New York to Armagh: Jamie Clarke is back where he belongs
The 26-year-old will play championship football for the first time since 2015 this year
Armagh’s Jamie Clarke at the launch of the 2017 Global Games Development Fund. Photo: Gary Carr/Inpho
You know what they say about absence and the heart and right now Jamie Clarke is wearing that fondness on his sleeve. For a player who this time last year walked away from Armagh football with little intention of returning there may also be a wider meaning to all that.
Because what brought Clarke back, interestingly, are some of the things that lured him away in the first place: a desire to express himself, explore his limitations, to be the best he can. All of the things he’s now finding within this Armagh team.
It makes for a quite startling charge of heart, actually. A year ago, Armagh lost their Ulster quarter-final to Cavan, and that same week Clarke collected his 18-month J1 trainee visa to allow him further his marketing and fashion experience in New York. A month shy of his 27th birthday, few people in Armagh expected to see him play again.
Only in this Sunday’s Ulster quarter-final, he’ll be central to Armagh’s chances of beating neighbours Down at Pairc Esler. Now a month shy of his 28th birthday, Clarke can’t imagine anywhere else he’d rather be – and few people in Armagh would disagree.
“I think I am coming back with a different mindset, a different approach,” he says. “Before I went away, looking back, early on in my career I was relaxed and really enjoying my game, then I started to put a lot of pressure on myself in terms of my performance, where I should be at.
“I was comparing myself to the likes of Michael Murphy, Conor McManus and James O’Donoghue at the time, which was obviously the wrong attitude and the wrong mentality to take. Now I’m definitely revitalised after being away, appreciate the game a lot more, and the love I have for it. I just love being around the team and winning is where we are at, at the minute, and I just want to do my part for Armagh.”
That winning, however, has stalled dramatically since Clarke made his quite sensational debut for Armagh – in 2010 – coming off the bench to score the decisive goal in the Ulster preliminary round win over Derry. Inconceivably as it sounds Armagh have only won two games in Ulster since – the 2011 quarter-final against Down, and the 2014 quarter-final against Cavan.
Clarke doesn’t – can’t, rather – have any regrets about opting out last year, something he had to get out of his system. He’d travelled before, completely falling for Paris as the mirror for his love of coffee, culture and fashion, but after a few months in New York last summer (including a spell playing for US soccer club New York Shamrocks), he began to realise what he was missing.
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney had wished him well on his travels, as had his club Crossmaglen, but when Clarke heard McGeeney was in New York for the Conor McGregor fight last December, they agreed to meet up.
“We went to Bryant Park, for coffee, just chatted about New York for a while and talked about the fight, then we got down to business.
“I was actually really nervous at the time. I knew it was coming. It ended up that I cut to the chase and asked him could I be part of the team again. He said, ‘no problem’. I just promised him that I’d give everything to it and I wouldn’t let him down when it came to the summer.
“Look it, Kieran and I get on well and I’d see him as a mentor outside of football. He’s been there and he’s done it. I suppose for myself that’s where I want to get. I spoke to him before I went, in terms of what I really wanted. I just wanted to be true to myself and he said the same thing, ‘there’s no point being here if you’re just going through the motions’.
“I think the most difficult thing is that it’s not about what anyone else thinks. You know it’s going to play on your mind, that people think you don’t care about the game, or you don’t care about Armagh.
“And I think that was probably the most difficult thing because I love the game. It just happened that I went travelling because I was worried about finding myself, worrying about life and where it was all going. I think that was just part of my journey that I had to figure out for myself. I don’t know what that is, I just try and be as honest as I can. Because I do have other interests other than football.”
He’s based in Dublin, working with Bank of Ireland, and despite Armagh’s near miss on promotion to Division Two (denied by a last-minute Tipperary goal) he has every confidence about where the team are, and where they are going.
“For sure, I would have kept up to date with it. I suppose with social media now you can’t stay away from it anyway. Ah listen, when the championship comes around you try and tell yourself I am going to stay away from it, but it’s impossible because you are playing in Gaelic Park, in New York and everyone is talking about it. Deep down, I was watching most of the games anyway and keeping an eye on Armagh in particular.
“I think watching Armagh made me realise I should have been there, should have been part of it, and I kind of knew I was only in New York, what, four or five months, and knew already what I really wanted.
“I think for myself it was just a case of seeing things out abroad for a certain amount of time, just being true to myself, what I wanted to try. And coming back I didn’t want any regrets, no excuse.
“It’s been two year since I’ve played championship for Armagh, and I am really, really excited to tell you the truth. Again, I don’t want to get caught in saying the same thing every year, that Armagh are always there or thereabouts. But, I think people know at this stage anyway what Armagh are capable of.
“Definitely the team aspect is one. This year it’s probably the closest unit we’ve had. We’ve adopted a challenging policy within the group for the last couple of years and I suppose in the first year one player would challenge somebody else, and it wouldn’t sit well.
“I suppose now I can say anything to any player on the team and they can say the same thing back and we just accept it. There are no hard feelings or anything like that. I think going away has helped me with that. And I think it’s just a case of being comfortable with yourself, because I probably would have been a bit insecure in that regard before I went away. It’s water off a duck’s back at this stage, what people think. Ultimately it’s the people that I really care about that I want to make happy.”