Rory Grugan reflects on the good, the bad and the ugly of Armagh's rollercoaster summer
AS GAA fans look forward to the second instalment of the All-Ireland Super 8s series this weekend, Armagh’s Rory Grugan is mulling over what to do with the rest of his summer.
It has been a while since the Armagh captain has had this kind of time on his hands.
A schoolteacher at St Franchea’s College in Enniskillen, Grugan’s life has revolved around work and football.
Since Armagh’s brave exit to Roscommon in O’Moore Park a fortnight ago, the Ballymacnab clubman has had time to reflect on yet another rollercoaster year.
Is it ever anything else wearing the orange jersey?
Armagh finally hauled themselves out of Division Three, going up as champions by beating Fermanagh at Croke Park.
A few weeks later, they suffered a horrible, dramatic and all-too-familiar dip in fortunes in the Ulster Championship, losing to the Ernemen at Brewster Park.
On the night, Armagh looked completely flummoxed by their hosts.
No team does provincial trauma better than Armagh.
Four years and counting without an Ulster Championship win.
Paul Hughes and Stephen Sheridan – two driving forces of the Orchard men – were ruled out through injury against Fermanagh, while Grugan was only fit to play the last 24 minutes.
And Armagh’s chances weren’t helped by Niall Grimley’s dismissal at the start of the second half.
Everybody skim reads the small detail of the vanquished.
It is true no team has embraced the All-Ireland Qualifiers quite like Armagh.
Fast-forward seven weeks and the Orchard men were within a whisker of making the Super 8s.
They emptied the tank against Roscommon and ended with three U20s on the field – Ryan Owens, Jason Duffy and Ross McQuillan.
None of them looked out of place.
Patrick Burns, Connaire Mackin, Jemar Hall and Ryan McShane also announced their arrival on the inter-county stage in 2018.
Maybe the team that ‘Geezer’ built over a whirlwind few months wasn’t so bad after all.
Grugan feels significant progress has been made in 2018.
He still winces at that Fermanagh performance.
He remembers the elbow injury that threatened to derail his summer, and getting back on the saddle in Mullingar.
And that dramatic, late win over Clare.
That sun-kissed afternoon in O’Moore Park and an unforgettable 70 minutes they shared with Roscommon.
And… and that penalty.
Grugan knows his ill-fated spot-kick against the Rossies was bound to come up in conversation.
Had he converted it, Armagh would have reduced Roscommon’s lead to one point with 45 minutes played.
As it turned out, Colm Lavin made a relatively comfortable save to leave Armagh's top scorer with his head in his hands.
If he could re-live that moment…
“I hadn’t actually been practising penalties,” Grugan confesses.
“The ’keeper said something standing in front of me and I don’t know why it made me doubt what I was doing with the penalty.
“Probably my biggest regret was that I didn’t go with my gut in terms of where I was placing the penalty. I kind of second-guessed myself a bit and I suppose that’s always the danger.
“As captain, you have to show leadership and it was a case of stepping up and taking the penalty. But it’s one of those things – the ‘keeper made a good save and you have to try and get it out of your head as quickly as possibly because there was still plenty of time at that stage. We even got it back to one point after that…”
The game that unfolded in Portlaoise was a magnificent affair. Two teams dedicated to attack with a ubiquitous handful of dead-eyed assassins among them.
Before the Round Four Qualifier, Andrew Murnin was Gaelic football’s best-kept secret.
With scandalous nonchalance, the St Paul’s man swung over four unbelievable points from play.
Had the players any idea how good the game was from the stands?
“When you’re stuck in the middle of a game like that you’re just trying to score from your next attack,” Grugan says.
“It was a game that seemed really appreciated by neutrals. Obviously it’s no real consolation to us – there are no moral victories in it. But, when you’ve given everything in a game, it makes it only slightly easier when you lose. We still feel there were details in that game that would have helped us win.
“But it wasn’t like the Fermanagh match where you were coming away with regret for having totally flopped in terms of your performance.
“I don’t know how many people have said to me now, but that saying: ‘Dying with your boots on’, and to be fair Roscommon finished fairly strong.
