Tuesday 17 October 2017

Armstrong keeping the dream alive

Declan Rooney

It was the score which changed the landscape for Galway football -- Padraic Joyce's effort which broke Kildare's hearts in the 1998 All-Ireland final -- but while Sean Armstrong was in Croke Park that day, he missed the goal.

Armstrong has been football-mad all his life, but 12-year-olds have different priorities on big match days and he had gone off to get an ice cream when Joyce rattled the net.

But he saw enough that day and got wrapped up enough in the celebrations to make him determined to be part of it all.

Seven years later he got to taste All-Ireland glory when he and Michael Meehan terrorised defences on their way to winning the U-21 crown. A call-up to the seniors quickly followed, but while there have been Connacht titles, Croke Park appearances have been few and far between.

As with Meehan, the Salthill-Knocknacarra man has had to battle crippling injuries, but he remains hopeful that he will one day experience an All-Ireland final day like '98 and the other finals in 2000 and '01.

"I was just 12 in '98 and I was up in the old Nally Stand, I remember it well. I went for a Cornetto and I missed Padraic Joyce's goal," he says. "I heard the stand rumbling and I was just hoping it was a Galway score. I have fond memories of it: we went up with the club on the bus and all sat together."

Thankfully for Armstrong (26) other chances soon came along to follow the maroon to Croke Park. And this time there was no going for ice cream.

"I was there in 2000 and '01 as well and that really sowed the seed for me. I knew then I really wanted to play for the maroon and white in Croke Park," he says.

"We managed to get into Hill 16 for the 2000 and '01 games; once we got a little bit older we were allowed onto the Hill. It was savage. I remember Galway went down by seven points against Kerry, but to see them almost coming back was incredible."

incredible

Given Galway's rich footballing lineage, it seems incredible that they have not played in Croke Park since '08. One of the wettest days in memory on Jones' Road is also remembered for a vintage showing in defeat from Meehan. But the other half of the modern day terrible twins doesn't recall that day so fondly.

"Unfortunately, once again, I was out injured for the wet day against Kerry," he recalls. "My last day in Croke Park was the club All-Ireland final in '06. I played for Galway against Cork in an All-Ireland quarter-final there in my first year in '05, but it has been six years since I played there.

"It would have been nice to get there this year for the league final against Tyrone -- it has been so long since we have been there. But that is another carrot to dangle in front of us."

Hat-tricks for both Armstrong and Meehan in the '05 All-Ireland U-21 final hastened the pair's progression to the senior ranks, but stepping in to a squad decorated with his heroes from '98 and '01 was a real buzz for the then 19-year-old.

"I don't forget the days when I started with the likes of Ja Fallon, Mikey Donnellan, Padraic Joyce and Paul Clancy. Those lads took me under their wing a bit and looked after me," he says.

"It can be very nerve-wracking to come in first of all, but we try and do the same here now. We have such a flock of U-21s, but they seem to be well able to look after themselves and are showing us a trick or two."

His clubmate Donnellan had the biggest calming influence on the green Armstrong, and one suspects his determination to be the best has rubbed off.

"Michael was excellent with me. He was a top-class player, you could learn nothing but good things from him. He was a real professional on and off the pitch," Armstrong says.

"He was a great character and a real nice fella. He was one of the best around and the effort he put in at training, you could only take encouragement from that. If you want to be the best at the game you have got to put in the hard work, which he certainly did."

And so the clock has come full circle. Joyce and Joe Bergin are the sole survivors from the glory days, and 'Army' and Meehan are the ones putting the blinkers on the young colts.

A series of hamstring and knee injuries have seen Armstrong dip in and out of the side for much of the last couple of years as Galway toiled, but for once he was ready for the start of this championship, albeit under pressure from fresh faces.

"A few of the lads have had a good laugh at me already saying it is nice to see me fit for the championship; it is the first one I have been ready for in a few seasons," he says. "It is nice to laugh about it now, but with the summer time here and football to play I am just like a child at Christmas.

"But all the forwards that played during the league impressed, especially the young lads like Mark Hehir, Thomas Flynn and Danny Cummins. They are flying fit, mad eager and want their place on the team. All I can do is keep the head down and fight for my place."

After the display of the championship so far against Roscommon, Kevin Walsh's Sligo will pose a stiffer challenge for Galway this evening at Pearse Stadium.

But if they can get past the side managed by another of the heroes of '98 and '01, a first Connacht final since '09 would be confirmed and the supreme taste of a return to the capital would be within touching distance.

Irish Independent

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