Brendan Crossan: Armagh on the Championship road again with expectations always at their backs

Fermanagh stand in the way of Orchard men

Kieran McGeeney congratulates Rory Grugan after scoring the winner against Galway at Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada in Carrick-on-Shannon, last season (Harry Murphy / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

THIS is Armagh’s year. Supporters from the Orchard County have been saying this every year for the last couple of decades.

There’s no county quite like Armagh where expectations spiral upwards. And upwards. And out of control.

After leaving Kildare, the giddy thinking at home was that all Kieran McGeeney had to do to end Armagh’s search for an Ulster title was to turn up.

‘Geezer’ was the man. For sure.

Once the All-Ireland winning captain’s studs hit the grass at Callan Bridge, it would be magic time.

It was all wishful thinking. Rome was never built in a day. It can take a decade.

When you sift through all those summers, Armagh crashed and burned every time. But never let a work-in-progress team get in the way of expectations soaring to new, unfathomable heights.

Think back to Armagh teams over the last 10 years and which year should they have won an Ulster title? Any of those years?

There were rumblings in 2017 – after their mandatory fall in Ulster - that it could be the start of something. Armagh cut a dash through the All-Ireland Qualifiers. Fermanagh, Westmeath, Tipperary and Kildare put to the sword.

As an aside, were the old Qualifiers that bad of a system after all?

Later in Croke Park, Armagh stood staring up at a Tyrone juggernaut who reminded them of just how far they had to travel to reach elite status.

Beneath a baking hot sun in O’Moore Park in 2018, Kevin McStay’s Roscommon and McGeeney’s Armagh produced an absolutely thrilling encounter.

And Armagh lost.

“Another fight of the night, lads.”

Mayo, 2019. Castlebar. Another fight of the night. Another loss.

In the empty stands of Breffni Park in 2020, populated by only a handful of mask-wearing and socially distanced GAA reporters, the Donegal footballers posted a reminder to Armagh that they hadn’t arrived yet.

On the sun-burnt grass of Pairc Esler in 2021, Monaghan showed Armagh that they must be better in those clutch moments.

The ‘fights of the night’ kept rolling for the Armagh footballers as they went on to lose three penalty shoot-outs over the next two Championship seasons.

“You can’t look back at those games with anything other than frustration,” said Rory Grugan last December, “as opposed to going: ‘Jeez, wasn’t it great to be involved in those big games? Wasn’t it great to be part of the first penalty shoot-out at Croke Park?’ It wasn’t great.”

No team in the country gets thrown under the microscope like Armagh. Maybe it’s the Geezer effect where you have one of the most iconic Gaelic footballers trying to repeat his playing successes on the sidelines.

At some point over the last two seasons, though, Armagh graduated to Gaelic football’s elite ranks, which entitles them to feel fully-fledged contenders for provincial and national honours.

For the best part of McGeeney’s reign, Armagh rarely played like a team comfortable in its own skin.

Capable of producing heroic performances but nowhere near consistent enough to be regarded as Championship winning material.

The current team wouldn’t fall like they did in O’Moore Park in 2018. They’re a team that can be relied upon.

A few Saturday nights ago, they ripped Cavan apart in the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds.

It was the kind of fixture Armagh would have drawn or lost by a point a few years ago.

Their high press that night was one of the most impressive you’ll see - boxing their opponents in, teasing them with small pockets of space to aim for before shutting out the light.

Armagh are playing with great tactical clarity and clear minds - more than they’ve ever done under McGeeney.

You can see the countless walk-through training sessions are paying off with the smooth rotation of positions and width to their play.

A criticism levelled at Armagh over the years was their inability to game-manage in stressful moments of games.

The signs are encouraging here too.

“I believe it can be worked on and I believe you can practice and put yourself in scenarios in training where you are putting the team in a position of how to see it out,” Armagh coach Kieran Donaghy said last season.

“But there are circumstances you cannot replicate – crowds, pressure. You can put the players in a scenario here on a quiet Wednesday night when there is nobody watching, and they will be cool on the ball and calm and calculated and pick off the scores and see us home.

“You just have to keep drilling the habits and as a management team we do a lot of that scenario-based stuff in training.”

After losing last season’s Ulster final on a penalty shoot-out to Derry and suffering the same fate against Monaghan in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, there was plenty of noise in the county for managerial change.

But those dissenting voices should be careful of what they wish for. This season has been described in some quarters as Kieran McGeeney’s last crack at bringing silverware to Armagh.

Equally, why should anything be preordained before the business end of the Championship season has been reached?

Would that not be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater just because some Armagh fans want to see someone else patrolling the sidelines?

“Why would Kieran not be there next year when we are a Division One team and let’s be a bit better than we were last year in the division?” said experienced defender Aidan Forker.

“An All Blacks team under [Steve] Hansen lost the World Cup but they didn’t get rid of him.

“They said, ‘you take the learnings from being at that level and bring us forward.’

“Why would we get rid of all what Kieran knows about the group and the players he helped to create alongside everyone who has supported him and not go at it together?”

Armagh are back on the Championship road again on Sunday against Fermanagh.

Much wiser than before...