ll be able to call on that. I wouldn’t be advocating this for a 21-, 22-year-old coming in. There is a lot of hard work to get yourself to a certain level, but the older players can manage themselves as opposed to flogging themselves towards the end.”
That may be some way away yet.
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