Tuesday 16 January 2018

Changing the guard on the road to more success

Jamie Clarke's sublime skill compensates for his lack of bulk, writes Marie Crowe

In last month's Ulster club championship quarter-final between Crossmaglen and St Gall's, Jamie Clarke did something special. He had the ball in the back of the net after ten minutes, with a moment of skill more at home in a Champions League final.

A high ball dropped in around the square between Clarke and St Gall's duo Colin Brady and goalkeeper Ronan Gallagher. The ball fell at Clarke's feet and the young star turned inside Brady and with his left foot calmly slotted the ball past Gallagher soccer style.

Surprisingly though, Clarke has never played on a soccer team, although he did grow up in an estate in Crossmaglen where all he did was kick around with a group of friends. After school they'd play five-a-side, headers and volleys until it was time to go football training and when they got home they would resume their game.

So from an early age Clarke liked to score goals. It never mattered whether they were spectacular or simple. The feeling he gets when the ball goes over the line is the best in the world. The more he scores the more confident he gets and he relishes the pressure that comes with being a scoring forward.

"At this stage of my career there is pressure on me to deliver but I accept that pressure," he says. "I want to be the one who is given the ball in the last few minutes to kick the winning point, I'm comfortable with that."

So far Clarke has played two seasons with the Armagh senior footballers; he is one of the few inter-county players who hasn't bulked up. His frame is similar to that of Colm Cooper and his clubmate Oisín McConville and going on his performances in an Armagh jersey to date his size seems to be serving him well.

"Personally, I feel that in the modern game there is too much emphasis on strength, although teams like Dublin have definitely benefited from it. For me, I find that I can cope fine on the field even though it may look as if I could be fired around easily.

"I don't feel under pressure to bulk up, it was mentioned to me a few times but I just work on my core which helps my balance. In terms of huge bulk weight, it really isn't for me and I think the boys understand I'm not too fussed on it."

Clarke went into the Crossmaglen senior football team straight out of minor. He'd grown up watching his club win the senior championship year in year out. In the last 15 years they have won the Armagh county title every year bar one. In 2009, they lost out to Pearse ógs and Clarke was part of the losing team.

"A lot of the younger boys on the team have accepted the blame for losing the record. We felt that way coming into last year's season, we knew it was time for change and time for a changing of the guard and we knew we had to do something about it.

"And we did by winning the All-Ireland last year but just because we've won it doesn't mean that we've done anything major, winning is a legacy in Cross and if you are not winning it's not good enough. The appetite is always there and the older boys are there to keep pushing us on, everyone is hungry for it and that's the main thing."

Having such quality players in the squad brings competition. Before the last game against St Gall's they had yet to start the same team twice this year. Clarke sees his club side as being quite similar to Kilkenny. Like the current All-Ireland hurling champions, the best games they have are the in-house ones, they are both known as hard-hitting teams and don the black and amber jersey.

Oisín McConville has always been Clarke's hero. He was the goal-getter, the one who took responsibility for getting the vital scores and in many ways it seems that Clarke has modelled himself on McConville. When Armagh won the All-Ireland football title in 2002, McConville was a star whereas Clarke was just starting secondary school. He never imagined that one day he'd play on the same team as his idol.

"Four of us made the step up together in Cross from minor to senior. It was so surreal going into that dressing room with the likes of the McEntees, Francie Bellew and Oisín. To us they seemed like they were all such big men and we felt so young at the time.

"The Cross dressing room is very intimating initially. On my first day in I remember sitting beside Oisín, he was the first person I spoke to, he welcomed me onto the team, but I knew he expected a lot."

Clarke sees McConville as a role model and recently he helped him get set up with a sports management agency. It's very early days yet but the young forward is hoping to secure some sponsorship deals.

He is in his final year of a marketing degree in Jordanstown, and between club and inter-county football he is playing all year round. Today Crossmaglen play Ballinderry Shamrocks in the Ulster club semi-final, Clarke has yet to lose an Ulster club game and doesn't intend to start now.

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