Thursday 14 December 2017

McDonnell keeping faith in Orchard harvest as Tyrone test awaits

Stefan Campbell has been superb throughout the campaign. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
Stefan Campbell has been superb throughout the campaign. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

This week, the phones of Armagh's players lay silent. Interview requests were politely refused or re-directed to the growing number of people who handle their PR nowadays. Missed calls were not returned.

Every spring, there comes a time for putting the head down and this week it was for the good ship Armagh and all who sail - or sink - in her. Their immediate goals could not be more stark: two games left, two points required. If not, then the mocking arms of Division 3 will break their fall.

But where will they come? In front of a typically fervent Tyrone support in Healy Park tonight, or a week later against Derry?

One man inside the camp was able to answer the pervading air of pessimism of the Armagh footballing public these days.

"It was ever thus," maintains coach and selector Aidan O'Rourke.

"Unless you are winning Ulster Championships, challenging for All-Irelands, sometimes there can be a malaise there. The perception can be that we are not at that stage yet. I don't think the players or the coaching staff would feel we are that far away from it.

"The Cavan game aside, the performances haven't been terrible. The lads know that there is a good bit more in them."

A couple of times during the league, Kieran McGeeney's men have shown impressive character. After losing their opening two games to Meath and Laois, they could have settled for a draw against Fermanagh when Tomás Corrigan hit a long-range free in injury-time to level it.

Instead, they chose bravery in working the ball upfield, with the move crowned by a glorious point from Stefan Campbell (right), who has been superb throughout the campaign.

The puzzling thing is that a week later, they were so limp in their casual surrender to a Cavan team that they have plenty of previous with, blitzed by 17 points.

After that game, McGeeney took the rap, saying: "I don't think we're as bad as we showed out there… I believe I've good footballers in there, I mustn't be doing the right thing with them for them to perform like that.

"… I would like to consider myself a competitive person but we weren't even competitive there, we've been competitive since the start of the year with players missing but we just fell asunder there and it's me that has to look at it, not them."

The other occasion that gives lie to their powers of recovery was how they responded to Ethan Rafferty's red card in the game at home to Galway, building an eight-point lead before Galway caught them seven minutes into injury-time.

For that Galway game, McGeeney finally put in goalkeeper Paddy Morrison - one of the most vocal presences on any goal-line to ramp up the organisation in defence. Brendan Donaghy returned to the starting team while Joe McElroy and Sean Connell made their first starts of the year.

As manager of the county U-21s for a couple of years, Stevie McDonnell is well-placed to offer his assessment of a senior team whose age profile is getting younger. "I believe that the next wave of players are very good, very strong. Capable of competing at the highest level. You only have to look at a number of them who have almost stamped their authority on the senior team, Micheál McKenna being one player," he asserts.

"Ethan Rafferty, Ciaron O'Hanlon are more. There is a great crop of youngsters coming through in Armagh at the minute with good attitudes. Attitudes that let you know these guys are going to be household names for Armagh for the next 10-15 years. If they can go to Omagh and throw the shackles off… why don't they just do it?"

Looking at the bigger picture, O'Rourke is concerned about the time available to deliver their messages in training. Altogether, 31 players have seen action in the first five games, with captain Ciarán McKeever only returning against Galway. "Everything is incremental," he explains. "You have a starting point at the start of the year and with the best will in the world, it's never as far on as you would like it to be, irrespective of what's done before.

"Unless you are on the road a long time and established at coaching patterns, playing patterns, then you always wish you had more done. We feel there is a lot more to do."

According to McDonnell, the raw materials, the talent in the likes of Campbell, and the coaching brains trust are all in place. Which makes their predicament all the more baffling as they head to Tyrone .

"It's going to be difficult going to Omagh and expecting to get two points," rues McDonnell. "But it's not unachievable. Armagh went two years ago and beat them in the championship when they weren't expected to.

"Sometimes, Armagh teams perform a lot better when there is a lot of pressure. There is pressure on Kieran and the management team and the players to get a result."

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