Andy Watters: Getting over the finishing line is all that matters after Armagh’s marathon effort

Jim McGuinness Midas touch puts wind up the Orchard county for Ulster Championship decider

Rory Grugan and Armagh fans celebrate victory over Galway. Picture: John Merry
Rory Grugan and Armagh fans celebrate victory over Galway last year. Picture: John Merry

THE leg I ran in the Belfast marathon was seven miles (well, 7.1 to be exact) and that was plenty. Grainne McCoy ran the first four in our relay team and when she handed the baton over I ran as hard as I could until I saw Cahair O’Kane standing grinning on the Boucher Road ready to take over and do his bit (a much less impressive 4.2 miles).

I was glad to get finished.

Afterwards I headed back to my friend Marty’s house in Derriaghy, had a shower, knocked about, ate half a pizza, went to get the bus into Belfast, stood waiting at the bus stop for half-an-hour, no bus arrived, walked back to the house, got into the car, made it to the Ormeau Road, drove round and round until we found a parking spot, walked to the Errigle Inn, put two quid in the poker machine as I waited for Marty to get served at the packed bar, found a seat, drank the pint of Guinness.

Then I got a phonecall.

“Quick, Sinead is running past the Errigal now,” my wife explained.

I hopped up and went out, weaved through the crowd and looked down the Ormeau Road. My sister-in-law Sinead was doing the full marathon so she had started long before me and was still running – with a sore knee and a sore hip and all – long, long after I was finished.

One of the thousands of absolute legends who really pushed themselves to the limit over 26 miles, she ran through the pain barrier to raise money for Cancer Focus in memory of her great friend Nicola who so sadly passed away long before her time a few years ago.

Sinead ran for over five and-a-half hours and there were others who finished long after her, but who cares how long it took? All that matters is getting out there and getting over that line.

The Armagh players will feel the same about Sunday’s Ulster final. Win by 10 points, win by one, win ugly, get lucky… It doesn’t matter, just get over the line.

Ever since Kieran McGeeney took over as manager people have been saying there is an Ulster Championship in Armagh. Year after year they have been tipped and, as we all know, year after year they have fallen short.

We used to marvel at Mayo’s persistence as they strove for the Sam Maguire. Hordes of adoring fans followed them wherever they went and they watched them find new ways to lose. So close so often against Dublin and then they beat the Dubs in the 2021 semi-final and faced Tyrone in the final. It has to be their year, we thought.

Sam never went West.

Regardless of what they’ve won or will win, the entertainment this Armagh side has given their fans should never be discounted but if they are going to win an Ulster title, Sunday surely has to be their time.

Stalwarts Rory Grugan, Stefan Campbell, Aidan Forker, Andrew Murnin, Ethan Rafferty, Paddy Burns, Mark Shields, James Morgan have been soldiering on throughout McGeeney’s 10 seasons at the helm.

Take Grugan, an All-Ireland minor winner in 2009, for an example. He has been at the coalface for his county for approaching 15 years now and he is playing as well as ever. Indeed, he scored a point in the League final against Donegal earlier this year which may have been the best of his long career.

When he plays well, Armagh invariably play well but his story is Armagh’s story – so near, and yet so far. There was the Qualifier against Mayo in Castlebar when he made a brilliant run but his shot hit the crossbar. Armagh lost by a point.

Jim McGuinness has the instinct and the confidence to do the right things at the right time as manager. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

There was the Ulster final last year when his mark looked destined to be the winner but then the ball was caught by a gust of wind blown by some sorcerer in the Sperrins and dropped just short. Derry won on penalties.

Grugan showed remarkable resilience last year to take a late free against Galway in Carrick-on-Shannon and get Armagh over the line in a game they could easily have lost.

Given all their close calls over the last decade, only the most hard-core Down or Tyrone supporter could begrudge Armagh an Ulster title.

They’ve earned one, they deserve one…

“Cry me a river,” say Donegal who will be every bit as hungry on Sunday.

The Tir Chonaill men have gone five years without an Ulster title and, like Armagh, they’ve snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory.

There was the Ulster final against Cavan in 2020 when they out-scored the Breffnimen 7-1 at one stage and then went to sleep and lost. Then Derry a couple of years ago when they all seemed to be waiting on someone else – usually Michael Murphy – to win the title for them.

What has changed? Jim McGuinness has returned and the man has the Midas touch. He doesn’t reinvent the wheel but he has the instinct and the confidence to do the right thing at the right time. Is that genius?

Would another manager have been brave and ruthless enough to take Paddy McBrearty – the captain and so often the star man – off at half-time in the semi-final? No, most would leave him on hoping he would click but McGuinness had seen enough and he acted decisively.

And there was more. McBrearty accepted McGuinness’s decision. It actually got better out of him. There was no huffing, no spitting out the dummy. He went back on for extra-time and scored a brilliant point.

McGuinness puts the wind up Armagh fans. They might curse their luck and ask: “Why did he have to come back now, when we’re so close?”

But he can’t go out on the field and if you go through the personnel, there’s nothing between the teams on Sunday.

Belief will win the day and getting over the line is all that counts…