Sunday 26 January 2020

Armagh closing in on a solution to goalkeeping riddle

Blaine Hughes is county's seventh man between posts in three years

Armagh's Blaine Hughes. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Armagh's Blaine Hughes. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile newsdesk

For close to 40 years the Armagh goalkeeping position was the preserve of an exclusive group, just as it continues to be in Dublin, where turnover has been minimal for more than half a century now.

From his debut in 1975 to his retirement 15 years later, Brian McAlinden can only recall missing a couple of games.

Similarly, his replacement Benny Tierney became a fixture through the next decade until the county's landmark All-Ireland success in 2002.

Paul Hearty stepped up and filled the role for the next decade until his retirement in 2012.

Dromintee's Philip McEvoy was next in and, based on his performances at club level, he too looked set for an extended tenure. But family commitments prompted McEvoy's surprise withdrawal from the Armagh squad in early 2015, just as Kieran McGeeney's reign was getting underway.


McEvoy made his decision after conceding three goals in a McKenna Cup semi-final defeat to Tyrone, stressing that he couldn't give the commitment required. By then Armagh had used four goalkeepers in four games, including Niall Geoghegan, Matthew McNeice and former Tyrone underage player Tim Harney.

For the 2015 League Geoghegan, Harney and Patrick Morrison - son of well known coach John - alternated before McNeice assumed Championship duties.

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But the instability continued in 2016. After relegation from Division 2 Armagh pulled a rabbit from the hat when Paul Courtney, better known as an outfield player, was selected in a sweeper-goalkeeper role for their opening Ulster Championship match against Cavan.

The ploy had apparently worked well in training and, on the day, wasn't as destructive as the risk it was portrayed to be. But it deepened the sense of instability nonetheless and the practice was abandoned for the subsequent games against Laois, when Morrison was restored.

McNeice was back in for the opening games of this year's League but a calamitous end to their home match with Laois has since curtailed his involvement.

Morrison would most likely have been in place now but for various injuries this season.

In his place, U-21 keeper Blaine Hughes (pictured) has stepped up, and his kick-out service against Kildare last week offered a real platform.

Hughes is the seventh goalkeeper McGeeney has used in competitive games in three years, eight if Ethan Rafferty's presence as replacement keeper for the Ulster match against Down is factored in.

McAlinden believes Hughes "ticks all the boxes" despite his lack of experience.

"He has come from out of the blue," said the two-time Ulster Championship winning joint-manager who was goalkeeping coach during Paul Grimley's tenure.

"When I was involved with Paul and Kieran we had five or six goalkeepers and Kieran didn't settle on them. He has pulled this guy out of the woodwork.

"Certainly, he would be ticking all the boxes with me. He can catch it, kick it long, go short. What he has shown to date is that he's confident in doing that.

"Like all goalkeepers, even the best, he's prepared to take a chance. That's what a lot of goalkeepers fall down on. They're not prepared to take a chance.

"If the guys in front, established guys like Brendan Donaghy and Charlie Vernon, have trust in the man behind them then their confidence grows, and I think that's what happened in the Armagh defence this last few matches."

McAlinden feels Croke Park gives goalkeepers who want to place their kick-outs at advantage, but Tyrone will squeeze the margins on Hughes.

"It will be more difficult because Tyrone won't leave the open spaces suitable for the quick kick-out but the size of Croke Park certainly gives the goalkeepers an advantage."

McAlinden feels patience will still be required but a change of approach, he acknowledges, is working.

"Normally we play too much football in our own half of the field. The change is that we're playing football in the opposition half which is good to see," he said.

Irish Independent

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