Collingwoodfc.com.au’s Luke Mason speaks to Irish Magpie Marty Clarke about his return to the AFL last season and how he is seeking to improve his football in 2013.
Luke Mason: How would you describe the way you're feeling in both body and mind right now in comparison to how you did 12 months ago?
Marty Clarke: It’s great to be back training after the break. I suppose the main thing that every player will tell you is that we love training. The off-season is probably more about you getting more time to spend away from the club in terms of the meetings and the traffic here in the morning and I suppose the structures that are around, but I think most boys just still miss training and playing games.
Your body needs a break physically but we’re athletes and we really love going out and training and pushing ourselves all the time. It’s great to be back now. We’re training really hard at the minute both in the gym and out on the track and with games coming up close now we’re really pushing ourselves well. Everyone’s in a good place at the minute and it’s that exciting period now just before we start the games.
LM: Did you go back to Ireland during the Christmas break?
MC: No, I didn’t. I stayed here in Australia. My girlfriend’s out here now working full time so I stayed in Australia over the off-season and Christmas. It was a big change from the normal Christmases. It was really good, actually, I enjoyed it. On Christmas Day we were with Derek Hine (the club’s National Recruiting Manager) and his family, which was great. I lived with his family for two years when I first came over, so that was my family when I came over here. Derek’s great as is his whole family, so we went down the Great Ocean Road and did stuff like that with Anna (his girlfriend). There was plenty on so it was a pretty good Christmas.
LM: It's a cliché to say that you're in career best shape, but you're looking super fit coming off the back of the Utah training camp. Is this the best you've felt since you started at Collingwood back in 2007?
MC: With going back to Ireland usually there are a lot of people to catch up with and I suppose you don’t forget that you play in Australia because everyone asks you how it’s going and you have your program. It’s a bit harder to focus in on what you need to work on.
With the way I finished last season, I didn’t play any games from round 21 and missed the most important part of the season, so I stayed back and focused on things to work on over here. I actually joined the gym where I live, just a public gym to freshen up. I had a program and did a lot of running and managed to play a bit of five-a-side soccer too to keep in touch. I had a great time in Australia but I was working pretty hard in the off-season on fitness and a few strength things too.
LM: What sort of things in particular did you notice last year that had changed the most since you had last played?
MC: Things that had changed the most probably would have been the skills of players that have improved even more. You can’t give an opponent any space or they’ll find a good target. The speed as well – there’s not as much time at the stoppages, you have to basically sprint there and the ball’s up and away whereas previously you could set up a bit easier.
The tactics were probably a bit more advanced. There are more coaches now and the game changed, it’s always changing and teams have different strengths so that’s been advanced with the opposition analysis and stuff like that. It’s always moving forward, this game, but by and large it’s still the same. The goal of the game is the same. You need to be strong one-on-one. You have to make good decisions and usually the most consistent team is rewarded with the win and it’s such a long game, over two hours of football, so usually the best team does win.
LM: You began last year in strong form, playing well in the NAB Cup and featuring prominently in the early rounds before you lost your spot in the side late in the year. How would you describe your season?
MC: I just came back in the pre-season and attacked it and was really hungry, and I carried that right through the pre-season games and the first few rounds I played. I was really loving the challenge and was grateful to be back out there playing for such a great team with great players. I was playing my role reasonably well, every week I was improving and I was really enjoying that. I took a bit of confidence from the players that were around me that let me know where I needed to improve but also where I’ve been going well.
It was disappointing to lose my spot. I had a couple of down games during the year and I was in and out of the team after that. I suppose there were just players who were playing better than me at that stage. When I went down to the VFL I was doing well and pushing for a spot. I was in the 25 most weeks but missed out playing in the last month or five weeks. When you see the boys playing big finals you want to be a part of it but I couldn’t force my way in.
It leaves me very hungry for this year but certainly on reflection I wouldn’t have been overly happy with last year. I guess it started well but I wasn’t able to build on that. I know what I have to work on from talking to the coaches and I’m definitely determined when I get my chance this year to make sure that I have to stay in the side.
LM: What parts of your game have you been focusing on with the coaches during the pre-season?
MC: The more games I play and with every training session, it’s the game awareness. Other things just like using my skills to more advantage as well. Taking the game on a bit more. I know I can but I just need the confidence to take the game on a bit more. It’s just probably general awareness around stoppages and stuff like that, but you pick up and improve more as I did from round one until my last game. Everything else comes around from that.
I am feeling more confident this year already. Just the more hours you put in on the track and the more game time you play, the more confident you feel about the other things. I definitely am at a more advanced stage and people will tell you that last year was a bonus year. Coming back from two years, you mightn’t have expected to play any games, but I certainly got the 17 or so games and a few in the VFL, maybe three or four there, so all that game time stood me in good stead. I’d seen how the game was going and I knew my teammates better and I know my body’s condition now and what the AFL takes, so I’m really ready this year. I can look at last year as a good foundation and push on from that.
