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Jamie Clarke

Jamie Clarke

©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Jamie Clarke

The marked absence of five-figure crowds, below-par performances from many teams and a ration of indiscipline have already served to dilute the appeal of all four provincial football championships.

With the predictable nature of the competitions just mildly threatened when Ulster’s Mickey Moran, the former Derry and Donegal boss, plotted Sligo’s stunning victory over Leitrim last Sunday, results are scarcely a talking point among followers throughout the country.

But bubbly Armagh forward Jamie Clarke is convinced that the Ulster Championship at least will move onto a higher plateau on Saturday night when his team confront Down at the Morgan Athletic Grounds.

Clarke may be just 21 but he plays with the coolness of a veteran and speaks with the confidence of an orator.

“I think this is just the game to get things really up and running,” declares the precocious UUJ student.

“Down are going into this match as one of the favourites for the All-Ireland title but we are quite happy with that because we know we are well capable of beating them.”

With an All-Ireland club medal already tucked in his pocket following Crossmaglen Rangers victory over Kilmacud Crokes in the St Patrick’s Day final, and his reputation as one of the most clinical predators in gaelic football suitably enhanced, Clarke cannot wait for throw-in time.

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“Don’t forget, Down will see this as a great chance to get one over their so-called friends and neighbours. But we are ready for them and we want to be able to push on throughout the year,” insists Clarke.

And he admits that when the red and black flags and bunting went up along the Down-Armagh border in the build-up to last year’s All-Ireland final envious eyes were cast in that direction.

“I think maybe a bit of jealousy on our part kicked in then and we just wanted to be there ourselves.

“ Then when the draw for the Ulster Championship was made well before Christmas and we were paired with Down, we started to focus on the game immediately.

“I was still involved in the club championship with Crossmaglen then but I had Down very much in mind from that moment,” points out Clarke.

With just over 48 hours to go until the game, Clarke is even more focused on shooting down last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists.

“We are keeping our feet on the ground but we have our ambitions.

“Over the course of the last 12 years it has just been Armagh and Tyrone who have won the Ulster Championship so obviously the rest of the teams in the province will be looking to break that stranglehold this year, especially Down,” insists Clarke.

“They obviously have a great championship history with five All-Ireland titles and many Ulster crowns but this is a huge game and it is our total priority.”

When Armagh exited last year’s Ulster championship in an ignominious defeat by Monaghan at Casement Park (1-18 to 0-9), they were ushered into the All-Ireland Qualifiers in which Clarke bagged the two goals in their 2-14 to 0-11 win over Donegal before they beat Fermanagh (0-11 to 0-7) and then lost out to Dublin (0-14 to 0-11).

Becoming involved in the Qualifiers again is not on Clarke’s agenda right now, although he concedes that Down will come to the Morgan Athletic Grounds fortified by last year’s track record and their recent form in Division One.

Down manager James McCartan has injury concerns in relation to his defence right now and one of his biggest decisions will involve just who he will detail to try and curb the free-scoring Clarke.

The Crossmaglen ace, though, remains unconcerned as he prepares to link up with skipper Steven McDonnell to form an Armagh strike force which has the capacity to discomfit the Down rearguard.

“When the ball is thrown in to start the game both teams will be going flat out for the 70 minutes and we would like to think that we will give a very good account of ourselves.

“This is a game we really want to win,” says Clarke.

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