“At least you can leave with your head held high – you give it your everything on the day.”
Last year, Tyrone burst Armagh’s balloon in a painfully one-side All-Ireland quarter-final.
A week after bathing in the glory of beating Armagh in Portlaoise, the Rossies collided with reality, losing the first-ever Super 8s tie with Tyrone by 18 points.
Some have suggested to Grugan it was for the best they didn’t qualify for the Super 8s, especially given Roscommon’s trouncing by Tyrone.
“It was such a downer to lose the All-Ireland quarter-final [to Tyrone] last year because we failed to perform. But, at the same time, as players all you want to do is try to get to the top level.
“People say to me – and I just don’t get it – ‘Ah, sure it’s probably better that youse lost because you’d probably get hammered in the Super 8s’.
“That’s not exactly the mindset of a player. I understand people are just trying to be nice and I appreciate the sentiment but it’s not what players are thinking.
“Ultimately, we want to be in the Super 8s. We’re back up to Division Two and on any given day we feel we can match up to the likes of the bigger teams. We’ve obviously fell down in the Ulster Championship on too many occasions. But we feel if we’re consistently playing at a higher level there is no reason this group of Armagh players couldn’t be a Super 8 team.”
Armagh have found redemption in the Qualifiers, particularly over the last two years. But Ulster still niggles them.
It has been suggested that an expansive team like Armagh struggle against the defensive-minded teams of their own province and are more suited to the more open nature of the Qualifiers.
Grugan thinks the answer is less complicated.
“As a squad we’ve had to look very hard at why we have failed in Ulster at that stage of the year again. We put so much work into how we were going to play.
“If you compare it to the Qualifiers, where you literally don’t have as much time to work on your gameplan, in theory, you’d think we should have been better prepared for Fermanagh.
“I think it was just a failure to perform on the day. A lot of teams, in my opinion, play a fairly similar way – now there are obviously more extreme versions than others.
“What Fermanagh put up this year would have been slightly more defensive compared to Roscommon. But, at the end of the day, it’s all fairly similar and it comes down to your decision-making and your shot execution.
“What we were hitting in the first half against Roscommon was going over but then you compare that to the Fermanagh game – we missed a shot from 21 yards in front of goal, we missed an easy free… I think the tendency is to look for maybe a bigger answer when it’s probably more simplistic.”
Grugan adds: “I understand it’s a criticism [consecutive losses in Ulster] that can be levelled at us.
“We’d love nothing more than to get a run in the Ulster Championship and if you fail to perform you’ve to wait a whole year for it to come around again.
“I suppose I’m thinking now, I’ll be 28 by the time I play in another Ulster Championship match.”
Kieran McGeeney will enter his fifth year of a five-year term in 2019.
There are those inside and outside of the county who will keenly remind the Armagh manager of his provincial record and there are others who will acknowledge the overall effort, the Qualifier runs and the ability to fast-track a host of rookies into the team and still get within touching distance of a coveted Super 8s berth.
Since being awarded the captaincy, Grugan has got to know McGeeney better and believes Armagh’s future couldn’t be in better hands.
“I couldn’t speak more highly of Kieran,” he says.
“There is literally no-one who loves Armagh more and who wants the best for us – as people but also as footballers.
“When you listen to him speak whether it’s in the changing room or just having a chat, he just loves football and just wants us to be better.
“I suppose I don’t have a lot of experience of many other set-ups but he has a deep understanding of the game. He’s such a student of the game and he’s looking to see how he can improve as a manager.
“And, for whatever reason – and I honestly don’t get it – why the scrutiny is so great on him.
“Sometimes he’s held against a different standard which is unfair. I just think there is no better man steering the ship for Armagh than him.
“The thing about it is, all he wants to do is leave Armagh in a better place than when he got us. That’s his ethos. That tells you all you need to know about him. You look at the hand he’s been dealt at different times – injuries to key players at different times and player turnover…
“I do believe there is a really good group of players coming through, those U20s and those guys around 23 or 24, and that will be Geezer’s legacy as much as anything else. I hope that whatever time we’re looking back on it that people will see that and that’s the way it should be.”
