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Raiding the orchard

THE apples have fallen far from the tree.

In the last 20 years, Donegal, Derry and Tyrone have won maiden All-Ireland titles, but none have come close to matching the influence that Joe Kernan's 2002 breakthrough Armagh side have had on football.

Ulster's emergence as a dominant force over the last two decades has seen northern expertise coaxed south.

The manner and style of Armagh's All-Ireland success persuaded Kildare to gamble on the completely untried Kieran McGeeney in late 2007.

More recently, Laois plumped for another star of the '02 side, Justin McNulty, who has enjoyed success at club level, but had just one season as a selector in Armagh (who are ironically managed by an 'outsider' in Down man Paddy O'Rourke) before taking charge in Laois over the winter.

Seamus McEnaney snapped up the services of Kernan's 2002 assistant Paul Grimley for Monaghan and brought him to Meath last winter, while Peter McDonnell, Kernan's successor in Armagh, was lauded for his coaching work with Louth last year, alongside another Armagh man and former county minor team-mate, Martin McQuillan.

Even Tyrone, who won their first Sam Maguire 12 months after Armagh and added further titles in '05 and '08, have yet to make their presence felt in a similar way. Leader and '03 captain Peter Canavan hasn't stepped outside the confines of his club Errigal Chiarain, despite a number of offers.

Armagh's influence goes way beyond their solitary All-Ireland. They weren't the first side to head off for pre-championship training camps in the sun (Tommy Carr's Dublin did something similar), but the year after Kernan took his team abroad and delivered an All-Ireland, 17 inter-county squads flew south and suddenly La Manga was as much a part of the GAA lexicon as Clones or the Gaelic Grounds.

Another feature of that Armagh team was the focus they put on developing their upper-body strength. Renowned fitness trainer Mike McGurn has since suggested that the '02 Armagh side did more weights aimed at "body-building," rather than the power-based programmes counties tend to follow these days. Nevertheless, Armagh were noticeably bigger than most of their rivals, forcing the rest to follow suit.

"We had a team full of leaders," says Kernan. "We had six or seven. There haven't been too many teams that could say that. It was inevitable that some of them would go into management."

"Kieran is more of a student of the game than people give him credit for. I often got calls from him on a Monday, asking how I thought he played and what he could do different.

"He went to Kildare and had an idea of what he wanted from them, but learned that he had to fit his ideas around the players he had and it has worked for them. Kildare are a very good team now.

"Justin was the same, another deep-thinker on football. It was only a matter of whether he wanted to get into inter-county management. He has had success at club level. These guys had notebooks and they'd be taking notes of various things. They studied the game, definitely."

McDonnell, along with manager Peter Fitzpatrick and Donegal's Brian McEniff, helped Louth play some of last summer's most attractive football, as they racked up 1-22 against Kildare and reached a first Leinster final in 50 years.

"Peter joined a good team there and Louth played some brilliant football last summer. He's not a man for big statements or shouting, but people listen when he talks," asserts Kernan.

Grimley has highlighted the importance of a capable number two can play and is expected to move into a manager's role at some stage.

McEnaney made it clear to Meath that Grimley was on his ticket and he is now entrusted with evolving the Royals' game-plan. Kernan described him as "one of the first men I went looking for when I got the Armagh job" and tonight he'll pit his wits against McNulty's Laois in O'Moore Park as Armagh's influence takes deep roots in Leinster.

The future's bright, the future's Orange.

Irish Independent