“Did I think we’d be in an All-Ireland final now? I probably did...” Armagh minor success not a major surprise to manager Aidan O’Rourke

Armagh and Derry to clash in first-ever All-Ireland final between teams from the North

Longford's James Shannon and Luke Donnelly Armagh's Aaron Garvey in action during the Electric Ireland All-Ireland Minor Football  Championship quarter-final between Longford and Armagh at Kingspan Breffni, Cavan  Picture: Philip Walsh
Armagh's Aaron Garvey on the attack against Leinster champions Longford in the All-Ireland minor football championship quarter-final. Picture: Philip Walsh (Philip Walsh)

MAYBE no-one else saw it coming, but Aidan O’Rourke did.

He believed the Armagh minors could win an All-Ireland this year and he made his players believe it too.

So you’d be wrong to suppose that Armagh have come from nowhere to reach Sunday’s All-Ireland final even though this is only the fifth in the county’s history and the first since their second title back in 2009. The Orchard youngsters meet Derry at Healy Park on Sunday (2pm) in a repeat of the Ulster final and it’s the first-ever All-Ireland final between two counties from north of the border.

Armagh hadn’t reached the Ulster decider for a decade when O’Rourke and Stefan Forker took over for this season but they knew they had talent at their disposal. This batch has been competitive through the age groups and beating Tyrone in the final of the Buncrana Cup last year was proof of the ability in the ranks.

“We’re where we wanted to be,” says O’Rourke.

“If you’d asked me last autumn did I think we’d be in an All-Ireland final now? I probably did to be honest.

“I just felt that if we could get all the best players there and injury-free we’d have as good a chance as anyone.

“But with lads at this age, there’s a lot of work in terms of trying to get them to where you want them to be because everybody is learning and nobody moreso than myself and Stefan – we’re learning as we go with youngsters and trying to relate to them. It’s a bit easier for Stefan (a teacher at Holy Trinity College in Cookstown) because he’s teaching lads this age during the week, I have to get my game-face on before I turn up with them! I have to try and remember what it’s like to be 16-17 years’ of age!”

Armagh players, from left, Tomás Fox, Jack Loughran, Danny McGee and Michael Finnegan celebrate after their side's victory in the Electric Ireland GAA Football All-Ireland Minor Championship semi-final match between Armagh and Mayo at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park in Longford. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Tomás Fox, Jack Loughran, Danny McGee and Michael Finnegan celebrate an Armagh victory

EVEN if he does reel back the years to when he was his players’ age, time has moved on and today’s teens live in a different world. However, some things never change and hard work, attitude, commitment, willingness to learn are all still vital components for sporting success.

“In terms of where they’ve come from, the early stages of the year were all about trying to understand who can do what and what level they’re at and where can they possibly go over the next five or six months,” says O’Rourke.

“There’s a lot of trial and error with that and we’ve looked at a lot of players – everybody on the panel has played competitive football and making mistakes and losing an odd game is part of that.

“It has been a great year of development. The boys have really bought into it and, first and foremost, they’re a brilliant group of lads. You talk to the bus driver, or the man that cleans the dressingroom, or the girl that throws out the grub and the first thing they’ll tell you is they’re a great group of lads: Good manners, well-behaved, great attitude… The rest falls into place after that.”

From coaching underage teams at his club Dromintee, O’Rourke, a Sam Maguire winner with Armagh in 2002, was very well aware of the talent that was in the county but he stresses that himself and Forker are still developing their players.

They’re not “finished articles” he adds and sees coachability as the most important ingredient in any talented youngster.

“Coachability means the willingness to turn up and listen and understand that you’re not the finished article and to take the stuff that we give them away and work on it,” he explains.

“Hopefully they’ll have the support at home and they’re able to be told: ‘You’re not the finished article’. It’s just that openness the continually try and be better, that’s the key.”

There have been setbacks along the way. Armagh responded impressively to losing to Derry by 17 points in the Ulster minor championship group stage. The Oak Leafers beat them again in the Ulster final (but only by two points) and since that loss, Armagh have beaten Leinster champions Longford and, in the All-Ireland semi-final, Connacht champs Mayo.

“The Ulster final was a funny thing because we got credit for it when we didn’t play well and we were very frustrated after it,” says O’Rourke.

“It was a bit galling to be getting pats on the back because we felt that, if we had been anywhere close to our potential, we would have won the thing.

“It’s Derry in the All-Ireland final but irrespective of whether it was Derry or Kerry or whoever it’s a huge task but also a huge opportunity. The boys don’t have any fear of it – it’ll be a big day and a big occasion and the young fellas will have plenty of nerves but there’s nothing to be afraid of in terms of ability or capacity to compete and be at the level. They’ll be right there so we’re happy enough with that.”

Longford's Enda McGahern and Armagh's Aidan O'Rourke at the end of the Electric Ireland All-Ireland Minor Football Championship Quarter Final Between Longford and Armagh at the Kingspan Breffni Cavan on 06-08 2024.
Armagh minor manager Aidan O'Rourke has total belief in his players

THIS Armagh minor team includes surnames that resound in the county: Marsden, McGrane, Loughran, McEntee… Corner-back Conall Wilson’s dad Conor played on the Armagh side that reached the All-Ireland minor final in 1992 and his grandfather Mickey played for Down in the 1966 decider.

O’Rourke’s son Diarmaid is one of the Dromintee players in the squad. Had results gone against Armagh, conspiracy theorists might well have been sharpening their knives for the manager but his team’s success has justified his selection policy.

