Stephen Sheridan and a few good men could see Armagh continue their ascent
FORMER New Zealand rugby great Sean Fitzpatrick once said: “Good people make great teams.”
Talent alone, in other words, would not get you there. Only a fool would believe that it would.
From the outside looking in, the Armagh changing room is one full of good people.
Sometimes the small detail reveals everything about a culture of a team.
After a few of their games, photographs were posted on Twitter of the Armagh changing room.
On each occasion the changing rooms were spotless, to the point where the caretaker could eat his dinner off the floor.
Stephen Sheridan doesn't make a big deal of this post-match custom. Other teams do likewise.
“There is nothing worse,” Sheridan says, “than going into a changing room and someone else having to clean up after you. We try to leave things as we got them.
“Everybody chips in. We have our own set of values and culture and we try to live by that… The way we found things is the way we're going to leave them. It's always been like that coming into the squad in 2015. You could see there were steps taken, the likes of Ciaran McKeever, who had established good habits and values within the squad.”
The Forkhill clubman, who made the breakthrough with the Armagh seniors in 2017, lives the life of an inter-county Gaelic footballer.
He is on various social media platforms but keeps a low profile.
He does the occasional media interview but not too many. He's one of the most courteous people you'll encounter.
Representing Armagh is a massive part of his life, a massive part of who he is. And he likes to represent the jersey in the best possible manner – not just on the field.
“You could be playing out there in front of 10 people or 10,000 people, or even 80,000 people depending on how far you go,” he says.
“There are kids, there are families; everybody is watching you. They see you on the field and they also see you off the field, so you try to conduct yourself in a good manner.
“You're representing the jersey and you're representing your team. When you're away from it, you're still doing that. You don't want to let anybody down. There is nothing worse than going away and getting drunk somewhere and making a fool of yourself.
“Social media is probably the poison of the world because everything you do is broadcast for everybody to see.”
He doesn't regard himself to be a role model because it might sound bigheaded, that his profile is big enough to warrant being perceived a role model in the first place.
Nevertheless Sheridan is cognisant of his responsibilities.
“We don't think about it too much but as a group of fellas we try to conduct ourselves the right way. We are trying to push Armagh back to the next level, and to do that it entails some values and just being good people.
“Everybody has their downfalls, their slip-ups, nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. But you do meet kids out there; kids looking a high-five after a game - small things like that.
“All those small things add up. When you're away from the field, it doesn't weigh heavily on you, but in the back of your mind you're always representing Armagh to a certain extent.”
The fact that Sheridan didn't get picked for Armagh's in-house games a few years back says everything you need to know about his character. He didn't take no for an answer, and kept banging at the door.
Now he's one of Armagh's resident midfielders.
Like all ambitious footballers, he is paranoid – in the best possible sense - of losing his place, to the point where he was reticent about going to New York in the middle of pre-season last month.
He went in the end, with his girlfriend Moya, “did all the touristy things”, visited family and had a ball.
He came back refreshed and ready for some McKenna Cup action.
He got plenty of game-time too, starting every game apart from Armagh's opener against St Mary's.
In some ways, 2019 is a bit of a re-launch for the amiable midfielder.
Although Armagh came away from 2018 with plenty of optimism – narrowly missing out on a Super 8s berth following their Round Four Qualifier loss to Roscommon – Sheridan's summer was pockmarked by injury.
A nagging hamstring kept him sidelined for their disastrous Ulster Championship defeat to Fermanagh before he was eased back into contention against Sligo in Round Two of the Qualifiers.
He gained a start in Armagh's dramatic win over Clare at the Athletic Grounds and nailed down a starting spot for their memorable encounter with Roscommon in a baking hot O'Moore Park.
“It was a very frustrating year,” he says. “To be part of the squad and not be fit to put your best foot forward was tough…”
The Roscommon Qualifier was played at a blinding pace, end-to-end, the proverbial lung-buster.
Sheridan was having a solid game but was withdrawn after 42 minutes.
“I would have said at the time I was 100 per cent fit. I was annoyed about coming off against Roscommon, but Kieran felt my day was done. I chatted to him after the game.
“And I watched the game back and the decision was made for the betterment of the team. It was 100 per cent the right decision. At the time I didn't think so.
“I'll always look back and say missing pre-season was the problem. I didn't get a solid base into my legs last year.
“You talk about learning: that was my big learning curve from last year: to make sure I'm ready for pre-season this year to give myself the best platform. I gave everything I had last season but looking back I probably wasn't even sitting at 80 per cent.”
Given his injury woes last summer, Sheridan doesn't want to tempt fate. Unlike last year, he's got a good pre-season into his legs.
On paper, Armagh look a more potent team in 2019 given the returns of Jamie Clarke, Stefan Campbell and James Morgan while Rian O'Neill is a great attacking talent.
The Super 8s is Armagh's unashamed target this year. But to be in with a chance of reaching that lofty objective they need to show their rivals in Division Two that they mean business starting against Kildare in Newbridge on Sunday.
