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Jamie Clarke's decision to exit Armagh benefits all concerned

By Declan Bogue

Published 06/01/2016

Win-win situation: Jamie Clarke wants new experiences while Armagh will be left with a fully committed panel
Win-win situation: Jamie Clarke wants new experiences while Armagh will be left with a fully committed panel

So, that's Rory O'Carroll away for a year. And Offaly's Brian Carroll has retired. And Martin Dunne is unwilling to commit to Cavan.

But of all the absentee stories that inevitably crop up every January, the impasse between Kieran McGeeney, Jamie Clarke and the Armagh team is the most intriguing.

On paper, Armagh need Clarke. McGeeney needs Clarke. We are not too sure, though, if Clarke needs McGeeney or Armagh.

There are broad similarities here in how the Alex Ferguson-David Beckham relationship played out, with a long separation and philosophical differences.

Ferguson holds the view that Beckham did not fulfil himself as a player and while that is tempting to acquiesce to, there is an equally valid school of thought that Beckham maximised everything he could out of life.

He had already won everything there was to win. And hey, it was Real Madrid that he was joining.

Read more: McCusker is urging Fermanagh to seize early momentum

Under Ferguson, he might have ended up another Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Ince or Mark Hughes. He might have had broadly the same career path as Phil Neville, instead of becoming 'The Brand'.

Clarke has won it all, with Crossmaglen at least. He can come and go as he pleases with, it would seem, the blessing of his managers Oisín McConville and John McEntee.

He explained after their win over Kilcoo: "In fairness to John and Oisín, they have said this before that it is my club as much as the likes of theirs. It's John's, Oisín's and Aaron's (Kernan).

"I suppose that's what really hits home, what this all means."

Perhaps Clarke is just the latest Brendan Devenney; a mercurial talent on his day, but frustrated to the point of disenchantment with coming up against defensive systems.

In 2010, for example, Clarke marked his Armagh Championship debut with 2-1 in the first 12 minutes against Donegal. One of his markers was Karl Lacey.

Nowadays, Donegal leak a goal a season. When the two sides met in the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final, nobody was left one-on-one against Clarke. He failed to score.

We don't bring it up to embarrass him, we highlight it to show how the game has moved on.

In the Ulster Club final just gone, Scotstown manager Mattie McGleenan would have had around a dozen hours of coaching his defenders, if even.

Compared to the hundreds of hours that Jim McGuinness would have spent coaching the Donegal team how to defend, there is no doubt that an off-the-cuff talent like Clarke might prefer to play spontaneous football with his club rather than the pre-ordained plays of the county game.

With Cross, he can be a rock star. With Armagh, he can be no more than a worker bee.

The problem is the extraordinary levels of commitment required in the game today.

Clarke clearly feels there may be more to life than twice-weekly gym appointments and twice-weekly pitch sessions, with the promise of a game once in a while to express himself.

There is an oppression to this life. Last year, an Ulster footballer had a pre-booked holiday to Las Vegas. He went to his manager, who said he was not prepared to give him the time off with a game approaching. When that game came around, the player was not on the matchday panel of 26.

It is often said that Clarke has unusual tastes for an inter-county footballer. Maybe there is truth in that - maybe fewer players are willing to talk about their inside interests through reasons of modesty and being on edge from managerial media diktats.

Museums, coffee shops, art galleries and shopping all feature heavily in Clarke's contributions to social media. After the Kilcoo game, he emerged from the dressing room with a book on Pep Guardiola that would have choked a donkey.

What Clarke sees is a big, bright world out there. He wants to go out there and experience it. Crossmaglen must feel like a very small place to him with that kind of cultural curiosity. But good luck to him.

McGeeney is different. He is happy to be defined through his involvement with the GAA and Armagh. When he commits, his focus is astonishing.

When Joe Kernan asked for his thoughts on bringing the Armagh team to the Algarve for their 2002 pre-Championship training camp, McGeeney agreed as long as there would be no night on the beer at the end of it.

It should be remembered that he has nurtured Clarke too.

He tried him out at wing-back in a clever coaching move last January and appointed him as captain in the games Ciaran McKeever was unavailable for.

Ultimately, it is a choice for McGeeney and Clarke.

McGeeney is possibly fed up already of the will he, wont he dance around the issue of the availability of Crossmaglen players.

Although he wishes them well, he knows that the Rangers did not reach the All-Ireland finals of 2002 and 2003 when he captained his county to the All-Ireland final.

On matchday, he will look behind him on the team bus and know that every single man is all-in. No sabbaticals, no hesitation.

And Clarke can go and do what stimulates him.

There are no losers with this arrangement. Only winners.

Belfast Telegraph

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