But it sticks in your mind, the last few weeks on the sidelines, not playing at all. It’s hard to sit and watch when the boys are playing but unfortunately in the end, you know, everyone feels it because we fell short, but hopefully we can take that hunger through this year.
LM: When you were in the VFL later in the year, you dominated a couple of games, especially the game against Frankston at Victoria Park. How big was the gap between the VFL and the AFL, and what made it difficult to convert that VFL form into AFL form?
MC: I suppose it’s hard to compare, really. In the VFL there are a lot of younger boys, particularly last year. I’ve played in Gaelic teams at home where I was more of a ‘main player’ than I am at Collingwood and I sort of felt that responsibility when I went down to the VFL. Maybe that helped the others like Caolan Mooney and a lot of the younger boys. When we were training I was speaking to them and I felt I knew how to advise them more on the ground and that maybe helped me do well.
There’s definitely a difference in standard. The AFL’s a lot more skilled, players are a bit fitter and it’s the next standard down but when I came back up to the AFL, for whatever reason, I probably didn’t play as well. I was playing a different role. There are a lot of great players in the AFL team and it’s hard to stay in when you’re there.
LM: On ANZAC Day you tagged Essendon’s Brent Stanton, who was averaging 29 disposals per game at that stage, and limited him to only 13 touches. Was that role a one-off or is it something you can see yourself doing more of in the future?
MC: That was one of the highlights of the year. That game was such a big game and I was really proud to have played an important role in it. I’m willing to do whatever I can to get into the team and whatever Nathan and the coaches decide I’m willing to do for them. You would need to ask them as to what match up it requires but I’d be willing to do whatever to get into the team.
LM: You missed all three finals last year. I take it that it's a spur for this year?
MC: In the off-season I was going to use that because I didn’t play for five weeks so I felt as if I’d had five weeks less football compared to the rest of the boys, because the VFL weren’t in finals. I don’t think I would have missed much in terms of volume in the legs because when the boys were on holidays I was here pushing myself. Those five weeks were really…there were no complaints because the boys were playing better than me, no doubt about that, but I used that in the off-season and hopefully will take this through now.
LM: Heading into 2013, you've had a year back in the system and Bucks and several other coaches have now got 12 months under their belts. I imagine everything feels a lot more settled?
MC: Absolutely. When I came in last year, I think it coincided with changes in regards to Bucks and that. It does take time for everyone just to click in together. That’s just the way it is. Mick Malthouse was here for a long time. It does (feel settled), we’re in the new facilities now too and people are just getting used to everything so hopefully everyone can just go that couple of steps further this year.
LM: What was the club’s high altitude camp in Utah like on a personal level? Did you find the benefits to be much different to that of Arizona?
MC: I thought it was a great trip. The main benefits would be just getting away together as a team. For team spirit it’s amazing, particularly for the mature players who develop and the first year draftees who can get away and see everyone on a daily basis. It just settles everyone right into the team. That’s the key thing, you’re there working together and you get to know your teammates better. You struggle through training together and it brings you closer together for sure. The training was really tough and it sets us up in a good place and plants the seeds in terms of the way we want to play as a group this year. It’s definitely beneficial on a sports science level as the tests will show, but in terms of growing as a team and all the intangible things like working hard together, it really is a great camp.
LM: Where do you see yourself playing your best footy? Is it off half back or is there the potential that you may spend more time playing in the centre?
MC: I don’t really have a spot that I prefer. I would take any role, as I said. I’ve played half back most of my career here and I do enjoy that if you’re playing on a high half forward and getting up the ground. I’ve always been an attacking and creative player in the Gaelic game. I do see myself with a creative mind on the ground but, again, any role I’m given in this environment I’d certainly take. In the past I done tagging and played wing and I’ve really enjoyed all the challenges of it, so I wouldn’t really choose a spot, but I do have a creative mind on the ball. I’d like to bring that into the AFL game a bit more. I don’t think I’ve shown that enough really but I do feel I’m confident that I can improve that as I get more settled.
LM: Lastly, looking off the field, what are you doing in your life away from footy? What keeps you occupied during your spare time?
MC: I’m starting a course in sports science. I’ve done a bit of foundation for being a teacher, but you have to get the degree. I know I want to be a PE teacher eventually when this is all over and I feel that this is something I can pass on to kids. It’s something I’ve always loved and I really enjoy teaching PE and playing sports and games with kids wherever, be it in Ireland or here. I’m doing my studies there and it’s a long road because I have my football as well but that’s what I’m going to be doing after football. My girlfriend’s over now, she’s a doctor working at the Austin Hospital, so I feel really settled here in Melbourne. Away from the club I’m occupied and certainly football’s my main interest. I’ve got a good point to prove this year to myself and hopefully I can do well and just peak at the right time of year as well.