More good than bad for Armagh - but still a long road ahead
Story of the Season…
ARMAGH’S year was the proverbial roller-coaster. There were some highs and some lows.
The highs came at the height of summer but were book-ended by two demoralising defeats at the hands of Down and Tyrone.
While the pluses outweigh the minuses in 2017, the road ahead looks daunting enough for Kieran McGeeney’s squad.
The height of their ambitions over the next couple of years is realistically winning an Ulster title.
When you consider how further down the road the likes of Dublin, Tyrone, Kerry and Mayo are compared to the rest of the country, an All-Ireland crown seems to be the preserve of this quartet for the foreseeable future.
And what does it say for Armagh’s prospects when Tyrone beat them by 18 points and Dublin beat Tyrone by 12 points?
This is perhaps a crude measure but it still illustrates the distance teams like Armagh have to travel to be competitive in the latter stages of the Championship.
Not even the introduction of the ‘Super 8’ next season – for a three-year experimental period - is likely to change the landscape because the top teams are so far ahead.
That's the demoralising part.
The Orchard Academy is in good hands right now but the county is merely playing catch-up.
For periods of their League campaign, Armagh looked a good bet for promotion but their erratic side revealed itself too often and they were caught on the line by Tipperary on the last day.
Another campaign in Division Three won’t do this Armagh team any favours ahead of the 2018 Championship.
But when you sift through their year, 'Geezer' can be generally happy with things and can rightly point to the individual graphs of some players.
At the start of the year and with Paddy Morrison struggling with injury, the goalkeeper position was deemed a problem position.
Up stepped Blaine Hughes who was a revelation. His accuracy from kick-outs, particularly against Kildare, was exceptional and he was also brave under the high ball down in Tipperary.
Paul Hughes also resumed his inter-county career in 2017 and interpreted his 'middle eight' role really well.
He covered a lot of ground, made good decisions in possession and got into a fair amount of scoring positions.
Armagh need one or two more like the Crossmaglen man.
Brendan Donaghy showed that he has lost none of his zest for the game and despite the advancing years he still has good recovery and will lead the defence again in 2018.
Another big plus in 2017 was the midfield sector.
Niall Grimley and Stephen Sheridan would not have been regarded as first choice players at the start of the year - but left the stage with enhanced reputations.
Sheridan's work ethic and fitness levels were a glowing feature of Armagh's play, while Grimley's free-taking ability cured another perceived ill, and his displays have put him on Joe Kernan’s radar for November’s International Rules Series in Australia.
Jamie Clarke returned to the fold in 2017 and produced impressive back-to-back displays in Qualifier wins over Tipperary and Kildare.
And Gavin McParland deserves credit for the way he forced his way into Armagh’s starting line-up, hitting some outrageous scores in the wins over Westmeath and Tipperary.
Indeed, the side’s wins over Tipp and Kildare suggested that they could be competitive against Ulster rivals Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
If their second half capitulation against Down was disappointing, the gulf in class between themselves and the Red Hands was truly staggering.
The game was over after 15 minutes. Never before was Croke Park so eerily quiet for games between the pair.
Armagh’s year ended in a chastening lesson against Tyrone.
There are no short-cuts to reach the standard set by the Ulster champions. It’s down to meticulous work on the training ground and the hope that the Orchard Academy can produce a steady stream of players for the years ahead.
What They Need…
ARMAGH made significant progress in 2017 but they are still working on fashioning an identity for themselves. Between 2016 and 2017, the Orchard men played a more offensive brand of football so they’re still stationed in the work-in-progress bracket.
For Armagh to go to the next level, their attack needs to be more fluid. There needs to be more off-the-shoulder support play in order to improve their running game.
With an impressive inside forward line, it was felt that all they needed to do was get the ball into them and either Andrew Murnin, Jamie Clarke or Gavin McParland would pull a rabbit out of a hat.
In the early throes of summer there was too much riding on Murnin’s Velcro-like hands leading to scores.
This strategy was perhaps a consequence of a lack of thrust and scoring ability from their half-back line. Armagh were sometimes too vertical in their attacking play.
