Tuesday 23 October 2018

I get why people might get angry and be like, 'what is this guy doing?' - Jamie Clarke on life in New York

A view of the New York skyline from Jamie Clarke’s Instagram account
A view of the New York skyline from Jamie Clarke’s Instagram account
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

New York City. The Chelsea Bell bar on West 26th street in Manhattan. Outside, the sun beams down on a beautiful day with the eight million or so who cram on to the island for work unaware that their GAA team missed out on history by a couple of minutes just the previous day.

Inside the cool of the bar, Jamie Clarke sits, decked out in full New York tracksuit with a nose grazed from the previous day's action.

"The first minute," he smiles when asked about it.

Around him the mood is mournful. When it comes to their county side, New York GAA people live on hope and little else. This time around, they gave themselves a big chance against Leitrim but with the end in sight, it slipped away like sand through their fingers.

With Mayo, Galway and Roscommon due to the Bronx over the next three years – all of whom will operate in Division 1 in 2019 – it will be at least the 2022 visit of Sligo before they can give themselves a chance like it again.

Opportunity knocked but no one was home.

"This is what we were born to do."

Those were the words roared by Oisín McConville at the beginning of the brilliant 'True North' documentary on Crossmaglen. Eyes ablaze, he leaves no doubt about what he expects from his team.

Jamie Clarke in action for the Exiles this month. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jamie Clarke in action for the Exiles this month. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Crossmaglen simultaneously makes all the sense in the world and none at all. As a town it's like dozens of others around the country. What made it different was a freakish ability to produce football teams with an insatiable appetite for winning.

For outsiders there was an easy way to rationalise the place. For Cross' people, football was about identity. Each win, every trophy, was an act of defiance to the army that had taken over a chunk of their ground and town.

This reporter played several colleges matches there. On one occasion an army helicopter hovered over the pitch for no tangible reason. The down-draft from the blades was such that it made the game unplayable. It was easy to see how the club could use it as fuel, to drive them to greater heights. Simply put, it meant more to them.

And so the town turned into a football factory, producing uncompromising men who developed an uncanny knack for winning replays. But there was always a velvet glove along with the iron fist. And Crossmaglen produced Clarke, who was not so much sprinkled with star dust as caked in it.

In Gaelic Park earlier this month, he held the place in thrall in the way very few can. Even the hairiest delivery sent his direction brought life to the place and Clarke, as if plugged into the mains, would come to life. While the tempest of championship football raged around him, Clarke seemed serene and almost indifferent.

That image might fit in with many people's view of him. After all, he is an extravagantly gifted player who has flitted in and out of county football for the last couple of seasons.

Clarke was home last year and did enough to earn an All-Star nomination with Armagh. He gave a glimpse of his talent with a brilliantly improvised goal against Leitrim that showed he sees the game a little differently to most. As it turns out, he sees the world a little differently too.

"I get it," Clarke said, addressing his decision to pursue things other than football.

"And I get why people might get angry and be like, 'what is this guy doing?' People think I have been given this talent that no one else has but they don't understand that I have worked since I was a kid at this game and put in so many hours at it. They assume 'this guy is talented but he's doing this and he's doing that'."

He loves his life in New York now and all the possibilities the place holds, but he loves football too. For him, they are not mutually exclusive. When it came down to it, he just had to make a choice. For a period in his career he tried to please everyone by playing football and pursuing his own things. In the end he discovered he was keeping no one happy.

"I want to make sure I do the right thing and I kind of never want to let anyone down. And that's probably my biggest weakness – letting people down – and I tend not to make an ultimate decision and end up see-sawing a bit and letting people down rather than being straight from the off."

At one point in the documentary, Clarke opts off the Crossmaglen panel. He tells John McEntee that his heart isn't in it. McEntee's reply is short: "Get whatever you need out of your system, you know we are here for you."

Clarke thinks that most people around Crossmaglen understand his decisions. Even in a town where football is king, they know him well enough to know that's just his nature.

"I think most people at home get it, I never really fell out with anyone at home. When I'm there I'll tell people I'm playing for Cross'. And I love Cross' and I love the football there. But I think the big factor is and what I'm worried about is young people thinking: 'I have to do what he's doing' as a role model. You know what I mean?

"But I'm doing it for personal reasons. It's not just leaving to have a good time. Obviously at the start it was travelling, it was great to see the world but I'd won the two All-Irelands and I kind of wanted more. And for a while I wasn't getting a buzz out of it. I think we'd lost one game in Ulster in eight years."

There are other things out there for him. New York is home for the next few months at least. He's involved in fashion, considering several avenues that could lead him back to Paris or Melbourne, two more of his favourite places. And he also works on an app called RecCentre that connects people with various past-times they want to pursue.

Clarke's talent sets him apart but it's his choices that make him one of the most interesting GAA people around.

When he was home last year, he got a taste of what life could be like. He worked in a bank, picked up the odd endorsement deal. All the perks of inter-county football were available to him but it wasn't what he wanted.

It's not that he was burned out with football, it's just that his eyes were opened.

"I think 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, ''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?'

Support

Kieran McGeeney is a constant source of support. This evening his Armagh team will take to the field in the Ulster championship. They've had a promising spring and are favourites to beat Fermanagh. Clarke will keep an eye on their results but there'll be no yearning to be back home.

At 28, he probably has more county football behind him than ahead of him but that's OK too. This year his inter-county season will amount to just a single game. But he's made his choice and is at peace with it.

"I was here (in New York) a couple of years ago and they played Cavan (in 2016)… I was a supporter so it was difficult watching it from that regard because I know all the lads, so it's not nice watching if they are losing because when you hear the commentary and you're thinking, 'What would they know? I know the lads and how hard they are working'.

"Look, I love Armagh so I'll want them to do well. And when I'm watching them I'll want them to do well but I don't think I'll be, 'I wish I was there.' I'll be like, 'Come on lads'."

He was home last Christmas. It was a short stay to say hello and check in on old faces. But there's no plan to settle there.

"I love going home, seeing the family. I love it. But for a short stay. I try not to stay around home too much or around the club because I love it so you can get attached to it very easily.

"But I'm getting more mature, I'm more content being away now. I ring home a lot, I have a little sister at home. But in terms of missing being home? I don't think so. I don't really ever see myself living there.

"I have seen different things and everyone is entitled to do what they want.

"They have their own shot at it, their own life. I just want something different to the next man."

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