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How the return of 'one of the best players in Ireland' could light a fire under Armagh's season

Jamie Clarke is back after stints in Melbourne and New York.

“I just discovered more things. I discovered what life’s about. I discovered how great the world is and realised you only get one shot at the thing. Part of me is like, ‘I’d love to be part of something, I’d love to go again’. I don’t want to give up, if that makes sense? I think that’s why I can’t let go of the sport and to be seen as ‘ah, he gave up’. But there comes the stage where you have to make a decision and ask yourself, ‘Look, what do you really want here?’”
-Jamie Clarke, May 2018

Jamie Clarke Clarke is back in the Armagh squad this year. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

EIGHT MONTHS AGO, the last few New York players left the Gaelic Park dressing rooms after losing a frantic Connacht quarter-final to Leitrim after extra-time. 

Almost two hours after the final whistle, Jamie Clarke and a couple of his team-mates emerged, heads hanging and shoulders slumped.

It was an extraordinary start to the championship, but the end of the road for New York.

Justin O’Halloran’s men went closer than any Exiles team before them to achieving a first-ever victory in the province, but they watched a three-point lead agonisingly evaporate in the last five minutes of extra-time. 

Clarke gathered himself and spoke with the huddle of journalists waiting outside. 

“It is devastating to be honest,” he told them. “We gathered here in December, we have players from all over the country, and I think when we got together we set out our stall and what we really wanted to do and what we wanted to achieve as a team.

“It goes beyond this game but I think a lot of the boys did themselves proud. We had a couple of American kids playing as well.

“But for myself I’m more than disappointed because as the so-called marquee forward I missed several opportunities and probably should have won the game. I got a few but when you play at the top level you’re expected to nail them.”

Jamie Clarke with Paddy Maguire Jamie Clarke takes on Leitrim's Paddy Maguire in a packed Gaelic Park. Source: Andy Marlin/INPHO

Clarke kicked 0-5, three from play, and looked especially sharp in the first-half, but was in no mood to look at the positives. 

It was the only competitive inter-county game he played in 2018. The season beforehand, the Crossmaglen native was nominated for an All-Star after a strong campaign that saw Armagh reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

His personal highlight was a stunning goal in a qualifier victory over Tipperary at Semple Stadium. It was a finish that summed up all of Clarke’s finest qualities – coolness under pressure, confidence, skill and imagination.

By the end of that summer, wanderlust had taken hold of Clarke once again. He spent a few months in Melbourne, but by December had pitched up in the Big Apple – one of his favourite haunts.

“He was in Australia and he contacted me in October 2017. He said he’d be interested (in playing with New York) and I told him to come on ahead,” New York manager O’Halloran tells The42.

“He was very willing. He said, ‘Put me in the Whatsapp group. I’m not there yet but I’ll be there. Get me involved and let the players know I’m coming.’

“There was no issue with getting him in there at all. He was more than happy to come in.

I was astounded to be honest with you, because he’s one of the best players in Ireland. He came in as just a regular player and had no issues with anything that was going on. 

“He was very, very easy to work with and he always wanted to learn,” he continued. “He taught us stuff as well, so it was great.”

Every ball that went near Clarke that afternoon against Leitrim last summer brought the Gaelic Park crowd to the edge of their seats, in the sort of way only a maverick footballer can. Clarke has always played a half-beat off normal rhythms and imagined scores most other forwards wouldn’t even consider. 

He is different, O’Halloran concedes.

“He’s very goal-orientated. When training starts, he wants to be the best on the pitch. If he got a little knock or something at training, he’d still try and carry on.

“You try and tell him to sit down, but he always wanted to be out there working as hard as everybody else – and even harder and trying to push everybody else on.

“He did play very well against Leitrim, I have to say. When he got the ball you knew there was something good going to come off it.”

During his time in New York, Clarke lent a hand with coaching children and proved a very popular figure in the Irish community. 

“He took a couple of the underage teams and coached the coaches as well,” said O’Halloran. “The kids very much enjoyed working with him. He’s very easy to get on with and he’s very kid-friendly. Even my own son, Jamie had great time for him. 

