Optimism but not expectation in Armagh game of generations
Kieran McGeeney's cult-hero status has his county's attention, writes Dermot Crowe
It's ten years or more, says Aaron Kernan, since Armagh felt excitement this high-pitched ahead of an opening match in the championship. If that seems an exaggeration his estimate doesn't claim to be scientific.
It's been a while, put it that way. Freshly retired, Kernan will take his seat at the Athletic Grounds this afternoon where it will be revealed if the mounting anticipation of a new beginning for the county's footballers is justified.
Five years ago they whipped an unrecognisable Donegal in that qualifier at Crossmaglen made famous by the seismic transformation that followed for the losers. Kernan was on the field then and while Armagh went through a spell of uncertainty and intense frustration, within a year Donegal were Ulster title holders and within two All-Ireland champions.
And Armagh, what became of them? In the short term they defeated Fermanagh and then bowed out to Dublin by three points. But the next two seasons were write-offs. In 2011, while Donegal swept to glory in the province, Armagh lost by nine points to Derry and exited the qualifiers by six to Tyrone, Steven McDonnell's final game before retirement. The season after, while Donegal enjoyed their All-Ireland coronation, they fell again to Tyrone in the province and went out to Roscommon in the qualifiers. Paddy O'Rourke stood down as manager, feeling there was no more he could do.
Paul Grimley came in and got badly bruised by an opening round loss to Cavan in 2013 when they were taken apart. The qualifiers ended in a surprise loss in Salthill to Galway. Last year, when Kieran McGeeney joined forces with Grimley, the team suffered relegation to Division 3 but later reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals, defeating Tyrone, Roscommon and Meath along the way. The run ended in a one-point defeat to Donegal in Croke Park.
That improved form, the arrival of McGeeney as manager, and promotion back to Division 2 over the spring, all point to a team that has found a steadier line on the graph. "They started showing signs of the form that was the hallmark of what made Armagh's team good in the last decade," says Kernan. "You could see it coming back a bit. The fact they ran Donegal really close, and in my opinion I felt we should have won that game; we've no one to blame but ourselves that we didn't."
McGeeney commands a deep level of respect that is capable of merging minds and energies across different strands: players, county officers, supporters, potential backers. "He was such a cult hero, everyone admired him, so that him coming in, it just brought a level of enthusiasm and execution as well," says Kernan.
"People expect the best when he is in charge. From a player's point of view you can be absolutely guaranteed that he will put a structure in place that leaves the players no excuses not to perform. Now that takes time. I would say he hasn't got everything set up exactly as he would like. But them players will not want for anything. He will have all that in place. Their only job is to turn up, work hard and when the day comes they must perform.
"He didn't get the job, see the draw and say, 'Right, we need to get out of Division 3'; his whole season would have been planned round using the league for blooding players and raising confidence in the team and getting them right for this game. Everything is geared towards having them right for the championship. My one concern is that they have been playing in Division 3 but I know the training sessions and level of detail has gone up ten-fold."
Four of Armagh's league games were away, in Limerick, Wexford, Clare and Sligo, and doubled as extended training and bonding trips. "I don't think they would have been focusing on who they were playing the next day, but improving and bettering themselves," says Kernan. "I know for sure they used those weekends more as championship preparation."
The last five years brought transition and new players were drafted but it doesn't fully exonerate their indifferent form. "If we are being brutally honest we definitely had the talent to challenge more within Ulster, to be more consistent," Kernan says. "But regarding All-Ireland standards, hand on heart, if I was asked did I think we would win an All-Ireland, I would have to say no. I think everyone got carried away, we won seven Ulster titles in ten years (before this). People thought this was the way it was going to be. It's possible that could have been in the mindset of players too. It doesn't happen like that, you have to put in the work and hard graft."
Steven McDonnell played in the nine-point win over Donegal in 2010. "You would think coming away from the pitch in Crossmaglen that particular day the tide was going to go only one way and that was to Armagh's advantage. Unfortunately, it didn't; they haven't been competitive till last year. Listen it's hard to pinpoint. I suppose I can only speak for the years I was involved. Looking back on 2010 and 2011, we were well prepared. In 2011, Tyrone had the upper hand on us, we hadn't beaten them since 2005. Once you face a team like that it is a hard hurdle to overcome and fortunately they put that to bed last year when beating Tyrone. In recent times Donegal have had the hoodoo over us whereas for years we had it over them. It is a case of getting one victory under your belt."
McDonnell has been managing the county under 21 sides of the last two years and is satisfied the quality of players coming on stream is high. "Having spoken to a few players there is a feelgood factor in the place and they are looking forward to this challenge, it is a while since I have heard Armagh players say they are looking forward to the challenge."
Oisín McConville shares the optimism about the direction Armagh are headed. "The whole thing has been ramped up as far as preparation goes. As you can imagine, they would be pretty switched on that way. I suppose the question is do we have the stuff now to follow it through?
"Definitely, you would be encouraged by last year. If you look at the years before that we weren't even competitive. Last year was a big improvement on what had happened previously. I suppose the big thing is we changed our style of play last year and the counter-attacking style kind of suited us."
The manager's presence in the dressing room will also impact. "Whatever the boys have seen of Kieran in the league and his team talks before games, they won't have seen anything like they will see on Sunday; he gears everything toward the championship," says one former witness. "At times with Kieran it was an emotional dressing room, he really made players aware of what it meant to be playing for Armagh going into a championship game. He will really inspire them."
Having seen some of the younger players at under 21 level and played with some of the older campaigners, McDonnell is confident Armagh are good enough to win an Ulster title. Their last one was in 2008. The common view is that the eventual Ulster winner will be one of the teams playing in Armagh today.
Jarlath Burns, captain of Armagh prior to McGeeney, heeds the new manager's caution that their journey is ongoing. Donegal still possess a formidable reputation and are seasoned in the arts of winning hard championship matches. "Armagh are on an upward trajectory but they are not in that place they want to be yet, they have a wee bit to go," says Burns. "If you look at the Armagh team that won the All-Ireland in 2002, the forwards, everyone was a footloose player who could score but yet we bet Tyrone by a point, Kerry by a point, Sligo by a point and that with a team which had six out-and-out scoring forwards. We don't have a massive end product yet and that might hinder us, particularly when you have to be almost a contortionist to score, there is so little space. I am just not sure if Armagh has that yet."
But he cites the Athletic Grounds as being an advantage to Armagh, with the crowd close to the field, and the "massive demand" for tickets he has personally witnessed as club secretary betrays a rising faith in McGeeney and his collection of players. "There is great optimism we can cause an upset but not a massive amount of expectation," says Burns. "We know it is a long project, nobody is expecting miracles this year."
Some of the players now busting a gut for Armagh were kids when McGeeney was raising Sam 13 years ago. "They were highly impressionable," says Burns. "Like I remember when I was that age in 1977, Armagh got to an All-Ireland final, that is still etched in an indelible way in my mind, that inspired me to play inter-county football. Kieran, when he speaks to those boys, well they listen."
McGeeney has been given five years to make Armagh a force again. "Nobody is looking at him as the messiah," says Burns.
"If you asked what has changed since last year, I would say very little, on the face of it. There hasn't been a volte-face; more of a segue from one season into the other. We didn't need to go out and reinvent everything; we need to continue doing what we are doing."
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