In his post-match press briefing in Portlaoise, McGeeney was confident some of the absentees of 2018 will be back next year.
Grugan hopes so too, but has one caveat.
“It’s only when the season is over and you can take a step back, you can look at it as a whole. It has been a relative success when you consider the changes in personnel and we introduced a number of U20s this year too.
“I’d be fairly optimistic about where we’re going. For a county like Armagh, to get to where you want to go, you need all your best players with you the whole time but it has to be with boys who want to be there.
“You have to want to be there and play for that jersey and we believe we’ve got a good bunch of boys there and if those boys who are away and want to come back, all the better. That gives us even more of a chance.”
ARMAGH’S SUMMER IN NUMBERS...
Sat May 19: Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final (Brewster Park): Fermanagh 0-12 Armagh 0-7
Sat June 9: All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifier Round One (Cusack Park): Westmeath 1-11 Armagh 3-16
Sat June 23: All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifier Round Two (Markievciz Park): Sligo 1-13 Armagh 1-19
Sat June 30: All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifier Round Three (Athletic Grounds): Armagh 2-16 Clare 1-15
Sat July 7: All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifier Round Four (O’Moore Park): Armagh 1-19 Roscommon 2-22
Total scored: 7-77
Average scored per game: 19.6
Total conceded: 5-73
Average conceded per game: 17.6
Total free-kicks converted by opposition: 0-26
Converted free-kicks breakdown scored by opposition: Fermanagh 0-5; Westmeath 0-5; Sligo 0-8; Clare 0-1; Roscommon 0-7
Top scorer: Rory Grugan 1-24 (0-13 frees)
Other scorers: Niall Grimley 0-15 (0-11 frees); Andrew Murnin 2-7; Gavin McParland 1-3; Ryan McShane 0-5; Mark Shields 1-1; Ethan Raffterty (0-4, 0-1 free); Jemar Hall 0-4; Charlie Vernon 0-4; Anto Duffy 1-1; Joe McElroy 1-1; Aidan Forker 0-2; Stephen Sheridan 0-2; Blaine Hughes (0-1 free); Gregory McCabe 0-1; Ross McQuillan 0-1; Connaire Mackin 0-1;
Total amount of players used: 30
Players who played every Championship minute (excluding stoppage-time): Blaine Hughes, Patrick Burns, Charlie Vernon
Minutes played per player (excluding stoppage-time): Blaine Hughes, Patrick Burns, Charlie Vernon (all 350 minutes); Mark Shields (349 minutes); Andrew Murnin (345 minutes); Brendan Donaghy (325 minutes); Rory Grugan (304 minutes); Aidan Forker (311 minutes); Gregory McCabe (301 minutes); Jemar Hall (289 minutes); Ryan McShane (279 minutes); Connaire Mackin (258 minutes); Aaron McKay (250 minutes); Niall Grimley (215 minutes); Niall Rowland (148 minutes); Stephen Sheridan (132 minutes); Ethan Rafferty (105 minutes); Ryan Owens (98 minutes); Joe McElroy (94 minutes); Gavin McParland (74 minutes); Oisin Mac Iomhair (64 minutes); Ross McQuillan (48 minutes); Aaron Findon (35 minutes); Ciaran Higgins (35 minutes); Ben Crealey (30 minutes); Anto Duffy (14 minutes); Eamonn McGeown (9 minutes) Jason Duffy (8 minutes); Kevin Dyas (4 minutes); Oisin Lappin (2 minutes)
Total red cards: 1
Total yellow cards: 17
Black cards: 5
Red card: Niall Grimley (1)
Yellow cards: Gregory McCabe (3); Jemar Hall (2); Niall Rowland (2), Patrick Burns (2); Charlie Vernon (1); Ben Crealey (1); Andrew Murnin (1); Aaron Findon (1), Aidan Forker (1), Connaire Mackin (1); Oisin Mac Iomhair (1); Ben Crealey (1)
Black cards: Gregory McCabe (1); Aidan Forker (1); Mark Shields (1); Gavin McParland (1); Rory Grugan (1).
Compiled by Brendan Crossan