“He worked for one of the selectors and seemingly he was a very good worker, never missed a day. There’s nothing bad I could say about the lad, being honest with you.

“He does love New York. I’d say if he was able to stay here, he would have stayed. With the way things are here now it’s hard to stay when you’re not permitted, but he really had a good time.

“And it wasn’t just all football. We woudn’t take it as a serious as at home. We’ve only one game really. He had a good social life too.”

Jamie Clarke celebrates scoring a goal Jamie Clarke celebrates his brilliant goal against TIpperary in 2017. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Clarke remains one of the most fascinating characters in the GAA. He sees the world differently to most. From the various interviews he’s done over the years, you get the sense he has a constant internal battle between his penchant for travel and his love for football. 

The two are hardly mutually exclusive.

He turns 30 in June and once the body holds up, he has plenty of good years left in him. Clarke is back in harness with Armagh this year, but whether he’ll still be around in 12 months’ time is anyone’s guess. The key for them is to make hay while he’s home.

His return to the county set-up has coincided with that of Stefan Campbell and James Morgan, who were both absent in 2018. It’s a major boost for Kieran McGeeney as he enters his fifth year in charge of the Orchard County. 

Armagh haven’t won a game in Ulster in four years under McGeeney, and sooner or later the sort of patience he’s been afforded by supporters will begin to wear thin. But they’re back in Division 2 of the league and gave All-Ireland finalists Tyrone their fill of it in last weekend’s McKenna Cup final.

There’s every reason to believe that this is the year Armagh will make a big leap forward.

Not alone have they three guaranteed starters returned to the squad, but a fresh batch of youngsters have started to emerge from the underage ranks. All of a sudden, the future is looking bright.

“You’re talking about the likes of Ryan Owens, Ross McQuillan, Jason Duffy, Rian O’Neill,” says former midfielder Paul McGrane.

There have been numerous fellas (breaking through) and they’ve had a lot of exposure to different things. Some of those fellas are playing university football as well. They’re good fellas, they’re good lads.

“Kieran has brought them in, there’s been a good flush of them. He’s given them the chance. Hopefully they’ll push on. Some of them got a few starts last year, just the way the championship run went last year.

“Ryan and Ross were on it at various stages. Those fellas would be keen to go and push on and wear the orange jersey at senior level.”

Sean Walsh and Ross McQuillan Cork's Sean Walsh attempts to block Ross McQuillan of Armagh at the AFL Combine in UCD, Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The Orchard Academy that was established by McGrane and Denis Hollywood in 2012 is beginning to reap the rewards at senior level. 

“I suppose like anything else, it always needs to be re-energised,” says McGrane.

It started out on Saturday mornings seven years ago with hundreds of youngsters training in squads from U14 up to minor level. Building on the work of the clubs and schools, a structured pathway for young footballers up until senior level was created.  

A host of Armagh’s favourite sons from 2002 put their shoulder to the wheel at various grades. 

McGrane, Diarmaid Marsden, Benny Tierney, Oisin McConville, John Toal, John McEntee, Paddy McKeever, Philly McEvoy, Cathal O Rourke, Stevie McDonnell and Aidan O Rourke are some of the legendary figures who helped nurture the next generation of talent over the years.

Ciaran McKeever will take the reigns of the minors this year, while their former captain McGeeney remains in charge of the seniors. 

McGrane continues: “There are numerous people that have been working in the underage set-up. Denis Hollywood has been leading it and there’s been a lot of academy coaches involved.  

“Then you have fellas involved from a schools point of view – Fintan Moriarty and David Wilson. 

Kieran McGeeney and Paul McGrane Kieran McGeeney and Paul McGrane lift the Ulster title in 2006. Source: INPHO

“It does help because ultimately those boys want to help the younger lads go and progress. That’s what the whole thing is about, to go and help out the younger players coming through. Different fellas can give different commitments at various stages, just depending on their own circumstances.

It’s not just about the fellas who’ve been involved (as players with Armagh), there’s a lot of others who would be coaching as well but haven’t played at inter-county senior level. They bring a whole lot of the table as well.”

