Jamie Clarke: 'I'm coming back with a different mindset'
By John Harrington
Armagh footballer Jamie Clarke gives off the vibe of someone who’s quietly confident, and comfortable in his own skin.
He holds your gaze when he talks to you, and every answer he gives is thoughtful and honest.
It’s a surprise then to hear him admit to insecurity, to caring to much about what others thought of him until relatively recently.
His decision to move to New York last year and forego a championship summer put him in the cross-hairs of football zealots in his own county who regarded that decision as reneging on both his natural ability and loyalty to his own.
Moving to New York proved he’s very much his own man with a life and interests beyond Gaelic Football, but the contradiction of his personality is that the criticism that he shipped from others stung him.
The time away matured him though. He no longer burns up negative energy worrying about what others think of him.
“Yeah, I think going away has helped me with that,” says Clarke.
“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.
“Now 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.”
His time in New York gave him perspective in other ways too. He had fallen a little out of love with football when he travelled there first, but absence made the heart grow fonder.
It also forced him to examine his relationship with the game, and made him realise the lack of joy he’d experienced playing football in recent times was largely down to his own attitude to the game.
“I think I am coming back with a different mindset and a different approach than I suppose before I went away,” says Clarke.
“Looking back, early on in my career I was relaxed and really enjoying my game and I started to put a lot of pressure on myself in terms of my performance and where I should be at and 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.
“I’m definitely revitalised after being away and I appreciate the game a lot more and the love I have for it. I just love being around the team and I just want to do my part for Armagh at the minute.”
The decision to move to New York and remove himself from the Armagh panel for the summer was not one he made flippantly.
Sitting down with and breaking the news to his manager Kieran McGeeney was difficult, but the conversation they had reassured him.
“I spoke to him before I went in terms of what I really wanted,” recalls Clarke. “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, but, 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. I just happened that I went travelling and I was worried about finding myself and 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.”
Sometimes you have to move away to really appreciate where your home and your heart is, and that proved to be the case for Clarke.
He played club football for Longford and enjoyed a stint playing soccer with semi-final professional outfit NY Shamrocks, but the more time he spent in New York the more he realised he was in the wrong place.
“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 and deep down...I was watching most of the games anyway and keeping an eye on Armagh in particular,” admits Clarke.
“I think watching Armagh made me realise I should have been there, and I should have been part of it, and I kind of knew I was only in New York, what, four or five months, and I 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 and just being true to myself and what I wanted to try. Coming back I didn’t want any regrets, no excuse.”
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney was over in New York last November for the Conor McGregor fight in Madison Square Garden, and Clarke made it his business to let him know he was ready to return home.
“We went to Bryant Park for Coffee and we just chatted about New York for a while and talked about the fight and that and then we got down to business,” says Clarke.
“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, me and Kieran 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 to.”
McGeeney got to the top by being absolutely obsessed with football, and Clarke now seems determined to follow the same path.
When he was interviewed by Thomas Niblock for his Crossmaglen documentary True North, Clarke offered the opinion that there’s “a lot more to life than kicking the ball over the bar.”
But now it seems he’s decided to make kicking a ball over the bar his priority above all else this year and for the foreseeable future.
“There is a healthy way to be obsessed and I think that is what I have tried to find and that’s where I’m at at the minute,” says Clarke.
“After this I’ll probably go down the road, see the physio, go straight to the gym and then go for a kicking session and it’s not because I have to do it, it’s because I want to do it.
“I think before I went away I was doing those things and I didn’t want to do it.
“I didn’t see the goal in front of me, I thought you could just go out and play and see what happens but I have that goal that I want with Armagh and they are the stepping stones towards that.
“I heard an interview with (Dublin footballer) Cian O’Sullivan recently and he was asked if football was the number one thing in his life and he said no.
“I completely understood where he was coming from and I asked myself the same question and my answer was yeah football is the number one thing in my life.
“I suppose he has his four All Irelands, that’s where he’s at and that’s his mindset. Everyone has different ways of dealing with things but for me Gaelic has got me places, helped me travel the world.
“I owe a lot to the game and to Armagh.”