It’s been 10 years since Jamie Clarke burst onto the scene against Derry, and he tells Niall McCoy how he sees the world through much more mature eyes now.
Niall McCoy: Tell me about ilk, your new clothing company. How did it come about and where are you now with it?
Jamie Clarke: Coming home from New York it was one of those things, I had touted the idea for years. It was the whole coffee thing and then it was the fashion thing and it was about making a decision on what it was going to be. I would be a believer that you try your hand at different things in your 20s and by the time you get to the end of it you put it all together and you have your passion. I was based in Dundalk for a while and it was great because I was commuting and it was grand with Armagh. I ended up meeting a guy Killian Walsh who owns a design studio. We were chatting about coming up with a brand for a clothing line and we just hit it off straight away. His design studio is one of the best in the country and I was recommended to go visit him and we just became really close. We talked about coffee and fashion for hours most evenings and as the months went by we decided we’d give it a go. We formed the company in August of last year and it has just been crazy because we were back and forward to Paris for fabric trade shows, just researching the industry. We were in Portugal securing manufacturers, which was amazing. From there we got a designer on board and the three of us – and Killian’s design team – have just been working non-stop. There were so many dots that needed to be joined to get it to where it is at now.
NMcC: You always spoke passionately about coffee, has fashion always been a lifelong thing for you or a more recent development?
JC: It was more style than anything. I was always into my style and watching people in sport for example and how they went about their business. If you look at Roger Federer for example, you can see how he plays. Zinedine Zidane in football is another example for me. In your early 20s I suppose you get your student loan and you spend the whole lot on clothes. It’s a cultural thing as well, we’re all into it. If you look back at the ‘90s everyone was into their Reebok Club C or their Adidas Stan Smith, it kind of follows through. It’s following something that I really enjoy and have a passion about.
NMcC: You’ve done a lot of travelling as you say, France, Portugal, was there any place that really made an impression on you?
JC: I was in New York in September straight after the football and obviously we were in Paris four or five times recently too. It’s a place I always try to get back to purely because of the way of life there. It’s only an hour’s flight away too. It’s been an eventful period of my life, it isn’t the easiest business in the world to get involved in but listen, if you don’t give it a go you will never know what you could achieve.
NMcC: Paul Galvin was the first GAA footballer to strongly go down the fashion route then we had Neil Patrick Collins from Roscommon too. It’s been an unusual route for players, do you feel there has been almost a bit of begrudgery towards yourself over it? Maybe less so from younger ones who are maybe a bit more exposed to it?
JC: When someone breaks the mould for the first time then it’s always going to be new and different. From my point of view I made a few big decisions in my 20s in terms of travelling, etc. They were big decisions for me personally, leaving Armagh and leaving Cross. As a person no one will ever know how you feel no matter what anyone says. You’re a young man and you’re reading certain things, it’s not easy because it’s not as if you don’t care. Football is a huge passion of mine and I’m addicted to it and I haven’t been able to let it go, there is just always this draw back to it. Do I regret the decisions I have made? No because I have learned so much about myself and I have grown as a person through being away and being independent and seeing other ways of living around the world. At this stage now, to be honest, I don’t really think about it too much, I don’t have time to be worrying about what anyone else thinks anymore. I just do my thing and try and help people along the way.
NMcC: If it wasn’t for football, do you think you’d be living in Ireland?
JC: It’s hard to say. When you come back after being away it gives you a greater appreciation for home and your friends and your family. For me, particularly at the age I am at, I’ve always enjoyed being in a more cosmopolitan environment where you’re surrounded by people you want to be with, people maybe into fashion. That industry is based in many cities around the world. There are more opportunities out there and I would never, ever begrudge anyone who tries it. But look, you have to make a decision and for me the football is just more important. I’m lucky enough to be able to do both at the minute.
NMcC: How has the business launch impacted your Armagh commitments?
