Tomás Ó Sé: McGeeney against Mickey Harte is the one game I can’t wait for this weekend
I got my first sense of the electric storm coming Armagh football’s way last winter over a chat with Jamie Clarke in The Long Hall bar, Manhattan.
The message I picked up from him that day was that he still loved the game, still loved his county, but had simply stopped enjoying a culture of endlessly being the hare against unscrupulous dogs. Just attrition, attrition, attrition and he got sick of it.
Kieran McGeeney had been over, making sure Jamie understood that he’d always be welcomed home with open arms.
And as Jamie was heading away with a few friends to a baseball game that evening, I pretty much knew that McGeeney would be getting his man.
I’d met Clarke a few times in the US, where he was working for a good friend of mine, Brendan O’Donoghue. In our chats, I always got the distinct impression that his story with Armagh was far from over. Which is why I sent him a congratulatory text message after last weekend’s win over Kildare.
Because I just felt there was something beautiful about seeing one of the game’s free spirits expressing himself so fully again.
And McGeeney deserves massive respect for that because, in terms of personality, he and Clarke seem like polar opposites. Jamie, so expressive and creative; McGeeney, outwardly closed and dour.
Yet the manager gave the player his blessing to take that year out and, now that he’s home, I think he’s licensed Jamie with the kind of positional freedom he’s always craved. I could be wrong, but that’s my suspicion.
The thing that stands out for me most about Clarke is his vision. There might be more prolific players out there, guys who are harder, faster, more ruthless. But, now that ‘Gooch’ has left the inter-county scene, I don’t see anyone out there with better vision than Jamie Clarke.
He’s the velvet among the steel because, trust me, there’s a hard edge to this Armagh team that carries strong echoes of 2002. The manager’s influence is written all over it, as is that of a backroom team containing Paul McGrane, John Toal, Justin McNulty and Paddy McKeever – all hard, ruthless bastards to play against.
I saw Jamie referring last week to Armagh having “technically the best footballers in the country”, something I just don’t buy.
What they do have is a group of very good players with an edge. Put it this way, their work-rate and unity make them more formidable than the sum of their individual parts.
Now I’m not a fan of this public, post-game huddle out on the field. That’s something for the dressing-room in my eyes. But everything Armagh communicated in Croke Park last Saturday evening was a real message of togetherness.
It was interesting that McGeeney made a point of shaking the hand of every one of his players after Saturday’s win, something Eamonn Fitzmaurice does with Kerry.
Tactically, he blew Cian O’Neill out of the water. No disrespect to Cian, but his players just didn’t look ready for the storm coming their way.
Aside from Clarke? Blaine Hughes’ restarts were too good for Kildare. Stephen Sheridan and Niall Grimley negated Kevin Feely in the middle of the field, James Morgan likewise with Niall Flynn, while Brendan Donaghy was excellent as sweeper.
At the other end of the field, they had a good breadth of smart scorers, Clarke among them.
That said, it’s important to remember that, technically, they’re still a Division 3 team. And coming up against a top-rank Division 1 side, as they do today against Tyrone… well, logically, this should be a bridge too far. But this game isn’t straightforward.
I played against both counties and – I say this as a compliment – it seems bred into them to play on the edge, to push boundaries.
And I think history will judge McGeeney’s six years with Kildare kindly. He got them to five All-Ireland quarter-finals with a group that, frankly, was never going to win the Sam Maguire. He challenged those players, raised their levels.
In 2002, to me, he was Armagh’s spiritual leader. Even more so, in my head, than manager Joe Kernan. And that leadership was written all over Armagh last Saturday.
I kept thinking the likes of Aidan Forker or James Morgan might get the line because of how they kept pushing things to the edge, sailing close to the wind. To be fair, it wasn’t quite red-card territory though. It was just tight, in-your-face stuff, right on the point of fouling, just not quite there.
