GAA Football

Armagh rising again after decade of ups and downs

Jamie Clarke was a star for Armagh during the past decade. 
Padraig Kelly

THE 2010 Championship season started with a bang for Armagh at both ends of the pitch.

Paddy O’Rourke’s side faced a daunting trip to Celtic Park to face Derry in the Ulster preliminary round.

The Oakleafers were a Division One side at the time, albeit they suffered relegation a few weeks before this encounter, while they hadn’t lost an Ulster Championship match at the venue since that famous game with Down back in 1994.

That unbeaten record would go following two big moments late in the second half.

It was the day when a certain Jamie Clarke burst onto the scene. There had been much speculation about his prodigious talents, and he lived up to the billing as with his first real touch, he rolled Kevin McGuckin and finished past Barry Gillis.

Derry had a chance to get back into it as they won a penalty, but Paul Hearty saved brilliantly as he dived to the right and pushed Gerard O’Kane’s effort away.

Monaghan dumped Armagh out in the semi-final but Qualifier wins over Donegal and Fermanagh would follow before they lost to Dublin by three points. The link-up play and score-taking of the master Stevie McDonnell and the new kid on the block Clarke brought great excitement to Orchard county fans.

The Crossmaglen ace carried that form into the Ulster clash with Down a year later as his early composed finished helped the underdogs to a 1-15 to 1-10 win with Billy Joe Padden and Aaron Kernan also kicking over some lovely efforts in tough conditions.

Clarke, McDonnell and Micheal O’Rourke would go on to kick some memorable scores in the backdoor before Tyrone ended their season in round three of the Qualifiers.

Philip McEvoy regained the number one jersey for the 2012 season and although he made a string of agile saves – most notably in the 4-17 to 1-10 thrashing at the hands of Dublin – Armagh were relegated to Division Two.

Although the Championship was equally frustrating after defeats to Tyrone and Roscommon, Clarke did produce some jaw-dropping moments in the defeat to the Red Hands as he squeezed over some points from ridiculous angles.

The 2013 season brought goals, and plenty of them. Armagh scored 19 in just 11 games and there were memorable hat-tricks from Gavin McParland in the league draw with Wexford and from Eugene McVerry as the Orchard county struck the net eight times against Leitrim in the Qualifiers.

Relegation from Division Two arrived in 2014 but the undoubted bright spark was an 11-point haul from Clarke as Armagh travelled to Navan and recorded a rare win over Meath.

The Championship began in explosive fashion as Armagh and Cavan brawled at the Athletic Grounds before the pre-match parade and Caolan Rafferty’s goal nearly took the roof off the stand in an electric atmosphere.

Stefan Campbell kicked some wonderful points as Paul Grimley’s side drew with Monaghan in the provincial semi-final, but it was Rory Grugan’s last-gasp equalising free that was remembered.

With free-taker Aaron Kernan prone on the ground beside him receiving treatment, the Ballymacnab man curled over from distance and punched the air in delight.

The Qualifiers brought more great attacking moments from Stefan Forker’s punched goal against Roscommon before his younger brother Aidan kicked some fantastic scores in the win over Meath at a rain-lashed Croke Park in the next round.

The 2015 season saw Matthew McNeice take on goalkeeping duties and he would have had a brilliant view as Clarke turned on the style to hit 2-4 from play in the Qualifier win over Wicklow. Grange duo Miceal McKenna and Ethan Rafferty also landed some sublime scores although the team couldn’t replicate it in the next round against Galway.

Armagh passed the number one jersey between McNeice and Patrick Morrison in 2016 and while it was a disappointing campaign overall, the performances of Campbell in the League were majestic and few could forget his seven points from play in the draw with Galway. That evoked memories of Kevin Dyas’s five-point haul from play against the same opposition on 2013 to secure survival.

There was another goalkeeping change in 2017 as Carrickcruppen’s Blaine Hughes came in, and he received rave reviews from The Sunday Game crew for his kick-outs in the brilliant Qualifier win against Kildare that secured a spot in the last eight of the All-Ireland.

Not for the first time, the headlines belonged to Clarke though as he led the Lilywhite defence on a merry dance at Croke Park.

The attacker hit four points from play, including one from a ridiculous angle in front of the Davin Stand, while there was also a trademark Aidan Forker sliced special that caught the eye in the first half.

Armagh’s goal that day may have been a messy effort from Andrew Murnin, but Rory Grugan’s dummy solo to send Keith Cribbin to the shops also produced plenty of ‘ohhs’ around the Dublin venue.

With Clarke in New York in 2018, it was time for another forward to step up to the mark and Murnin was the man who made the biggest impression that summer.

On a scorching day at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh trailed Clare by four points with two minutes remaining before Murnin, who had found the net earlier in the half, set up Joe McElroy for a goal. Armagh were men possessed from there and four points down quickly became four points up by the final whistle.

It was even warmer in Portlaoise the next day as Kieran McGeeney’s side battled it out with Roscommon for a spot in the Super 8s.

Armagh ultimately missed out in a thriller that produced 44 scores and four of those came from Murnin in the first half as he delivered one of the best 35 minutes from an Orchard player in recent times.

With Clarke back with Armagh, another forward from his neck of the woods burst onto the scene in 2019.

Rian O’Neill made his name in the league, but he followed up with an excellent Ulster debut against Down before finding the net three times in the Qualifier games with Monaghan and Mayo.

The 2020 season may have been interrupted but it appeared that O’Neill was set to have some help in the form of Conor Turbitt who hit 2-2 on his county debut, a McKenna Cup win over Cavan.

His League debut against the same opposition provide a real spectacular moment as he won an incredible advanced mark and kicked it over in a Man of the Match display.

There have been some amazing attacking moments for the Orchard county over the last decade, and the signs are the next few years won’t be too bad either.

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