JC: The management have been brilliant with it and obviously my partner has been brilliant with it as well. In terms of balancing it, I personally found it very, very challenging just because of the workload. You start to value time more and more and there were days that just didn’t have enough hours. Your mind is constantly on the go, thinking of everything. It’s not as if post 5pm you switch off but football has been an escape. Once you’re on the pitch you have that freedom of just doing your thing. I think the last couple of games I just really started to enjoy it and get into the flow of it. That’s fundamentally what it’s about with Armagh at the moment, put in all the work but don’t think about the outcome too much – just go out and enjoy it and try your best.
NMcC: Boys like Kevin Dyas, Ciaran McKeever and Eugene McVerry would be people you were, and I presume still are, very close to. They’ve all moved on now from Armagh, does that make it any tougher? Who would you be close to on the panel?
JC: It’s weird. When I first came onto the panel Stevie McDonnell was there and you had all these older players that you would have looked up to. Time went by and I’m wondering am I getting older because boys are coming and going and you’re still there. Ten years ago, the debut against Derry, and it has flown by since. You do miss those heads around the place, the likes of ‘Brooky’ (McKeever), Eugene and Kevin, but we still link in and we chat football all the time. We have a group there in Armagh and to be honest I don’t think we have ever been closer. I don’t want to be clichéd but it is a great group and I am just loving being around them. We all get on very well.
NMcC: Sky Sports GAA did a Twitter poll recently. Their top 16 forwards in Ireland battled it out in a public vote to be named the best. You weren’t in the 16. Do you notice those things? I think that maybe because you have been here and there and haven’t played say a five-year block you struggle to get the credit you deserve.
JC: At this stage it’s not something I would think about at all. In the past I would have and I do think that has had an impact on people’s perception of me. My main focus in the past was to be number one, to be the best. Maybe it’s maturity, but my main focus now is my teammates and seeing if you can leave the jersey in a better position so that somebody’s looking up and saying ‘I want to play for Armagh.’
NMcC: You can’t deny your individual contribution though and your goal against Fermanagh in the last game was your 22nd for Armagh. Your former teammate Philly McEvoy, the goalkeeper, used to talk about a goal-scoring drill you would do and he was blown away by your accuracy. Goal-scoring, for me, is one of the worst executed skills in the GAA apart from Dublin, but you obviously work very hard on it.
JC: Definitely. I remember trying to look up Mikey Sheehy’s record or to see what the story was when it came to goal-scoring records. I think having missed the two years when I was away and not scoring a goal in the championship in 2017 and last year – as well of missing a lot of league games because of the club runs in the past – it’s become more about comparing my goals to the games I have played. It’s definitely something that I love doing and I have always practiced hard. It’s like any sport, whatever gets you the most points is going to bring you the most happiness in that moment. Even now after training it’s my instinct to go and practice scoring goals.
NMcC: Last season you missed big goal opportunities in the replay loss to Cavan and the Mayo Qualifier loss. It was unusual to see back-to-back misses like that from you in great positions, even if the Mayo one was a great save.
JC: I definitely topped that Mayo one though. I tried to whip it and put top-spin on it and I came up too much on it.
NMcC: Did you dwell on those two misses?
JC: Not the Mayo one. Generally in the past I would but for whatever reason….I knew it was my fault, I would definitely take responsibility for both games and say I was the reason we didn’t win, but post-Mayo I just had a good feeling about the team and the environment and knew that we would be back. That was my first reaction. I was disappointed that we didn’t win but a few days after I was just thinking about how we’d be back. We have a great group there and all the lads were very supportive. Deep down I know that it was my fault though and I should have been burying those.
NMcC: You speak highly of this team. You have watched Armagh get to the top of the mountain in 2002. You have watched and played on Crossmaglen teams that have achieved the same. Where do you rate this current Armagh side?
