‘I can’t go home and be in bad form with a wee girl there who doesn’t understand why’ - Family life gives Armagh defender Paddy Burns a new perspective

Orchard county corner-back charts his journey from 16-year-old in junior football to first Ulster final against Donegal

Armagh’s Paddy Burns beats Donegal’s Oisin Gallen to the ball in the Division Two final at Croke Park, Dublin. Picture Mark Marlow
Armagh’s Paddy Burns beats Donegal’s Oisin Gallen to the ball in the Division Two final at Croke Park, Dublin. Picture Mark Marlow

TURKEY and ham, mince pies, Quality Street by the handful… Christmas Day is a time of eat-drink-and-be-merry for most of us.

But not Paddy Burns.

The Armagh defender is a driven man who prided himself on giving more than anyone else and that meant the ultimate sacrifice - training on Christmas Day.

“One year I went out running and I pulled a hamstring,” he says.

“I didn’t have the wherewithal that I couldn’t text the physio on Christmas Day. I was straight onto him: ‘I’ve pulled me hamstring here, can you do anything for me?’ The physio came back: ‘It’s Christmas Day Paddy, can you leave me alone…’”

He laughs as he thinks of how he used to be.

Things changed when Santa started calling at the Burns house in Burren. Paddy and his wife have their nine-month old daughter Clodagh to focus on now and last Christmas was the first one for a long while that he stayed put.

“I thought: ‘I’m with my family, I’m enjoying it’,” he says and, guess what, a little less intensity is working out for him.

This season he stayed injury-free and started every game – all eight in the League as Armagh romped to promotion back to Division One and the Championship wins over Fermanagh and Down – at corner-back.

On Sunday he’ll play in his first Ulster final.

“I’m loving it, I am loving it,” he says.

“I was thinking about that a few weeks ago. I’ve always taken it very seriously – I put a lot of time into training and preparing - as does every county player - but I think this year an element of that has actually come away a little bit.

“The baby in particular coming into the mix has taken the heat off the whole thing for me. I still plan the same way, I train hard and prepare well but there’s that tipping of perspective that has made the whole thing a bit more easier for me.

“I’m still gutted when we lose, I’m still delighted when we win… I still have the ups and downs but you go home and there’s something more important there to focus on. I’ve a great wife who would always have been good at getting me out of those dour moods when we lost but now I don’t have a choice – I can’t go home and be in bad form with a wee girl there who doesn’t understand why, so I just have to park it.”

Jemar Hall contributed to Forkhill's haul in Saturday's Armagh JFC final Picture by Hugh Russell
Jemar Hall progressed through the Forkhill ranks with Paddy Burns. Picture by Hugh Russell

YOU don’t have to dig down too deep to understand why he is so driven. He plays Division One football at club level with Burren these days but it was far from the top flight he was reared. His journey to Sunday’s Ulster final began 15 years ago when he was thrown into senior football for his native Forkhill in Armagh’s junior league at the age of 16. With the added impetus of Armagh team-mates Jemar Hall and then Stephen Sheridan, the club worked its way up to the top flight.

“I owe a huge debt to Forkhill,” he says.

“For all they did bringing me up and coaching me – I had some great coaches over the years. I started at junior - Jemar and I played, probably illegally, at 16 and we went up through the leagues to senior and we stayed up at senior for a year or two.

“We had a great journey and that put us on the radar in terms of getting called up for Armagh. It’s not the normal way but there probably aren’t as many counties who have as many players from intermediate and junior clubs as Armagh have done – we’ve had Forkhill players, Shane O’Neill’s (the Mackin brothers and Greg McCabe), Carrickcruppen (Blaine Hughes), Clonmore… We’ve had a lot of players from down the leagues and I don’t know whether that does anything in terms of hunger or attitude but I like to think that fellas from that level, when they get their chance, they have a bit more of a bit between their teeth because they know they’re doing well to be there and they want to push on and prove to themselves that they can be (county players).”

