The mention of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku and Graziano Pelle may be enough to strike fear into even the most cultured central defenders in Europe but the Republic of Ireland’s Ciaran Clark is not one to be intimidated by names on the back of a shirt.
The aforementioned trio are just some of the big names the 26-year-old will be hoping to come up against at the European Championships in France this summer but he’s adamant that facing such illustrious opponents is part and parcel of being an international footballer.
“I’ve played against a couple of them before,” the Aston Villa man recalls. “You are always in for tough games against the top players. It’s not just the individual players, it’s the teams. There are top players all throughout those teams.”
The teams Clark refers to are Sweden, Belgium and Italy, Ireland’s Group E opponents in this year’s European Championships in France. On paper, Ireland face a tough task to progress to the knockout stages but Clark feels that the belief and confidence shown by the squad throughout the qualifying campaign will stand them in good stead this summer: “I suppose halfway through qualifying, there was a stage where people thought we couldn’t do it anymore. Obviously we proved them wrong and we managed to get there. It was a massive confidence boost and a great feeling to get through.”
“Everyone still believed we could do it. The group of lads there in the squad have got that belief and confidence in knowing that if we could just take each game as it came and try to pick up as many points as we could, that there would always be a massive chance. It proved that way in the end. And like I said, there was a massive buzz then when we did it.”
In the absence of John O’Shea, Clark formed a formidable partnership with Richard Keogh in the centre of Ireland’s defence during the two-legged play-off with Bosnia and Herzegovina in November. While recognising that he has a lot of work to do to ensure a starting berth in France, he feels that himself and Keogh have given manager Martin O’Neill something to think about: “I’d like to think so, yeah. Obviously they were two good games. We did fairly well. It’s one of those things. You can do well but the summer is quite a long way off. There is still plenty of football to be played. Anything can happen. It’s all about trying to keep your fitness and play as many games as possible between now and then.”
Arguably the two highlights of the qualifying campaign were the games against Germany in which Ireland took four points off the world champions. A 1–1 draw in Gelsenkirchen in which O’Shea scored a dramatic injury-time winner was followed up with a 1–0 victory at Aviva Stadium courtesy of a strike from Shane Long. Both games bring back fond memories for Clark as he recalled: “They were both were unbelievable. I was on the bench for the away one when John O’Shea got the goal. Longy’s goal was just unbelievable. Those four points obviously proved to be a massive difference. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it. It was just massive, a great feeling.”
Clark doesn’t have many memories of Ireland’s last foray into the European Championships in 2012 which they exited early after being humbled by Croatia, Spain and Italy in the group stage: “I wasn’t involved in that! I can’t even remember. I must have been away with my family.”
Those same family members and many friends are now pestering Clark for tickets to the Ireland’s matcehs. While not guaranteed a place in the squad, Clark has proved himself an able back-up to the regular central defenders. Reiterating the need to stay injury-free on a number of occasions, it’s clear where Clark’s short-term priorities lie. However, it may just be an injury to a fellow centre-half that opens the door for him to start the opening game against Sweden at the Stade de France on June 13th. Based on recent international form, the country will be in good hands should that situation arise.