JC: When the younger boys came in, the likes of Rian (O’Neill) and Jarly Og (Burns) and that, it really freshened it up. We are playing with a freedom that we were missing, we started to get very technical and maybe didn’t have the flow needed to perform or the confident state to allow the creativity to happen naturally. I think we were very tentative in aspects of our game and you know what the Athletic Grounds is like as well, the Armagh fans love it so you can always feel the atmosphere when things aren’t going well. I thought there was a lot of that going on for years. You do start to question yourself, what can I do better here? What can I do to help the situation? It was difficult but you can see how it has totally changed. You have the older boys pushing it on, the Aidan Forkers, the Rory Grugans, the Stephen Sheridans, and then Kieran (McGeeney), Jim (McCorry), Paddy ‘Wac’ (McKeever) and those coaches have taken it to the level we needed to get to. They have put things in place to allow us to really push on ourselves and I just think this year, even moving on from last year, there is a natural change there. It’s not a bickering match, everyone is just pushing for the one cause. That’s what is great about this team.
NMcC: You talk passionately about Armagh. When you played for New York in 2018 and they lost narrowly to Leitrim, was it the same sort of gutting feeling that you’d get losing a big match with Armagh?
JC: It totally did. I have a huge affiliation with New York, they looked after us so well and I have met some amazing people from over there. I know what the set-up is like out there and how difficult it is but New York people want to win and they want to be a part of it. They have the players and it’s the one time in a year that they get the opportunity to win. The training was great and we were training hard from Christmas for that game. We definitely felt we could win and on the day a few things, whether it was missed opportunities or a lack of experience, killed us in the end. It was awful, I didn’t leave the changing room for a good hour and a half after it. When you come out there you have to bump into people and I just wasn’t in the form because it was still a championship match that we lost.
NMcC: I read a piece a from your time in New York where you said that the possibility of playing a bit of professional soccer was on the cards, even if it wasn’t MLS. You would have chatted to Kevin Dyas a lot about being a professional athlete when he was with Collingwood, but was it not something that appealed to you?
JC: It’s something I’ve always wanted. Even with Gaelic, it’s still something I want it to be just because of the skill and the time given. I think we need to promote the sport on a global scale. Calling us amateurs, some of us would find that insulting. You’re getting up in the morning, you’re looking at what you’re eating and your diet, you’re training hard, you’re practicing skills, playing in front of 40,000 people. I find it very difficult to be called an amateur just because we’re not getting a wage. If you look at rugby, if a player is getting paid then they are held in higher regard. Soccer, rugby, they’re treated better than Gaelic players. One of the beauties of being a Gaelic player is that you can walk down the town and chat to the local person, I love that aspect, but I think players deserve a lot more respect and a lot more recognition for what they’re doing.
NMcC: It’s funny you mention the word global. We’re both Armagh men and we wanted Jarlath Burns to win the Presidency, but do you feel the incoming President Larry McCarthy, given how long he has been stationed outside of Ireland, could be key to ramping up that global appeal and maybe opening doors like that?
JC: Yeah I hope so, but even within the country there is no reason why it couldn’t be done, bumped up to semi-professional even. I think it’s eventually going to go that way, it’s just a matter of time. I know a lot of people are against it for the culture and the history of the game and what it represents, and I love that aspect of it, but I think that’s not necessarily taking in the players’ view in terms of the time given to it. A lot of players are choosing a certain career path to allow them to perform on the pitch.
NMcC: I think a lot of people feel that from a logistics point of view it’s not workable, but then you look at Crusaders, Linfield, etc, there are some elements of professionalism there, semi-pro or whatever, the League of Ireland teams too. The GAA is probably in a stronger position than those so it’s more a case of wanting it to work versus whether it can work.
JC: Totally. Croke Park holds 82,000 people and if each team gets a percentage of the gate, even one percent, for a match then there you go. It is what it is at this stage and it’s not my biggest worry in the world, I think we should just start the conversation about it.
