Alex Clarke: New Linfield signing on switching sports, knee injuries and flag poles

    “When it happened initially I was like ‘what am I doing this for?’, but I have my answer now.”

    It may have been a bitterly cold night of pre-season training at Midgley Park, but no-one had a bigger smile on their face than Alex Clarke.

    After fracturing both knee caps, it has been a rollercoaster two years for the 22-year-old as she returns to the pitch.

    With the severity of her injuries, which came just 12 months apart, Clarke would have been forgiven for wanting to take things easy.

    However, Clarke, a key gaelic footballer for Crossmaglen and Armagh, has decided to make the switch to the Linfield in the Women’s Premiership for her next chapter.

    A year after a broken patella on her right knee, which kept her out for four months, the forward was faced with another spell on the sidelines in March.

    In the closing stages of training with Armagh, with no-one around her, Clarke’s left knee gave way. It was a more severe fracture that required surgery and she was contemplating her sporting future.

    “When it happened the first time I got up and got on with it,” said Clarke, who will put her GAA commitments on hold to focus on the Blues.

    “When it happens again you are thinking, ‘why me?’ and you’re feeling sorry for yourself.

    “It’s similar to an ACL with the rehab and single-leg stuff. The first couple of months were tough. I struggled but I have good people around me to help me get back.

    “The first one made me strong, so I knew I had to get through it to get back and play at a top level.

    “I have to keep moving forward now and help Linfield get back to the top. That was a goal then for me to get back.”

    Caroline O'Hanlon, Alex Clarke and Dermot Bellew
    Armagh star and qualified doctor Caroline O’Hanlon (left) created a leg splint on Clarke from flag poles and a broomstick

    With a long wait for an ambulance, Clarke’s Armagh team-mate Caroline O’Hanlon jumped into action to get the stricken forward to hospital.

    A qualified doctor, O’Hanlon fashioned leg splints out of flag poles and a broom before she went with Clarke to hospital in the back of the team’s kit van.

    “Armagh were brilliant. Caroline is a doctor and I’m very lucky she plays in the team as well,” Clarke recalled.

    “The minute it happened she switched into doctor mode. The physios, the coaching staff, the girls – they were straight over to me.

    “I had flag pole and sweeping brushes keeping my legs together. They done an amazing job and helped me along the way.

    “It’s part and parcel of the sport. A lot of footballers get injured and I’ve just been an unlucky one with two of them. It has made me stronger.”

    Now back on the pitch, Clarke is fully focused on her football career with Linfield, who finished fifth in the table last season.

    “Everything happens for a reason. I’ve had a couple of tough years but it is what it is. I’m very lucky to have what I have now, so I have to embrace it and enjoy it.

    “It has made me appreciate it a lot more. You go to play football or go to training on nights like this, you’d be freezing or giving out.

    “But I don’t care how cold it is, or if it’s raining or heavy wind – I don’t mind. I haven’t played a match or been in a team environment for a year now, so I’m buzzing.

    “It’s unbelievable. I got to do the warm up last week and it was like I was given the world. You don’t appreciate wee things that you would take for granted. It’s changed my outlook.”

    ‘Bred into us to win’

    Despite being known for her exploits in Armagh’s fierce forward line, her deal with Linfield will be her second time in the Women’s Premiership after she played for Newry City as a teenager.

    Crossmaglen is right at the heart of the GAA community in Armagh. While she says that meant her heart is in gaelic football, she has had a passion for both sports that has never gone away.

    Older brother Jamie is a Crossmaglen and Armagh legend who made the switch to Newry City in the Irish Premiership last season and now the younger sibling has found herself forging a similar path.

    She says watching her brother play for Newry “got the buzz back” for football, and watching the Euro 2022 finals only added fuel to that fire.

    “Obviously coming from such a gaelic background in Crossmaglen, it was always going to be number one. But growing up with my brothers, all we done in the park was play football all the time.

    “Seeing him go back to play football got the buzz back for me. I thought, ‘why not go for it?’.

    “I’ve always looked up to Jamie from a young age. He is such a fantastic footballer and I’ve learnt a lot from him.”

    Alex Clarke celebrates with brother Jamie after Crossmaglen Rangers won the Armagh Club Championship
    Alex Clarke celebrates with brother Jamie after Crossmaglen Rangers won the Armagh Club Championship

    The 2024 season will provide not only a fresh start for Clarke, but also the club as Ryan McConville returns to Midgley Park.

    The Blues have been active in the transfer market, with highly-rated striker Cora Chambers, defender Naomi Donnan, goalkeeper Nicole Adams and former Republic of Ireland international Grace Murray joining Clarke in signing up.

    “I couldn’t turn it down, it is a fantastic opportunity. Linfield are a massive club and it was a great move for me,” Clarke added.

    “There’s a great buzz in the group and everyone is really looking forward to the season.

    “You want to be up there with the likes of Glentoran and Cliftonville [who have dominated the league in recent seasons].

    “When I was at Newry, Linfield was that team. The squad is unbelievable and I know we’re good enough to get back to the top. I hope I can help them achieve that.

    “Coming from Cross, a big, big gaelic town, that’s what was bred into us, was to win. I think that has helped me along the way.”

    After putting her GAA career on hold, Clarke is fully focused on trying to help Linfield back to the top.

    “I’m not going to look too far ahead. This is where I am at the minute and I’m really happy. I would like to think Crossmaglen and Armagh will always be there for me, but you have to move on at some stage.

    “There are girls away doing other things and that’s life. This is an unbelievable opportunity that I couldn’t turn it down and I am excited.”


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