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'His running style was actually slowing him down. They basically retaught him how to run'

Former Kerry footballer Sean O’Sullivan and Gary McGrath of the Sem recall their days of coaching David Clifford.

FORMER KERRY FOOTBALLER Seán O’Sullivan came away from a U14 game knowing that one of the players on show was destined to line out for the green and gold one day.

David Clifford with fans after the game David Clifford with some Kerry fans after their Super 8s win over Mayo. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He reckoned that the impressive youngster from the Fossa club would make the top grade by the time he was 20. It’s the ultimate compliment for an aspiring footballer to get, but it was no wild guess. It was a glimpse into the future.

With four All-Ireland medals to reflect on from his own Kerry career, O’Sullivan knows how to identify a quality prospect.

And this player was already cutting the mustard as a young teenager.

O’Sullivan had already heard murmurings about the class of David Clifford. As a coach with the Kerry South U14 development squad, he was reliably informed that this deadly forward would probably be in his team.

But O’Sullivan’s vision for Clifford extended far beyond such surroundings.

He made a bold prediction that day, but as the pair continued to work together on the Kerry U15 and U16 development squads, Clifford’s constant progression merely reinforced O’Sullivan’s belief in his ability. 

He just stood out head and shoulders above everyone on the pitch and I’m not just talking physically,” O’Sullivan tells The42 of that first sighting of Clifford in a Kerry U14 district game between East Kerry and Mid Kerry.

“He was always bigger than everyone else but I often find in development squads that you could have a guy at U14 who was physically bigger than the other, but when those guys caught up physically at U16, they were left behind a little bit.

“They didn’t have what you need to progress in the game in terms of skills and decision-making. They had size and speed but when the not-so-developed guys caught up with the bigger lads, their football proved the difference.

But David was different. David had the size and the football from early on.”

****

As Gaelic football nurseries go, St Brendan’s College [the Sem] in Killarney is hallowed turf in Kerry.

People like Páidí Ó Sé, Pat Spillane, Colm Cooper and John O’Keeffe have all passed through the corridors on the way to becoming Kerry icons, distinguishing themselves on the school football team as they went.

Paidi O'Se in 1985 Páidí Ó Sé was a former student of St Brendan's College in Killarney. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In his final year at the Sem, a 16-year-old Clifford helped the school end a 24-year wait to reclaim the Hogan Cup. He scored 2-5 in the 2016 All-Ireland Colleges senior football A final in Croke Park, to help them to victory over St Pat’s Maghera of Derry.

There were major celebrations at the school after the win, but this was a target that Clifford and his teammates had been chasing since they first came through the doors.

“The minute young fellas come into the school, they see the pictures of the old Hogan Cup teams hanging on the walls,” says Gary McGrath, a PE and Geography teacher in the Sem who coached that successful team.

It helps mould the young fellas and help them aspire to emulate their former idols. If you walk the corridors of St Brendan’s College, you just see pictures of players like Pat Spillane.

“David is no different to any other young lad. Once you see the pictures on the wall, it gives them a taste of what can be if they work hard.”

At the time of their victory, McGrath spoke to the media about comparisons between Clifford and former Kerry great Maurice Fitzgerald.

Incidentally, McGrath saw the pair standing side by side earlier that season following a Kerry colleges final between the Sem and Colaiste na Sceilge, where Fitzgerald is a teacher.

Maurice Fitzgerald Clifford has a similar playing style to Maurice Fitzgerald. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

McGrath looked on in amazement as Fitzgerald approached Clifford to congratulate him on a job well done in the game.

“I can’t remember what he scored that day [but] he put on a performance,” he says, thinking back.

Maurice came up talking to him and I was just thinking, ‘my God, if I had a camera in my hand.’ He always reminded me of Maurice growing up. He had the same style. Like a natural footballer, he always seemed to have so much time on the ball.  

“The appearance is striking and very similar. I was just looking at them and seeing the similarities. Maruice was a great player and here you have the next era of Kerry football coming through with David.

“I’ve been looking at him since he was 14 or 15 in school. I just saw him getting better and better. He was just a phenomenal talent and young fellas around the country were aware of him.”

****

Clifford has always been blessed with natural talent and the national GAA audience has been exposed to his incredible skillset over the first two seasons of his senior inter-county career.

He exploded onto the scene last year, delivering a slew of incredible performances for Kerry on the way to being crowned the Young Footballer of the Year.

His stock has risen once again in 2019. He picked up the man-of-the-match award in their Super 8s opener against Mayo, and while he didn’t quite scale those heights again in the second phase outing against Donegal, he still managed to come away with 0-3.

David Clifford dejected Clifford after Kerry's thrilling draw against Donegal. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The plaudits have been deservedly flowing in for a player that many think will one day be the equal of Colm Cooper as well as Maurice Fitzgerald.

But what we’re seeing in his game at senior inter-county level took years of graft.  According to McGrath, Clifford would often take himself to the Fossa GAA field with a bag of balls where he spent hours perfecting his skills.

It was a similar scenario whenever he was training with the Sem.

“We’d be training and he’d always want to stay on kicking,” says McGrath. “It stands to him today and that’s what it comes down to.”

There were budding leadership qualities there too. While carrying an injury into the final of an U14 tournament with Kerry, Clifford took his manager O’Sullivan aside to assure him he could play.