The Armagh attack this season is shaping up to be a formidable one. Established players like Clarke, Campbell, Andrew Murnin, Rory and Jack Grugan, Ethan Rafferty, Jemar Hall, Oisin O’Neill and Ryan McShane will have to fight for a jersey with the rising starlets. 

Rafferty is expected to return from injury in the early stages of the league but Oisin O’Neill and Murnin are longer-term absentees. 

But McGeeney has plenty of options up front. Rian O’Neill, younger brother of Oisin, starred for Crossmaglen on their run to the Armagh title this year and, along with McQuillan, attended last year’s AFL Combine in UCD. O’Neill is a physical, scoring attacker and capable of thriving at full-forward or in the number 11 role.

McQuillan, son of former Armagh player Martin, was named on the EirGrid U20 Team of the Year in 2018 and made his senior debut the same year. He has another year left at U20 level, but featured with the seniors at wing-back during the McKenna Cup and should see more game-time in the league.

Rian O'Neill and Padraig Hampsey Rian O'Neill played a big role in Crossmaglen's run to the county title in 2018. Source: Declan Roughan/INPHO

Another AFL target was Jarlath Óg Burns, who could follow in his father Jarlath’s footsteps and become the long-term answer at midfield. 

“The ideal scenario is that there’s three or four coming forward each year, that’s what you really want for them to go and put pressure on the fellas that are there. That’s what raises the bar,” McGrane continues.

What you want is a conveyor belt. Some years you have a flush and other years it mightn’t be as flush, but so long as they’re getting the opportunity to go and come through. The hope is then that they will push on.

“They’d all be keen to get on. Eoghan McDonnell as well, Deccie Loye too. There’d be different fellas pushing.

“It doesn’t always go in straight lines. Some fella might be more ready one year, maybe the way injuries fall he gets an opportunity and he grabs it.

“Hopefully the boys stick at it and it’s a good environment for them in the seniors and that they do push on. There’s nothing to say that they won’t because they’d be keen to go and do that.”

Part of McGrane’s reasoning for getting involved with the underage set-up was his desire to help players experience the sort of extraordinary highs he enjoyed during his career.

The coaches strive to impress on the players that properly representing Armagh off the field is also part of the gig. Developing good character is every bit as important as creating top footballers.

“Ultimately, what they do off the field will reflect what they do on the pitch. It’s about how they carry themselves. That’s just life. At the end of the day, you want to try and be a good example.

Tempers flare Tempers flare in the McKenna Cup final. Source: Philip McGowan/INPHO

“It’s not always in straight lines, there are good and bad days. But it’s how you go and respond to various challenges – that’s on and off the pitch. 

“I don’t think one can just be separated from the other one. It’s about the person and that’s what will shine through on the pitch – the fella’s character.” 

Down the line, Cian McConville, a nephew of former great Oisin, might be the next to roll off the production line. Rated as one of the most exciting young prospects in Ulster, he scored 2-3 in the provincial minor semi-final for Crossmaglen at the end of last year, while also gaining a healthy bill of experience with the seniors. But that’s for another day. 

At the very least, McGrane says the reintroduction of Clarke and Campbell to the panel will give McGeeney more options in the attack and “raise the bar” across the board.

“You want your best players there and the best players are there,” he says. 

Kieran McGeeney in the team huddle Kieran McGeeney in the team huddle before the McKenna Cup final. Source: Philip McGowan/INPHO

“No doubt it would be great to go and compete for an Ulster title. The big one will be the first round of the championship. I think Kieran stated it himself that really, Armagh would want to be in the Super 8s.

“They were very close last year, they had a good game against Roscommon at the finish but unfortunately were pipped. If they can progress on and get into that, that’s ultimately where you want to be. ”

Clarke’s comeback has the potential to light a spark under Armagh’s season. The positive influence he exerts on younger players cannot be underestimated.

“He wants to work hard and help out all the younger inexperienced players,” O’Halloran adds.

“He likes to spread his knowledge around. It was a privilege working with him.”

DxyVUIUX4AAuQPB Source: Armagh GAA

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Kevin O'Brien

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