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Cross purposes endure for last of Armagh's golden generation

His inter-county days may be over but Paul Hearty isn't hanging up his gloves, as he tells Damian Lawlor

CROSSMAGLEN defender Paul McKeown tells a story about his team's recent All-Ireland club semi-final against Dr Crokes.

With the Armagh champions on the ropes, young Daithi Casey rose for a high ball and fisted it home to put the Kerry side seven points ahead and seemingly en route to the St Patrick's Day decider.

The Cross players looked at each other, shocked at how they had fallen apart so quickly. McKeown admits they were staggering. Another hit would surely prove fatal. Amidst all the chaos, though, while his team-mates scratched their heads and searched for answers, their goalkeeper Paul Hearty was already fishing the ball out of the back of the net. "Right," he said to the others. "Looks like we'll have to do it the hard way." McKeown swears those words spread through the team, calming them as tensions rose.

Hearty has been a permanent fixture in the team since 1997 and though Cross were not used to seeing their foundations rocked he quickly demonstrated composure to focus the minds of his younger colleagues.

They clawed their way back and eventually recorded a three-point win. A few weeks later, they claimed their sixth All-Ireland title when Hearty and Oisín McConville became the only players in the history of the game to win six club football championships.

Hearty may now be finished with Armagh, but the final Cross chapter is not yet written.

"We've hopefully a long road to go on again pretty soon," he says. "We're playing good football and have some great youngsters coming through. But someone said recently that to win you need to play with a chip on your shoulder and it's hard to find one when everybody is slapping you on the back. From here, St Patrick's Day 2013 seems a long way off, but you never know."

Now 34, he leaves the inter-county stage with memories not quite so rich. "I missed out on playing in the 2002 All-Ireland. I was sub 'keeper to Benny Tierney and, truth be told, if we had to win another one a few seasons later when I was actually playing I might well have retired a long time ago.

"In hindsight, we should have won more and we probably left at least another All-Ireland behind us -- that sticks in the craw a bit. I do a lot of driving and the odd time it would just hit me when I'd be on the road. It's not nice.

"You'd just feel that for the way we played we should have added another championship anyway. Look at the forwards we had -- Stevie McDonnell, Ronan Clarke, Diarmaid Marsden, Oisín McConville. We played a lovely brand of football, especially in attack.

"The other side of it is we won six Ulster titles and two National Leagues -- that's not bad going. Before I joined the Armagh set-up in October 2000, a lot of Armagh men had given 17 or 18 years just trying to reach a final. So overall it's mixed emotions. I was lucky, though; I had the club to help ease the disappointment of not fulfilling everything with Armagh."

The retirements of both Hearty and McDonnell have broken the link to the championship-winning side of 2002.

Instead, the county will place its faith in players like Jamie Clarke, who looks set to build on his considerable talent again this season, and is a player Hearty has watched all the way.

"Yeah, since he was a wee kid; you'd nearly go out to look at him when he was under 10 just to see him play. He only lived 50 yards from where I grew up and every time I looked out the window he was there with a ball. Everyone was talking about him, even then."

Hearty has no qualms, therefore, about stepping aside and leaving youth to find its way. His goalkeeping understudy, Philly McEvoy, is a tailor-made replacement, he reckons, while Niall Geoghegan is also showing huge promise.

There were no misgivings, either, about ringing Paddy O'Rourke and pulling the plug even though he's young in goalkeeping terms with his reflexes still razor-sharp. He surely had more to give?

"Ah, I did and I didn't," he says. "The injury situation was catching up on me. I had a setback at Breffni Park the week before the club final replay and I'm taking anti-inflammatory tablets since. I've an operation looming too and I'm on the go a full 17 years playing senior football at club level. Something had to give.

"My life was very much turning into one big circle. I'd play with Cross until March, go back with the county team until July or August and then return to the club until the following March and then back with Armagh again. I'm not complaining. I know others would die for that schedule, but it was all getting very familiar. I also have a job and a young family to look after."

It's a tough job too; each morning he rises at 4.40, drives a lorry to Dublin for Morgan Milk, stops off between 18 and 20 times at various junctures across the city, northside and southside, before making his way home.

It's four in the afternoon by the time he's back in Crossmaglen. Throw in a few daily chores before his children, aged four, three and one, are collected and then it's off to the training pitch again. It's not too difficult to see why he opted out.

"Look, half the people in this country are in a rat race," he smiles wryly. "I'm no different. I have to work. But it's not as bad as it seems. The kids are looked after during the day -- they get home about 6.0, have a bit of food and head off to bed at 7.30. I'm usually training then so half the time I don't get to see them enough at all. But I think it's like that for most people."

He stretches across the couch in that familiar laid-back fashion of his, availing of some downtime. "The calm before the storm," he laughs. "But it's all good . . ."

Looking ahead to championship day when Armagh meet Tyrone in early June, he knows it won't be easy making that transition to the stands but hopes the feeling of separation will slowly subside. Once he gets his knee done he'll be straight back with the club again so that will keep him occupied.

You can't blame him for leaving that particular door open. Garrycastle only kicked a hornets' nest by holding them to a draw on St Patrick's Day and it was almost inevitable they would feel a sting in the replay. Sadly, the exhibition of football Cross dished up that night is so far removed from the negativity of the inter-county game.

"Yeah, the styles are day and night," Hearty admits. "That's why it was nearly better that we drew the final against Garrycastle because to perform the way we did in the replay was out of this world. It just showed what we can do. I love watching our team play and it's refreshing to see lads express themselves as opposed to what's going on at inter-county level.

"I would say that apart from the likes of Cork and a couple more who love to attack, most of the rest adapt negative tactics and cling to them. They're so afraid to concede that they pack their defence and football suffers.

"Donegal and others will say it worked and they won't make any apologies for their system. I can't see it changing either. But it's cat melodeon and hard to watch -- especially when Donegal have lethal forwards like Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden."

Expectations for Armagh are low, he says. The atmosphere about the place is subdued enough. "But we play well when our backs are to the wall and Tyrone will bring the best out in us. We're inconsistent and that's frustrating and yet there's no reason why we can't beat Tyrone. They've picked up a few injuries lately as well.

"If we do get a win, who knows? Ulster is a minefield. Last year we beat Down, but Derry destroyed us. Then Donegal go off and hammer Derry! It's a great competition and I love to see characters like the Derry manager John Brennan about . . . the game needs them because Gaelic football has taken a lot of flak lately."

He feels the new square ball rule (where a player may now enter the square before the ball in open play) will make life more difficult for 'keepers, but easier for referees.

"I wouldn't mind it at all, but I'm big enough and ugly enough to look after myself. It will help referees and something needed to be done in fairness. I would also have loved if the mark was introduced.

"At the moment a midfielder goes up to catch, three of the opposition wait for him to land, swarm around him and cue a melee. It's horrible. There should be some reward for high fielding. It would cut down on some of the negativity as well."

He leaves the game as the most under-rated 'keeper of the past ten years having surprisingly never won an All Star. His booming 60-metre kick-outs, supreme shot-stopping and powerful physical presence will be missed. But at least he has the club.

"Yeah, I'd have to do something," he says. "Otherwise I'd be in the house looking at Coronation Street."

He wouldn't know what to do with himself.

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