Autumn is a time for reflection in McGeeney's Orchard
STORY OF THE SEASON…
NO MATTER what angle you view Armagh’s season, there is one inescapable truth: they simply never recovered from their Ulster Championship defeat to Donegal on June 14.
On their home patch, they struggled with everything: the occasion, Donegal's defensive system and slick counter-attack and the execution of the simple things. Perhaps the most painful aspect of the day was that in adversity Armagh didn't respond. There was no aggression, no fight.
It's a long time since an Armagh team bowed out of the Ulster Championship so meekly. And when they entered the Qualifiers, it was clear their summer wasn't going to be nearly as long as last year's. Even though they were handed kind enough draws in the Qualifiers - home games against Wicklow and Galway - they looked like a team woefully short on confidence.
In many respects, Armagh's summer started and ended on June 14. It was a chastening experience for manager Kieran McGeeney and his players.
Since taking the reins from Paul Grimley at the end of last season, McGeeney preached constantly about the Armagh players improving their decision-making at critical times in games. That's what cost them in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Donegal. He could preach this mantra to his players – but decision-making is something virtually uncoachable.
Certainly, they cut a dash in gaining promotion and winning Division Three outright back in April. But that was exactly Armagh’s problem.
Division Three football can lull you into a false sense of security. Division Three football can make you think you’re better than what you really are. Division Three football protects you from your own limitations. Division Three football can't tell you the truth. Doing well in Division Three is one intricate seduction process where the margin for error can really only be appreciated in the higher altitude of Championship football.
The thinner air took its toll on the Armagh players against such a seasoned outfit like Donegal. For McGeeney, those 70-minutes of football at a sun-splashed Athletic Grounds must have felt like a living nightmare, especially given the progress that was made last year was supposed to spill into 2015.
On the day, the home side wrong-footed everyone. The Orchard men were already tamed by half-time, while Donegal’s period of keep-ball in the early stages of the second half merely reinforced the gulf in class between the sides. The sad irony about this clash, particularly in the first half, was that while Donegal were superb in possession, they didn’t have to work too hard to win turnovers.
In the first 20 minutes, Armagh gave away possession so cheaply. Almost every time they went forward, they would fist pass the ball into Donegal’s web and another attack would break down. Michael Murphy was given the freedom of the middle sector, even though it seemed a straightforward move for full-back Charlie Vernon – a player well-used to playing further out the field – to follow the Glenswilly man.
Afterwards, ‘Geezer’ surprised reporters by informing them that both sides had 25 shots each – but even that startling statistic couldn’t disguise the rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights performance from his team.
Injuries deprived them of Ciarán McKeever, Kevin Dyas, Aaron Findon and Mark Shields for the Wicklow clash a couple of weeks later. And while they recorded a 10-point victory, Wicklow managed to make it a one-point game between the 55th and 59th minutes before Armagh rattled off an impressive 2-3 in the closing stages.
Undoubtedly, the aforementioned absentees were more keenly felt in their defeat to Galway the next day. Being poor in possession in the final third proved their undoing again.
The young and ever-willing Andy Murnin of St Paul’s and Miceal McKenna, Grange’s cerebral centre-forward, at least showed glimpses of their rich potential in an otherwise bleak year in the Orchard County.
WHAT THEY NEED…
TALK to anybody in the Orchard county and they’ll tell you the standard of club football is average enough but that there is enough talent to do well at inter-county level.
While it was difficult to be positive about Armagh’s Championship campaign, the pessimists would do well to look across the Moy and see how a county team can be transformed in just a few short months.
Tyrone were at a crossroads this time last year after they bowed meekly out of the Championship to Armagh. Fast-forward 12 months and Tyrone, and not Kerry, should be competing in Sunday’s All-Ireland final against Dublin.
Given their run to the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-finals, Armagh appeared weighed down by expectations this year. Next year, the expectations might even themselves out and the players could play with a bit more freedom and perhaps more instinct.
