Life on the AFL fringes: Why Swans footballer Ryan Clarke is grateful for his senior chance

Ryan Clarke’s season, and possibly his AFL career, changed in an instant seven weeks ago.Sydney coach John Longmire asked Clarke if he wanted to try being a forward, after the 25-year-old toiled away in obscurity mostly in the VFL as a midfielder or winger since the start of last season.His only five senior games in that time were all as the medical substitute – and he actually played in just one of them, even though they all counted in his overall tally.Out of contract and entering round 15 of his fourth season in red and white, Clarke’s playing future looked bleak.Then Longmire told him in the meeting before the Swans’ main training session that week about his new defensive forward role and that he was going to play against St Kilda.“I was stoked that I was getting an opportunity – I couldn’t care less where I was playing,” Clarke told News Corp this week.“I was just keen as to go out and play with my mates I hadn’t played with in so long.”Clarke spent most of his time on in-form Saint Jack Sinclair, and even chipped in two goals as Sydney cantered to a 51-point win at the SCG.A week later, he was the sub again in what ended up being a disappointing loss to Essendon. But Clarke’s career revival wasn’t done.He was included in the Swans’ 22 the following round against the Western Bulldogs and hasn’t looked back.Clarke limited All-Australian Bailey Dale to only 16 disposals that night in 103 minutes as a direct match-up with the star Dog, as well as kicking another goal.“It’s been good. Previously I’ve tagged or gone to opposition in the midfield, so it’s a bit different as a forward,” he said.“But I’ve got so many good forwards around me and good defensive forwards as well, like Will Hayward and ‘Paps’ (Tom Papley), so they’ve really helped me out and made the transition as easy as possible for me.”Clarke’s done plenty of good himself, too. He’s laid 14 tackles and provided manic pressure in the three matches since to keep his spot.On Sunday at Marvel Stadium, Clarke will face his old side North Melbourne, where he played 40 of his 75 AFL matches, and close friend Luke McDonald for the second time as this unlikely opportunity continues.“I’m still mates with Cam Zurhaar, Nick Larkey and a few other boys, too, but it’s been about four years since I’ve been there, so a few of my close mates have left,” he said.“But it’ll be good to see the boys. I was kind of on the outer a little bit at North (at the end of 2018), then I got a great opportunity at Sydney and thought it’d be nice to change it up and move interstate.“I’ll be forever grateful the Swans took me on four years ago. Obviously, the past couple of years have been tough with footy, but I love living in Sydney and the boys here are unbelievable.”Clarke’s story, and that of many other footballers walking the tightrope on the AFL fringes, rarely gets told compared to the stars making everything look easy.At the same time, he has never moped about his plight and acknowledges “we’re still running around kicking a footy for a living”. Longmire has a lot to do with that.“The best thing with ‘Horse’ (Longmire) is he’s really honest and always telling me how I’m going and what to work on and kept motivating me, saying I was close,” Clarke said. “Probably without the talks with ‘Horse’; I’m not too sure if I would have stayed motivated.“I’m also really thankful for the chats with a few of my close mates, in Papley and (Justin) McInerney and some mentors at the club, as well as the coaches, so it’s been really good.”There are only three home and away rounds left in the season but Clarke isn’t daring to dream about playing his first final.He refuses to allow himself to get comfortable.“I’ve basically played five games in two years, so I’m not really thinking about that,” Clarke said.“I’m more just thinking, ‘This is a good opportunity this week against my old club’.“I’m having a ball at the moment. It’s been fun, being back in the senior team, and I’m trying to take it one week at a time and not think too far ahead.”Clarke is taking the same approach with the other small matter of his football livelihood.His senior return and new role have seemingly given renewed hope that the Swans will offer him a new deal, especially given his relative youth and consistently strong VFL form previously.But Clarke, again, is living in the moment. He doesn’t know what he will do if he isn’t an AFL footballer but the ideal scenario is he will have more time to make that big decision.“I try not to really think about it all,” he said.“Six weeks ago, it wasn’t looking good and now everything’s just a bonus. I’ll just keep enjoying my footy, then if it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”Originally published as AFL: Ex-Kangaroo Ryan Clarke grateful for his unlikely senior return with Sydney Swans as he prepares to play his old side