In that All-Ireland Qualifier nail-biter against Westmeath, Armagh’s attacking play was poor.
There were countless times when a defender would be running out with the ball and too many of his team-mates nearby were facing him and therefore not in a position to accept possession to keep the momentum of the attack going.
Their play that night looked too off-the-cuff to be effective.
In later Championship games against Tipp and Kildare this improved.
Paul Hughes and Brendan Donaghy were adept at getting themselves in scoring positions but they need more attacking rotation in their middle eight, if only to present more headaches for the opposition.
As a group, they need to stick together and can’t afford any key players dropping off the panel and putting the brakes on the development of the squad.
Murnin staying fit during the League season would be a huge boost while it would be a major bonus to see the likes of Rian O’Neill making the breakthrough and Maghrey’s Ben Crealey showing what he can do at the top level.
FOR a while in Mullingar against Westmeath Kieran McGeeney’s future looked decidedly treacherous. But the team came through and the two subsequent victories – and performances – against Tipperary and Kildare saw the Armagh manager’s critics go into hibernation.
The Mullaghbawn man enters his fourth year in charge of Armagh in 2018.
His backroom team seems quite fluid.
John Toal, Denis Holywood and Paddy McKeever were permanent fixtures before minor manager Paul McGrane and Justin McNulty lent a helping hand as the summer progressed.
There is also a great sense of loyalty between the players and management.
A FEW years ago it was unimaginable that Brendan Donaghy would still be lining out for Armagh and punching his weight.
But the Clonmore clubman appears to have overcome knee tendinitis problems and judging by his Championship performances there is still plenty of thrust in his 31-year-old legs.
A mark of a great player is when his performances don’t dip even when Armagh were struggling in games against Down and Tyrone.
He delivered a defensive master-class in the Orchard men’s win over Kildare at Croke Park and his catch above the head of Kevin Feeley in the closing stages was one of the abiding memories of the summer.
Donaghy is absolutely essential to the growth of this Armagh team as they go forward into 2018.
End of the Line…
AFTER 15 years Ciaran McKeever called time on his inter-county career. The 34-year-old Cullyhanna man didn’t see enough game-time this summer to warrant extending his stay with Armagh beyond 2017.
Charlie Vernon and Brendan Donaghy are also proud members of the 30-club but there is no reason to suggest that these two experienced heads would walk away after encouraging campaigns.
The injury-plagued Kevin Dyas was still part of the Armagh panel but was never a realistic option for McGeeney as his recovery from a complex knee injury looks as arduous as ever.
Given the amount of time he’s been out of the inter-county picture, the Dromintee clubman might bid a reluctant farewell to the orange jersey.
The New Breed…
LAST January, Ben Crealey and Ciaran Higgins looked nailed-on starters for Armagh but injury ruled the talented Maghrey pair out of the picture.
Both men, who are at Queen’s, will be like two new signings and will add more quality and depth to Armagh’s middle eight.
Crealey is a scoring midfielder/half-forward and looks physically stronger than this time last year. Higgins could also give more attacking thrust from wing-back something that was perhaps lacking in the side this year.
Jack Grugan of Ballymacnab, who dropped off the panel mid-season due to a niggling injury, is going well for Ballymacnab and could make another pitch for a place in Armagh’s inside forward line.
Young Rian O’Neill of Crossmaglen Rangers has returned home from AFL trials and if he doesn’t pursue a career Down Under the former St Colman’s student would undoubtedly offer Armagh ’s half-forward line something different.
There is also more improvement expected in his older brother Oisin O’Neill who showed glimpses of his ability this year.
Clann Eireann duo Ryan Owens (half-back) and Barry McCambridge (full-back) could be wild card entries in 2018. Armagh ’s underbelly isn’t looking too bad for ‘Geezer’.
“It’s not the big things that’ll make the difference to this squad, it’s the small things. Maybe putting the jersey first for those seven or eight months leading up to it and buying into the whole philosophy and how you play the game, the work ethic that’s needed, the team ethos that’s needed.” – Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney after their All-Ireland exit to Tyrone