Anyway, he picks his players based on ability and attitude, not their club crest.

“Stefan’s job is to make sure there’s not too many Dromintee boys in teams and squads,” he says with a wry smile and nod towards assistant-manager Forker.

“Every time I run a list out he counts to see how many there are: ‘How many Sarsfields boys? How many Maghery boys?’ Listen, from our club point of view it’s great to have so many involved because that hasn’t always been the way for us, we’re just lucky that we have a group of players who have come through together and brought each other along and developed each other.

“To have that representation at county level is a very proud thing for Dromintee but when we’re looking at players we’re just looking at who can do a job whether that’s starting or coming in and when it’s picking a team or a squad the club doesn’t really matter.”

Nine clubs were represented in the team that started the semi-final against Mayo and Carrickcruppen youngster Shea Loughran (the team captain) led the way with four points as Armagh recovered from a nightmare start to win by seven at the finish.

“The players figured it out themselves,” said O’Rourke.

“It took them 10-12 minutes to settle into the game. They were very nervous for whatever reason, there were a couple of mistakes and we gave up a few scores early on (Mayo scored a goal in the first minute) and snatched at a couple of chances.

“It was maybe 10 minutes before we got a score on the board and you could have been forgiven for thinking it wasn’t going to be our day.

“But once they settled into the game they played as well from the 15-minute mark in the first half as they played in the second half… They settled into their groove, played their football, tackled hard and ran hard. They don’t need much guidance from us really.

“There’s a fair sprinkling of maturity and experience in terms of clubs and schools across the group.”

O’Rourke has a “fair sprinkling” of experience of his own over recent seasons and a lot of it was hard-earned. In 2022 he was enticed to join James McCartan in a hastily-assembled management team with Down for a season that did not go well.

Last year he joined Paddy Carr in Donegal. Carr resigned after a disappointing start and it was left to O’Rourke to step in as caretaker manager and do what he could to keep the ship afloat. Did those challenges help him to deal with this one?

“I don’t know,” he says.

“You just try and do the best you can do with whatever role you’re given. I’ve learned things everywhere I’ve gone and if I sat down and thought about how I coach a team now compared to how I coached a team five years ago or 15 years ago it’s all very different.

“You cut your cloth around the players you have and what’s best for them and coach accordingly. I’m sure all of those roles have influenced me as a coach – positive/negative or whatever – but I couldn’t tell you what that it is. Maybe when I sit down a write the book!”

Rory Grugan after Armagh's win over Mayo in the All-Ireland minor final at Croke Park in 2009

RORY Grugan and Andrew Murnin were part of the Armagh team that won the county’s last All-Ireland in 2009. They’ll both be in action the following weekend when Armagh meet Kerry for a place in this year’s senior final.

Their team-mates Oisin O’Neill and Jarly Og Burns were in the 2014 minor squad when Armagh last reached an Ulster final so, although silverware has been scarce, underage teams have been producing players for senior level.

“There’s a broader understanding across counties now that underage and developing players is so important,” says O’Rourke.

“Armagh have never been that far away really, we produce players every year, exceptional players and some of the best minors and U20s in the country but just not enough.

“We have more of them together now and that’s why we have a stronger team but Armagh always produce good players and there’s a lot of brilliant work going on in the Armagh clubs at the moment and it has been going on over the last 10 years’ that I’ve been involved at underage. That’s now mirrored at development squads as well – there’s a lot of brilliant work going on there as well and at each of those age grades we’re very competitive nationally.

“That doesn’t guarantee you anything – it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be in an Ulster final or an All-Ireland final at minors or U20s or anything else but it gives you raw materials that, with a bit of luck and everybody pulling the right way, could bring success.”

DAMIEN McErlain’s Derry are vying for back-to-back All-Ireland titles and the county’s third Tom Markham Cup success in five seasons.

The Oak Leafers have an impressive pedigree and track record of success but O’Rourke is confident that his Armagh players will handle the nerves and the occasion next Sunday.

“The boys don’t seem to get too high or too low and that’s exactly the type of person you want in your camp,” he says.

“We are just businesslike, training is on this evening and they turn up with the attitude that they’re there to work.

“We’ll get our plan, we’ll get our house in order and then we’ll go out to execute it on the day. That was the big thing in the Mayo game. In the second half we executed exactly what we wanted to do and that’s because the work was done, they’re homework was done… How to you prepare for the day? You have your work done, you have your training done and you go with the right attitude and hopefully it all comes off. We’re hoping we prepare them well, we bring them to the table and they’re hungry for it.

“The last time we played Derry we felt we under-performed so our mindset at the moment is to get ourselves right. We’re not that fussed or worried about Derry and we feel that if we’re focussed and the boys deliver what they’re capable of doing then they’ll win the match.

“Our focus is getting the lads right and their focus is on what they have to do. Derry are a very good team, of course they are, but we would feel that even since the Ulster final the lads have found a couple of new levels. Maybe there was a wee bit of claustrophobia about Ulster because as players they had played against each other in the league, in the group stages of the championship, in the Rannafast Cup, Corn nan Og Cup, MacRory Cup… It was the same players all the time.

“Once they got out of Ulster they played against the Connacht champions, they played the Leinster champions on new pitches in new environments and they realised how good they were. “So we would feel that over the last two games they’ve found a couple of new levels and if we remain at that level and produce our best then, Derry are going to be formidable opposition, but we would feel the game is in our control at this point.”