Although Fermanagh and Armagh were playing in Division Three this year, the Erne men were handed a kinder draw in Ulster and in the All-Ireland Qualifiers and were able to build some momentum. That’s why promotion was absolutely essential for Armagh. Division Two will be a proper testing ground and will serve them better come the 2016 Championship.
Armagh’s defence could also do with a makeover if only to make them physically bigger as they struggled defensively in their three Championship encounters.
It’s true Armagh were missing key players; Ciarán McKeever was a huge miss for the side. And it might be worth enquiring about Aaron Kernan’s availability next season. The Crossmaglen man stepped down last year. Would he be interested in a return? Undoubtedly, his playmaking ability and composure in possession were sorely missed.
Indeed, when you watch the first 20 minutes of the Armagh-Donegal game and the countless times they gave away cheap possession was quite incredible. You would have more confidence with Kernan carrying the ball towards a blanket defence than any of the current incumbents.
For any team at a low ebb, it’s how they absorb the lessons of the past. Armagh have good players. And while there has been criticism of Kieran McGeeney, Armagh have a good manager. They can still be a force next season.
UNLIKE in Down, there will be no giddy managerial push in Armagh, even though the Orchard county had a more disappointing season than their Ulster neighbours.
Geezer is well liked among the Armagh players and has been praised – openly and privately - for his man-management skills and coaching philosophy.
He could well shake up his backroom team, though, as he was never afraid to do so during his time in Kildare. It was interesting to see outgoing U21 boss Stevie McDonnell linking Jim McCorry with a return to Armagh. A McGeeney-McCorry axis would be an interesting proposition. But there can be no escaping the conclusion that Year One was deeply disappointing.
SADLY, there aren’t many names that jump off the Armagh team-sheet, but Ethan Rafferty was one of their better performers in 2015. He has the physique and composure to be a major success at senior level.
His free-taking was generally good and he was never afraid to take responsibility in possession.
Capable of playing in various attacking positions, the Grange clubman will be a key player next season as Armagh try to right the wrongs of their summer campaign.
END OF THE LINE…
OKAY, a crude measure here is always to look at the players who are close to or have already celebrated their 30th birthday. That means Ciarán McKeever, Finnian Moriarty, Andy Mallon and Brendan Donaghy all get a dreaded mention in this ‘retirement’ section.
Injuries seriously curtailed McKeever this summer and, even though he is one of the last remaining U21 All-Ireland winners of ’04, it’s inconceivable he’ll retire.
Andy Mallon remains one of the quickest defenders in the squad, so there is no reason to think he will walk away. Moriarty was considering hanging his boots up earlier this year, but was persuaded to stay on by Geezer. Out of the older crew, Wolfe Tone's clubman Moriarty might be the most likely candidate to step away in 2016, but there has been no official confirmation.
Donaghy, who turns 30 next April, has been troubled by knee tendonitis for a couple of seasons now, but he is likely to remain to offer some much-needed experience to the squad in 2016. It’s understood nobody has declared their intentions to quit. Put simply, it might be as you were in Armagh.
THE NEW BREED…
SEVERAL players in Stevie McDonnell’s U21 side certainly have the potential to reinvigorate the senior set-up next season. Attacker Aidan Nugent is one clear candidate.
The free-scoring Cullyhanna man has all the attributes to graduate to Kieran McGeeney’s squad. Blessed with two good feet, Nugent excelled with the U21s and has quickly evolved into one of the best forwards in Armagh and is the stand-out candidate to do well at senior level.
If Joe McIlroy can stay injury-free, he can push for a senior place as he would be a good option either at half-forward or half-back.
Calum Comiskey has been transformed over the last 12 months and is a serious worker in the half-forward line. The Crossmaglen man might get the call.
Tenacious centre-back Greg McCabe of Shane O’Neill’s has also made huge strides and looks to have the mental capacity to push onto the next level.
And it goes without saying Micheal McKenna and Andy Murnin can kick on from their encouraging spells in the senior side, while Ciarán O’Hanlon remains a precocious talent.