‘This is where we want to be’ says Armagh's Jamie Clarke

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney has good reason to be thankful that Jamie Clarke decided against pursuing his burgeoning soccer career in the US last summer.
‘This is where we want to be’ says Armagh's Jamie Clarke

The Crossmaglen Rangers ace had been taking tentative steps with New York Shamrocks in the Cosmopolitan League but when McGeeney came calling in person, it was to signal a fresh chapter in Clarke’s Gaelic football career.

McGeeney left the Big Apple reassured by Clarke’s declaration that he would return to the Orchard County fold in 2017.

Given the player’s penchant for global travel, the seeing is believing brigade were anticipating an ‘I told you so’ rejoinder to what was seen as McGeeney’s bold gamble.

Yet if proof were needed that Clarke’s renewed commitment to the Armagh cause was indeed nothing less than absolute, then it was provided by the player himself in a typically choreographed county media event that preceded the Ulster Championship quarter-final against Down.

“I have never been part of an Armagh squad that has been more together and enjoys such a special bond,” said Clarke.

“We are very united and our sole focus is on doing well in the Ulster Championship.”

Down were having none of that, though. McGeeney’s men were unceremoniously despatched from the provincial series with their tail between their legs, their grandiose ambitions left in ruins.

But with skipper Rory Grugan and seasoned campaigners such as Aidan Forker, Charlie Vernon, Brendan Donaghy, and Clarke himself chipping in with their tuppence worth, a hoped-for Armagh renaissance became a reality via All-Ireland qualifier wins over Fermanagh, Westmeath, Tipperary, and Kildare.

Those victories have projected the side into a second appearance at GAA HQ within the space of a week — something that would have been deemed nothing more than fanciful when they were ploughing a laborious course through Division Three of the Allianz league.

And just as he plays his football from the head, Clarke speaks from the heart when he assesses his county’s progress as they gear up to face a Tyrone side that have glided serenely through to the last eight.

“In the league we took our eye off the ball in several games and then we built the Down game up so much and wanted to put in a big performance. But that didn’t happen,” said Clarke.

“Afterwards we had a look at ourselves individually as players. We asked ourselves did we put in the effort that was required. The answer was no. We’re now in an All-Ireland quarter-final and it’s not where we want our season to end.”

Slowly but surely through those qualifier games, Clarke regained the silken touch and panache which have helped make him one of Gaelic football’s stand-out players.

On his day he can be irrepressible and last Saturday was one of those occasions. His subtle movement, clever use of space, willingness to offload the ball, and exquisite scoring touch elevated him to man-of-the-match status against a Lilywhites side that had no answer.

Yet everything must be taken in context. In four qualifier matches, Clarke has posted a modest 1-8 but his imprint has been on many more Armagh scores.

Tomorrow he can expect to be rigidly policed by a Tyrone defence that, thanks to coach Gavin Devlin, have reinvented the tackle as an art form rather than an avenue for the concession of frees.

While Clarke undoubtedly faces the enormous personal challenge of replicating or perhaps even bettering his stellar performance against Kildare, it’s the welfare of the team that is uppermost in his mind.

“We knew if we reached this stage the going would get tougher and you could hardly ask for more difficult opponents than Tyrone,” said Clarke.

“This is where Armagh want to be, though. We’re really looking forward to this test. Our recent wins have given us added belief that we can come out on top in tight encounters and we will surely need that belief tomorrow.”

Seven years have elapsed since Clarke marked his Armagh championship debut with 2-1 in the first 12 minutes against Donegal when one of his markers on that occasion was Karl Lacey.

The honours may keep coming thick and fast with Crossmaglen Rangers but Armagh, in contrast, have found themselves cast into anonymity in terms of garnering silverware of any significance since their last Ulster title coup in 2008.

And this makes it easier to understand why a player of Clarke’s calibre at this stage of his career is anxious to pull out all the stops.

His loyalty to the orange jersey, personal pride, and a desire to repay the faith manager McGeeney has shown in him will undoubtedly spur him to unleash his talents to the maximum on Saturday.

“Gaelic is my sport and it’s what I’ve grown up playing. I think I have the best chance to make the most of myself through football,” said Clarke.

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