A STAR was born last week. I do not mean Sean McGlinchey, the new mayor of Limavady, who undoubtedly possesses star quality in his own right.
Rather, James Clarke, the fastest gun in South Armagh, which is saying something. A plumber from Lavey who (unsurprisingly) knows nothing about Gaelic football texted me just before the throw in at KFC Park on Saturday night. The dialogue went as follows:
“I’ve a fortune on Saracens, Barca and Down. Are Down good for this?”
“Clarke goal coming early on.”
“Jesus, I should have texted you earlier.”
It came even quicker than I anticipated, as the actress said to the bishop. In fact, it arrived with his first touch. Until that point, Down had the momentum and Armagh looked as though they were carrying on where they had left off during their dreary league campaign.
Suddenly, they were alive, as though the young man had gone around the field injecting them with adrenalin. It is an effect that only the great poachers create.
Cross survived a torrid Ulster campaign without him. When he returned for the Ulster final, his impact was immediate and decisive. His goal that day killed the game. All over the field the Donegal heads went down.
In the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilmacud, when all seemed lost, he dragged them back into it and gave them the impetus to drive on. That game was a perfect snapshot of his worth.
Kilmacud were composed and self assured so long as the ball wasn’t kicked in Jamie’s direction. When it was, composure was replaced by blind panic. He created the first goal, before scoring the decisive second.
That second goal illustrated his value. A high ball was kicked in towards the square. From a long way out it was clear it was the goalie’s ball.
But, as he positioned himself to take it, he permitted himself a nervous glance around. If private thoughts appeared on a comic-book caption bubble, it would have read “Where the f.... is that wee b.......d?”
Inevitably, he fumbled the ball when it arrived, right into the arms of that self same wee b......d, who without even looking at the net swept it in past the despairing dive of the full-back. The goalie, meanwhile, sank to the ground hands on head.
There will be a long line of goalies joining that queue over the next decade. In fact, in the very next game, the Saint Brigid’s goalie joined up, sinking to his knees in Croke Park as his dreams of All-Ireland glory vanished.
“Will he make the step up to intercounty Championship?” a man in the audience asked at a chat show hosted by the Clann Eireann club last week? It didn’t take long for him to get his answer.
He is already a fully formed predator. This has three effects. Firstly, he will almost certainly convert any half chance. Secondly, he will create panic in the opposition defence, which is precisely what happened against Down on Saturday past. This panic quickly drains a team’s confidence. Thirdly, his goals will give his own team an enormous boost.
“Goals” as Eamonn Coleman was wont to say, “wins Championships.” All the components are in place. He is effortlessly two footed, which means he can twist from one foot to the other, leaving the defender unsure whether to block or stand off. With the defender in two minds, he has the speed of thought and accuracy to take full advantage.
Amazingly for one so young, he also has a complete appreciation of angles, instinctively moving to the right area when he is on the ball, making it virtually impossible for the defender to get a block in.
He is also very good in the air. I met him at the opening of the Kilcoo pitch recently and was surprised at how tall he is, standing at slightly over six feet. A ball in the air presents no difficulties for him at all. He is already an expert in the dark art of standing behind, then sweeping his elbows up the opponent’s back as the ball arrives, hands held high.
This creates the optical illusion for the referee that he is reaching for the ball in the air. In fact, he is killing two birds with one stone, nudging his man off balance before fetching it and heading for goal.
Allied to his terrific physical gifts is his keen footballing mind. Utterly unselfish, he is as happy to give a pass as take a score. On that front, his touch is superb, so it is a treat to play alongside him. Anyone breaking in behind the defence when Clarke is on the ball can expect a feathery pass at just the right time.
“Just don’t screw it up on me,” as I said once to James McCartan before a Sigerson game.
Words of Consolation
I will finish with some words of consolation for the foolish young Lavey man who lost a fortune at the bookies last weekend.
Take yourself back to the same bookies this weekend son. Ask him for odds on Jamie Clarke becoming Ulster’s highest ever Championship goal scorer. Then put the bundle on it.
Just do me one favour. Keep this to yourself . . .