But look at the modern man-markers everywhere – Eoghan Kerin, Shane Enright, Philly McMahon – they all do that.
Pulling and tugging is part of our game: anybody who denies that just hasn’t been paying attention.
If a referee pulled up every incident, the whistle wouldn’t leave his mouth. That’s the reality.
It wasn’t my style. My aggression was more reactive in a way. If the fella I was on got stuck into me, well I wasn’t inclined to back away. But the hassling and niggling weren’t natural parts of my game. It is with these fellas.
Tyrone have always been brilliant at it and again, genuinely, I mean that as a compliment. They know exactly how far they can push the physical agenda. ‘Ricey’ McMenamin, Enda Gormley and the McMahons were masters at it. Don’t get me wrong, we had our own fellas in Kerry who could do it too.
The key last weekend was the Kildare lads just took it, rolled over. They were like mice.
McGeeney against Mickey Harte is the one game I can’t wait for this weekend. Because Tyrone are going to come at this Armagh side like no team has come at them before.
They’re going to play at huge pace, defend in numbers and they’re going to be in Armagh’s faces. No question, they’ll try to put the squeeze on Jamie Clarke and look to tie up Hughes’ kickouts.
They’ll look to rile Forker and Morgan and anybody they can. It won’t be the most beautiful game of the weekend, that’s for sure. But I’d hazard a guess it’ll be the most compelling. There’ll be that little bit of ‘hatred’ between them.
I’ll make a prediction: Armagh got 1-14 from play against Kildare… they won’t be getting that today.
Their support last weekend was remarkable, and it reminded me of 2002, of how that Armagh team played with a bit of insanity to their football. The lives of their players, particularly those used to the British Army occupation in Crossmaglen, were just different to ours. It took me a while to understand that.
I remember having a few pints after they beat us in that All-Ireland final with Sinn Féin’s Martin Ferris. He told me he was going to go up to their homecoming and I nearly spat my pint all over the floor. Couldn’t believe it. My attitude was ‘Sure you’re a f***ing Kerryman!’
And his answer was “Those are the people who were good to me in my hour of need!”
I think that’s where the hard edge comes from in some of these Ulster teams. They have a different interpretation of what it is to be GAA men. It’s a badge of identity to them and, by Jesus, they wear that badge with pride.
One thing I notice when I go to a GAA gig up north, they’ll always give you a club top before you leave. It’s a symbol for them that means more than a shirt.
Now I don’t know for sure what happens Armagh when they come up against a team as street-wise as Tyrone. But, mentally, they have to be in a seriously good place.
McGeeney has done an unbelievable job turning this season round when you consider how down people must have been when they took that late wallop from Tipperary to miss promotion from Division 3 and then took another against Down in the Ulster Championship. Very easy to write the season off after that. But here they are, four games later, in an All-Ireland quarter-final and absolutely loving it.
I do a Morning Ireland slot with Des Cahill every Friday in which I’m invited to predict the outcomes of the weekend’s games. And let’s just say my record won’t exactly have anyone putting the deeds of their house down on the back of my opinion. But what can I say? Who exactly saw Roscommon beating Galway this year? Or Down beating Armagh and Monaghan?
I was wrong again last weekend. I strongly fancied Kildare, based on their performance in the Leinster final. But they just didn’t back up that showing against the Dubs when they played Armagh.
Anyway, I’m giving Tyrone a hesitant vote today, backing Dublin to be comfortable against Monaghan and taking Mayo to get past Roscommon on Monday.
As for Kerry last weekend, people won’t have been impressed by how they won, which is perfect for Fitzmaurice. He’ll be delighted. A poor game won with a scrappy performance, leaving loads of question marks.
It was easily the least interesting of last weekend’s natches. If someone had dropped a glass in a corporate box, you’d have heard it all over Croker. Any time you can hear players’ calls to one another even with 60,000 in the stadium, you know what you’re watching isn’t entirely real.
Kerry will be better when they need to be.