Kieran McGeeney’s Ulster Championship debut as manager was a tough day but Armagh are “different animal” now says McBrearty

Paddy McBrearty struck for an early goal as Donegal routed Orchardmen in Ulster Championship opener

Paddy McBrearty scored an early goal (his second in Championship football) when Donegal beat Armagh in 2015
Paddy McBrearty scored an early goal (his second in Championship football) when Donegal beat Armagh in 2015

KIERAN McGeeney’s first taste of the Ulster Championship as manager wasn’t one he’ll remember with any fondness.

The scene was set – blue sky and a pitch of emerald green at a packed Athletic Grounds – but the 2015 quarter-final was over before the break. Half-time was a blessing for the Armagh players and they ran for the tunnel while the Donegal players dandered to the middle of the field to shoot the breeze.

Stefan Campbell, Ethan Rafferty (in midfield then), Aidan Forker and Andrew Murnin (who made his Championship debut) are Armagh’s survivors from that chastening day while Ryan McHugh and his Kilcar clubmate Paddy McBrearty are still motoring on for Donegal.

It was McBrearty who got the visitors’ first score – a goal – after he’d leapt above James Morgan to grab Neil Gallagher’s up-and-under.

“We got 1-3 on the bounce at the start of the game and kind of sucked the life out of them,” he recalls.

“I think we beat them in the All-Ireland quarter-final the year before (2014) in Croke Park. We had a bit of a run on them then, I think we went on and lost Ulster final that year to Monaghan, but a lot of players have come and gone since. There are not many boys left, so it’s a new game really and Armagh a different animal now. They’ve been in an Ulster final themselves, but I think every game is different, we’re a different team from 2022 and Armagh would probably see themselves as a different team.

“They’ve been close to getting to an All-Ireland semi-final and All-Ireland finals, so I think they’ve more experience under their belts in terms of big games. Every time you play them, they are tough opposition. They’ve yet to get over the line in terms of the Ulster Championship and I’m sure there’s big motivation in their dressingroom now.”

Armagh are “a different animal” and McBrearty, who at 30 could still have his best days ahead of him, has developed from the rookie in 2015 to the team skipper nine years’ later. Times have changed but his role remains the same – get scores.

“You’re nearly told what to do by Jim (McGuinness) and you just do it,” he says.

Andrew Murnin's shot is blocked by Eoin McEvoy. Picture: Philip McEvoy
Andrew Murnin made his Ulster Championship debut against Donegal in 2015

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s 2011 or 2024, it’s the same messages that he is trying to drill across. It’s just a title at the end of the day – captain – Jim is the main voice in the dressing room and he covers everything and makes everyone else’s job easy.”

Armagh came as close as it’s possible to come to landing a first Ulster title since 2008 when they lost last year’s final against Derry via a penalty shootout. McBrearty knows all about disappointment at Clones – during his time Donegal have lost as many finals as they’ve won and the ease with which he lists the defeats tells you the memories don’t sit easily with him.

“We haven’t won an Ulster Championship since 2019,” he stresses.

“This is our 10th final in 12 years, we’ve won five of them, lost five of them. We’ve had great days in Clones and a lot of bad days in Clones.

“In 2015 and ‘16 there was a kick of a ball between us against Monaghan and Tyrone. In 2020, that day up in Armagh against Cavan was a bad one for us and then 2022 against Derry, we were two points up with maybe three or four minutes to go in normal time…

“We felt we kicked it away that day in extra-time. There’s a lot of places you can pin-point, but on the ultimate day you didn’t win the game. Small margins, it was the same against Tyrone this year, it’s the small margins that ultimately wins the games.

“If Mark Curran doesn’t go up and knock the ball out of Niall Morgan’s hands, Tyrone probably win the game. It’s the small margins in big games that end up winning them.

“So there’s a lot of lads there that are going for their third (Ulster medal), a lot of boys going for their fourth and then there’s a lot of lads going for their first. There are different motivations, but I think within the group there’s massive motivation to win another one.”

Small margins on the sideline count too. McBrearty admits he was struggling to get going against Tyrone. To be taken off at half-time was a kick in the teeth for a player of his experience but he was thrown back in during extra-time and responded with a trademark score.

“We didn’t attack well at all in the first half,” he explains of that Ulster semi-final.

“We needed something else up front, really. I think we did start to attack better in the second half. It’s just horses for courses, some days it works, some days it doesn’t.

“I felt I was fresher coming on for extra time when Tyrone started fatiguing so it worked out well in the end.”

“There was no conversation at all. Jim told me: ‘You’re going back in at full-time so go out and warm-up’. That was it, really. There wasn’t much conversation. The boys did a massive job to get back, I think we were three points down at half-time.

“We got back level, Tyrone went three points up again, we got back level again. Really, really good resilience from that.”

Donegal’s spell of dominance over Armagh continued from 2015 to a one-sided Ulster semi-final in 2020 and an emphatic quarter-final win in 2022. But Armagh avenged that loss later that season with a 10-point victory in the Qualifiers and there was little between the teams this year in Division Two.

Donegal defender Caolan McColgan closes down Conor Turbitt as Armagh go on the attack. Picture Mark Marlow
Conor Turbitt of Armagh on the attack in this year's Division Two final. Picture Mark Marlow

Over the years the pendulum has swung back-and-forth and McBrearty recalls how Armagh won three Ulster finals between the counties in the noughties.

“We were living in Dublin at the time and supporting Donegal obviously,” he adds.

“I left Croke Park a lot of days with tears in my eyes with Donegal losing, but that was a great Armagh team, they obviously went on to dominate Ulster really until 2008. I remember those games a lot. Mickey Hegarty from my own club would have been playing and Armagh would have an upper hand on Donegal back then.

“We left Dublin when I was 10 and thrown straight into Kilcar then and it was all about wanting to play for Kilcar and hoping one day to play for Donegal.

“Luckily Jim gave me the call when he did, there was no real negotiation about it - I jumped at the opportunity. Donegal hadn’t won an Ulster title in 20 years at that point and thankfully we’ve gone on to win a few now. Donegal is a different place now to when I started playing.”