Fox Lodge's Matthew Clarke batting for Linfield as new season kicks off
There won’t be many professional footballers who have combined this season’s Champions League with top flight cricket.
Then again, Linfield full-back and Fox Lodge batsman Matthew Clarke isn’t your average sportsperson even if the Blues’ extended European run meant he wasn’t able to don his cricketing whites as often as he’d have liked this summer.
The talented left-back, who is up to third in the Blues’ all-time European appearance list with 32 appearances, is now anxious to get started on another Danske Bank Premiership campaign after the frustration of a Europa Conference League exit and a curtailed summer with his beloved ‘Foxies’.
“Playing in Europe means a quick turnaround but I’m well used to it,” smiles Clarke, “You normally get five or six weeks off but this year was different. We got two weeks off after our last game of the season at Cliftonville and then we were straight back into pre-season because our season ran later than usual and Europe hadn’t changed the dates so only getting two weeks off was a bit strange.
“It’s hard for players to switch off completely, trying to recharge the batteries in such a short period off because two weeks fly in but during those couple of weeks off I enjoyed my cricket.
“I managed to play a few games for Fox Lodge which I always do every year. I only managed three or four games this year but I always try to help the club out as best as I can because I still enjoy my cricket.
“I still go and watch it nearly every weekend but, yeah, this summer was different for me.”
The 27-year-old, who was a pivotal cog in David Healy’s double winning squad last season believes the Blues’ decision to go full-time this season can only but improve the club over the coming years.
“Since I have come back, pre-season has been good. It’s something I was used to at Rangers for four years so getting back to that full-time model will not only benefit my game but our entire squad and all our staff because I feel it’s the only way to do things,” he added.
“If you are a football club and you have serious aspirations, then the full-time model is the only way you can go and I think we’ll see the benefits. Even in our league, you can see Larne and Glentoran are full-time and they are up there challenging.
“Hopefully the transition period won’t affect us too much and we can hit the ground running but if, as a football club, you demand high levels of performance and look to continue to winning trophies, then it’s the only way to go.”
The Blues who were knocked out of the Champions League by Lithuania side, Zalgiris, before enjoying an outstanding victory over Bosnia side, Borac Banja Luka in the European Conference League. However, it was the manner of defeat to Luxembourg side, Fola, which really frustrated the Castlederg man, especially given the Windsor Park were one round away from securing a place in lucrative European Conference League Group stages.
“European money, especially for Irish League clubs, is absolutely massive, there’s no hiding from that,” he insisted, “It’s huge for the likes of us and every other club in the Irish League because it goes a long way.
“We were disappointed to be put out. In the away tie we should have been five up at half-time but it just didn’t go our way. That was definitely a winnable tie and one we were very frustrated about as we all believe we should have progressed from it.
“In the second leg at their ground, they had their first shot on target on 77 minutes and it went into the top corner while we had about 20 shots prior to that and didn’t find the net but that’s football and sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
As the Danske Bank Premiership season gets underway for Linfield tomorrow with a home clash against Crusaders, Clarke, who played alongside Derry City’s Darren Cole at Rangers, says winning another Gibson Cup has to be the target.
“It’s a demanding club to play. If Linfield even draw it’s an absolute crisis but that’s something I’m well used to now,” he admits. “It’s not a nice feeling if you don’t win on a Saturday and you are well reminded that it’s simply not good enough. If we don’t win there’s no one more frustrated than myself because I know we have enough in the changing room to win any game.
“The demands at Linfield are very high and I‘ve seen boys who can’t handle those demands but it’s something I thrive on. I don’t think I would want to play football if the demands were not to win football matches week in, week out.
“Starting at home to the Crues is going to be a tough start. Crusaders have been quiet by over the last few years by their standards but I’m sure Stephen (Baxter) won’t let that continue too long. He’ll be looking to challenge and they have strengthened this year and kept hold of some quality players so we know it’s going to be a tough one.”
And while he’s not looking to hang the football boots up anytime soon, Clarke is hoping when that day comes, it will mean he can dust down his ‘whites’ for the Foxies on a more regular basis.
“I really enjoy my cricket, it’s something I try to play every summer. Even when I was back at the football, a few years back I managed to sneak a few matches in because I really enjoy it. Definitely when I finish playing football, I’ll be playing cricket, there’s no doubt about that.”