He had the foresight to know that while he might not play his best game, he could keep a defender distracted to enable the other forwards to perform. The management team were stunned by his intelligent thinking.

“You could see their jaws hitting the ground,” O’Sullivan remembers.

We played him and he was basically playing on one leg. He ended up kicking a point and setting up at least 1-3 or 1-4 by purely winning the ball and slipping it to guys coming off him. 

But Clifford is human after all and there were some weaknesses he had to work on. O’Sullivan guided him through some of the tweaking on the Kerry development squads.

“That first year was about developing skills and David really took everything on board. He was like a sponge. They are at that age but he was particularly noticeable. He was constantly working on his game and he was weaker off his right foot so he was working on that.

For a big man, he wasn’t always brilliant over his head so we had to work a little bit on his catching. He was very quick over the first five or 10 yards to get away from a defender but he seemed to always make that straight-line run rather than making a run in an arc.”

Clifford took the guidance he needed to correct that problem but there other obstacles to overcome.

A forward of his quality is always likely to attract special treatment from opposition defenders.

Naturally, the constant attention can sometimes aggravate a player and O’Sullivan recalls that a “red mist” would sometimes come upon Clifford in such scenarios.

Darran O'Sullivan celebrates with Sean O'Sullivan Sean O'Sullivan celebrating Kerry's 2009 All-Ireland victory with Darran O'Sullivan. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

But there’s been no trace of any indiscipline in Clifford’s game since making the transition into the senior ranks, which indicates that he’s rinsed that problem out of his system. 

Another area that required some work relates to Clifford’s running style. Although he was burning past his markers from early on in his career, his mentors knew there was a way to make him even faster.

“They did a lot of work on his gait when he was about 14,” explains O’Sullivan.

They noticed his running style was actually slowing him down. He was a little bent over so when he was receiving the ball, he was in a bit of a bent over state that was stopping him from maximising his speed.

“They basically retaught him how to run. When he was coming up through U12, U13, U14, he was so good that nobody thought there was anything wrong. Now there wasn’t anything wrong with him but it’s helped him play even better.

“He didn’t have any deficiency, he was just growing faster than anyone else. He just needed a bit of corrective work. He’s perfectly healthy.

“By straightening him up a bit, he was able to run faster because he wasn’t in that hunched over position.”

****

In ways, Clifford’s teenage years have unfolded in a public arena. From that 2016 Hogan Cup final to the 2017 All-Ireland minor final where he scored 4-4 against Derry to help Kerry land their fourth consecutive crown, the Fossa man has been talked about.

The St Brendans players celebrate with the Hogan Cup The victorious St Brendan's team after the 2016 Hogan Cup final. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

His ability even caught the attention of other sports. There were several reports of interest from the AFL for a time, which left many Kerry fans worrying about the future of one of their brightest stars. 

That ultimately fizzled out however, as Clifford chose to stay at home and serve the Kingdom’s cause.

During his school days, Clifford was also proficient soccer player and McGrath recalls the whispers that circulated about scouts supposedly hoping to poach the young Kerry man.

“He was a member of the school soccer team at U15 and he played at centre-half. He won an All-Ireland and they went to England and represented Ireland in a kind of four-nations tournament.

Even at that stage, there were little rumours that a few scouts were hanging around but thankfully nothing ever came of that. I suppose he concentrated on the football after that and gave up the soccer.

“The AFL were making contact to see if they could interest him but David is good at no matter what he turns to. He plays a bit of golf in his spare time and is meant to be a very good player too.”

****

Throughout his career to date, Clifford has remained humble. No amount of praise or back-slapping has ever inspired him to drift off course, and his supportive family continue to keep him grounded, according to both O’Sullivan and McGrath. 

Clifford’s fellow Kerry teammate Dara Moynihan was in his year at the Sem, and a member of that Hogan Cup winning team, whose mantra was to treat every player like a separate and equally important cog in the wheel.

In short, the limelight isn’t a place that interests Clifford.

David Clifford Clifford has kept his feet on the ground throughout his career. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“You wouldn’t even know he was in the room,” says O’Sullivan of Clifford’s admirable character. “He’s just a gentleman. He’s going around to the Cúl Camps this summer and taking pictures with the kids.

“He’s a real down-to-earth guy.” 

O’Sullivan laments that Clifford didn’t get the chance to line out with some of his Kerry underage colleagues at U20 level, but he was always confident that he would slot seamlessly into the Kerry senior team when the time came.

As it turned out, Clifford made that step-up at 19, one year ahead of schedule according to O’Sullivan’s prediction from that day when he saw him as an U14 player.

Meath await Kerry in their final Super 8s outing this weekend, where a draw would be a sufficient result to send Peter Keane’s side through to the All-Ireland semi-finals.

Clifford was always destined for this major stage and Kerry fans will be hoping that he can go on to reach the heights of all the great players who have gone before him.

“You just hope in your heart that the curve in the graph continues, and that he avoids injury,” O’Sullivan adds. “Injury can be a killer in any young fella’s career. 

And you’d be hoping that he’d be part of a Kerry team that will one day win the ultimate [prize]. I don’t see it happening in the next two years but I definitely think the All-Ireland will come to that group there at the moment.

“Many great players have never won an All-Ireland unfortunately so you can only hope David won’t fall into that category.

“If they wanted to do it this year we wouldn’t say no!”

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