With Sheridan flying fit again and surrounded by good people in the changing room, the Orchard men have every chance of breaching the top flight.
HOW WILL THEY DO?
THERE is no reason why Armagh can't push for promotion this season. In an era where the life-cycle of teams, especially middle-tier teams, is getting shorter, Armagh's panel looks as strong as it's ever been in Kieran McGeeney's five years in charge, despite the departures of Gavin McParland, Patrick Morrison and Kevin Dyas.
Kildare and Roscommon reached the Super 8s last season and yet their squads have been depleted since 2018 due to retirements and players stepping away for a year.
Kildare, Armagh's first NFL opponents, are without Eamonn Callaghan (retired), Daniel Flynn and Johnny Byrne (both taking a year out) and Niall Kelly has gone travelling.
One of the key reasons that made it easier for Kevin McStay to walk away from Roscommon (in Division One this year) was the amount of players who needed a break from inter-county football.
That is the prevailing trend in this tier, but not in Armagh. And that bodes well for their crack at back-to-back promotions. Cork are trying to plot a way out of the doldrums,
Meath have been on the decline for some time and how much more can Liam Kearns get out of the Tipperary footballers?
Donegal and Clare could make a fist of promotion while Armagh tick a lot of boxes too. They are a powerful unit, their middle eight is more fluid than previous season, they have solid free-takers either side of the pitch and James Morgan's return gives the defence more confidence.
Forwards Jamie Clarke and Stefan Campbell come back refreshed and a point to prove while the raft of talented U20s will keep everyone on their toes.
The Orchard men have it in them to nail one of the two promotions berths.
ONES TO WATCH
STEPHEN Sheridan was singing the praises of young Rian O'Neill's great attitude since he's been drafted into the squad this year.
The Crossmaglen attacker looks every inch a player. It's good he will be surrounded by the likes of experienced men such as Jamie Clarke and Stefan Campbell.
Full-forward Jack Grugan is a player of serious ability and could get a run in the side with Andrew Murnin still some way off a return.
The Ballymacnab man has had a couple of run-outs at the senior grade and had some good moments in the McKenna Cup. Opportunity knocks for him.
His club-mate Ryan Kennedy, who dropped off the panel at the end of last year's NFL campaign, has the capabilities of pushing for the full-back berth in 2019.
Cullyhanna's Ross McQuillan, a chip off the old block, is knocking on the door this year, while Connaire Mackin is another highly rated defender who Kieran McGeeney has been impressed by over the last 12 months.
Jarlath Og Burns has been given a few runs in the McKenna Cup too, while Armagh Harps livewire Ryan McShane should look to push on in 2019 after a very encouraging debut season in 2018.
Armagh's underbelly is in rude health.
Allianz League Division Two
Sun Jan 27 (Newbridge, 2pm): Kildare
Sun Feb 3 (Newry, 2pm): Clare
Sun Feb 10 (Navan, 2pm): Meath
Sun Feb 24 (The Athletic Grounds, 2pm): Tipperary
Sat March 2 (Ballybofey, 7.15pm): Donegal
Sat March 16 (Athletic Grounds, 7pm): Fermanagh
Sun March 24 (Crossmaglen, 2pm): Cork
Ulster SFC quarter-final, Sunday May 19 (Pairc Esler): Down v Armagh
Recent Allianz League record
2018 Allianz League Division Three table
Armagh (P) 7 5 1 1 8-90 3-72 33 11
Fermanagh (P) 7 5 1 1 8-73 7-57 19 11
Longford 7 4 1 2 10-90 5-79 26 9
Westmeath 7 4 0 3 5-104 8-100 -5 8
Sligo 7 2 2 3 4-84 7-95 -20 5
Offaly 7 2 1 4 5-82 9-91 -21 5
Derry (R) 7 2 0 5 11-89 11-93 -4 4
Wexford (R) 7 1 0 6 8-67 9-92 -28 2
2018 Allianz League Division Three results
2018 Championship results
Ulster SFC quarter-final: Fermanagh 0-12 Armagh 0-7
All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers round one: Westmeath 1-11 Armagh 3-16
All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers round two: Sligo 1-13 Armagh 1-19
All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers round three: Armagh 2-16 Clare 1-15
All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers round four: Roscommon 2-22 Armagh 1-19
Last Championship team
All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers round four: Roscommon 2-22 Armagh 1-19
B Hughes; R Owens, P Burns, G McCabe; M Shields (1-0), B Donaghy, A Forker (0-1); C Vernon, C Mackin; R Grugan (0-5, 0-2 frees), J Hall (0-1), N Grimley (0-5, 0-3 frees, 0-1 ‘45'); R McShane (0-1), A Murnin (0-4), S Sheridan (0-1).
Subs: J McElroy for G McCabe (34), R McQuillan for S Sheridan (42), N Rowland for B Donaghy (45), G McParland (0-1) for C Mackin (52), J Duffy for J Hall (63), K Dyas for A Murnin (66).