Armagh's Paddy Burns
Paddy Burns has been ever-present for Armagh this season (Philip Walsh)

MOVING on to the present day, he blushes a little when his own goal against Down is brought up. In all fairness, he couldn’t have done anything about it – Ceilum Doherty’s shot was saved by Blaine Hughes and the rebound hit Burns who was doing his best to get back and help out.

Just one of those things….

“Yeah, it was my first Championship goal, not a great one,” he says with a smile

“But we responded well to that, I think probably that is something we have done better this year, responding to setbacks.

“Even down in Cork we were ahead and reasonably comfortable, we gave a goal away and we came back and gave another goal away and we came back again to draw.

“That was a difficult night in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. We had Donegal in the League final, granted we didn’t win the game, we didn’t play well but we found a spell where we went at it and got level actually, so we have definitely got better at responding to setbacks and we can turn up the heat when that happens.

“You can chat to psychologists and you can read into all that type of thing but it really is about having a mental practice around what do you do when something goes wrong. A buzz word to yourself: ‘Next ball’.

“Do you look at something in the stand as a refocus to you? It is all about not dwelling on it when things happen, you can’t ignore it and say: ‘I didn’t just knee the ball into my own net…’ But at the same time, it’s done and you just have to practice responding to that.

“In training you are going to make mistakes too and the more mistakes you make, in a way, the better you become at being able to move on pretty quickly, because something is happening again and you have to be ready for the next play.

“It is like anything, the free-taker has their own skills, what they do, their little techniques, some of them speak to themselves and you see what I call the silly run-ups and that kind of thing.

“For them, that’s all muscle memory, exactly on what you are doing in that moment and it is the same thing when you respond to a mistake, I think.”

VICTORY... Armagh captain Jarlath Burns holds aloft the Anglo-Celt cup after his team’s decisive win over Down at Clones yesterday, Sunday August 1 1999.
Armagh captain Jarlath Burns holds aloft the Anglo-Celt cup after his team's decisive win over Down at Clones in 1999

LAST year was Armagh’s first Ulster final since 2008 and Burns missed out with injury. His uncle Jarlath captained the Orchard county to success in 1999, ending a 17-year wait for the Anglo-Celt and Paddy and cousin Jarly Og would dearly love to be part of ending the current 16-year drought.

“I was definitely hopeful (Armagh would get to another final),” he says.

“It was disappointing to miss it last year. I still got a few big games in after it in the All-Ireland series – I got a game in Croke Park (against Monaghan), I got the game against Galway in Carrick-on-Shannon… I got a few good games but it was a tough year and I feel, with the work I’ve put in over the years, it’s good to get the pay-off of getting a chance in one of these big days.

“I feel like I’ve earned it to an extent in terms of injury rehab and all that so it’s nice to get a chance.”

He missed out last year but he feels that the experience of being to an Ulster final will benefit his team-mates who played in the 2023 nerve-jangler against Derry.

“The bus journey to Clones, the Gardai getting the traffic out of the way, the crowds… Any experience of that you get sets you up well for the next year,” he says.

“But the Donegal fellas haven’t been away for too long. They have plenty of experience of it themselves so we’re both probably even at this stage.”

There is experience there and also bench strength and it was the Armagh subs who pushed Kieran McGeeney’s team over the line against Down at the semi-final stage. Oisin O’Neill, Aidan Nugent and Jason Duffy came on and got the last three scores as the Orchard county turned a two-point deficit into a one-point win.

“I am not superstitious person but I am going to touch a bit of wood, I think that (bit of luck) is long overdue,” says Burns.

“We have been unfortunate over the years with injuries to key players at bad times, so I think availability is great.

“Fellas put in a heck of a pre-season, trained really hard and got the miles in the legs and the science would say there is a big link about how much pre-season you get done versus how available you stay in the season and that seems to be paying off for us and it is leading to squad competition.

“There are fellas not making the 26 or 30 who are fantastic players in our squad and really driving the whole thing on with 15 v 15 in training, or if someone has a niggle and has to step out, you are not worried about who is stepping in and it is keeping training at such a high level.

“I would say this is the best period we have had of having everyone fit and long may it continue.”