NMcC: Ws there any friction with your managers when you told them you were going away travelling in the past?
JC: To America? Not at all. Kieran gets it, and for him if you want to be there, great, and if you want to go he says go and do your thing, and when you’re ready to come back we will be here for you. I have always been grateful for that. Even with Cross, the guys there have been brilliant with me. There were never any issues with it, they were just making sure that my frame of mind was okay and telling me not to worry too much about it. You’re always kind of on edge about the fans and your teammates, that was always the worry, but I’d speak to the lads and it’s just one of these things, you’d have to make a decision. Tell me somebody who was successful that didn’t try something or didn’t make a mistake or piss anyone off.
NMcC: Players and managers are more tuned in with these situations though, but fans are different. They see one of their best players leaving and they will struggle to understand it. It’s natural but I suppose most of the chat came from outside the bubble and from the fans?
JC: Exactly, and it has never been anything to do with football. It’s me saying ‘what stage am I at in my life? What do I need to do to get to where I want to be?’ That’s all it was. If there is an unbelievable opportunity to do something I’m inclined to take it.
NMcC: Your sister Alex has broken into the Armagh ladies senior team. That must be a very proud moment to see her in the orange jersey as well?
JC: From Alexandra’s point of view, she would have seen the hype around me coming up since my debut in 2010. It was huge for her as a kid and now she’s loving getting to play with her county. She is very well looked after by Tommy Stevenson and the coaches down in Armagh. It’s funny watching her, she hasn’t stopped training, she’s cooking, she’s baking, she’s very involved at the moment and it’s great to see. I probably don’t always give her the credit she deserves, you’re always trying to push her on. She is with the right people and she has a long career ahead of her. For her, it’s all about enjoying it. She is only 18.
NMcC: It’s funny, you have the Clarkes, the Mackins, the Sheridans, Darren McKenna and Nicole McKenna. No doubt I’m missing someone but there is a big crossover between brothers and sisters being on the two Armagh panels. That must be nice too for everyone.
JC: You can feel it coming. I don’t know, there’s a good feeling about everything in the county. You chat to people in Armagh and it’s a very positive atmosphere wherever you go. The current situation is the priority and ensuring everyone is safe. When we come out the other side of it, I think there will be huge excitement in the game when the first ball is thrown in.
NMcC: Tell me a bit about working with Kieran McGeeney.
JC: Personally I love it because there is a huge learning opportunity when you’re working with Kieran. It’s not just about football, it’s about life in general and there is just a constant knowledge, and you’re just trying to feed off that. Every time he speaks, even on TV, everyone tunes in and it’s because they know they’re going to pick something up from Kieran that they can take with them. Being around him most days at training is always a very enjoyable learning experience. It’s his passion for the game though, he loves football. Even the way we play, that’s down to Kieran because he knows we’re playing football the right way and he knows how we should be playing. We play the way that suits our team. I have a great relationship with Kieran, we’d meet each other for coffee or go for breakfast in Stranfield to catch up. He’s always checking in on you, seeing how work is, how life is, and it’s all about making sure you’re alright. You couldn’t ask for anything more really.
NMcC: I can tell by this conversation how your mindset has matured since you burst onto the scene in 2010. You’re 31 in two months’ time, what would you like to achieve in the next few years?
JC: My mindset is all about the positivity. I don’t feel anywhere near retiring, it’s probably the fastest and fittest I’ve ever been and I feel like I’m always improving my football. From that point of view, it’s great being the older person in the team with the likes of Rian and those coming through. It’s kind of cool being there.
NMcC: Being the Stevie McDonnell from when you were starting?
JC: Yeah, exactly. It’s not that I’m this kind of older player that is going about acting like that, I’m one of the lads like. Over the next years I will just hope that Armagh will improve and develop all the time. I’m just looking for positive improvement and hopefully to enjoy every day.
You can visit Jamie Clarke’s new online shop at www.ilk.ie.