Gaffney looks to stay on rise
AN Armagh club is in All-Ireland final action and it's not Crossmaglen -- in fact, it's not even a football decider.
The team in question is Middletown Na Fianna, who face Mount Leinster Rangers from Carlow in a unique AIB Intermediate hurling final pairing at Croke Park tomorrow.
In a year where some of the weakest hurling counties have axed their senior inter-county sides to allow their clubs to participate in the newly introduced Tain leagues, Armagh has gone from strength to strength.
And Middletown's shock win over Effin of Limerick in the semi-finals to progress to tomorrow's showpiece has only added to the feelgood factor around hurling in the county that has shown a steady graph of improvement over a number of years.
In 2007, they reached the Nicky Rackard decider and they won the same competition two years later. They now operate at Chrsity Ring level.
In 2010 Keady became the first club from outside Antrim, Derry and Down to contest the Ulster Club SHC final, while at county level last year, Armagh shocked Down to reached their first Ulster final since 1946.
"There has been definitely a lot of work trying to improve the hurling. Paul Kelly (Armagh hurling board chairman) set out plans to restructure hurling in the county and get coaches involved, going around the primary schools," said Middletown captain Ryan Gaffney, who works as a hurling coach in the county.
"It seems to be working. There are a lot of good underage teams coming up -- the minors and U-21s have all got to Ulster finals and if we can keep them coming up, we'll have a decent senior team."
Middletown are central to that revival. Thirteen of the side that shocked the Limerick champions last time out are part of the county's senior squad and the club are now reaping the rewards of a plan that started a decade ago.
At 25, Gaffney is one of the older members of the panel and as if to underline the new-found confidence in Armagh hurling, it will be his third time to play at Croke Park and he estimates that close to a dozen of the panel have lined out at HQ.
"A lot of people around the country -- and even up North -- were saying an Armagh team beating a Limerick team shouldn't be happening in hurling.
"A lot of people have underestimated us, but we watched them play and we were all confident that we could beat them and luckily enough we did."
Carlow have also enjoyed success on the hurling field in recent seasons and Rangers captain Karl Lawler predicts a tight game.
"It's great for hurling that this is the final," he said. "The Kilkennys and Corks have dominated over the last couple of years, so for us to be there is brilliant.
"Middletown seem to be a similar team to us. I notice they put up some big scores and physically look very strong. Carlow hurling is on the up, so this would be a nice one to get."