Neil Loughran: Do Armagh really merit such great expectations among their own?

Orchard may be maxing out on potential by challenging top dogs, rather than falling short

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

Shane Mc Partland shows his frustration after seeing his penalty saved by Donegal's Shaun Patton at the end of Sunday's Ulster final. Picture by Philip Walsh
Shane Mc Partland shows his frustration after seeing his penalty saved by Donegal's Shaun Patton at the end of Sunday's Ulster final. Picture by Philip Walsh

IT was just an hour after Sunday’s dramatic Ulster final when, with the pulse finally starting to settle, Eamon McGee whipped out the phone and sent a tweet aimed squarely in the direction of former team-mate Mark McHugh.

“Mark is the happiest man in Donegal with that Patton save,” said the Gaoth Dobhair man, “he was in for a tight night of abuse otherwise.”

There was a smiley emoji too, don’t worry. How could there not be after watching the Tir Chonaill pip Armagh on penalties to ensure the Anglo-Celt was headed for the Hills?

McGee was referring to an RTE radio interview last Saturday where McHugh suggested Armagh people “think they’re a lot better than they are”; that they had placed themselves “on a pedestal”, before adding the killer caveat.

“Wait for the fall...”

Son of a Donegal legend, a central part of the 2012 All-Ireland winning side during Jim McGuinness’s first spell in charge, now a respected coach and pundit, McHugh’s opinion already carried more weight than most.

But, with his brother Ryan on the starting team, that perceived proximity to proceedings added another layer of danger/mischief to his words on the eve of such a huge day.

We don’t get too many incendiary comments before big games any more. Long gone are the days of ‘Babs’ Keating’s infamous “you can’t train donkeys to win derbies” quip ahead of the 1990 Munster hurling final.

Yet straight away there was old school patter about how Armagh would have the story pinned to the wall in Clones. That Kieran McGeeney would be spittin’. That this, yes this, was ALL the motivation the Orchard needed.

Be damned those hours of tactical planning and analysis, the painstaking hours spent in the gym across years and years, because idle talk is akin to injecting spinach into Popeye’s veins once the white line is crossed.

The reality is likely a fair bit removed from conjured images of Armagh eating their way through the changing room door to get at Donegal. There is a good chance that, far from being enraged and insulted, McGeeney actually agreed with McHugh’s sentiments.

Because no county in Ireland commands the kind of interest, relative to recent achievement, than Armagh.

One All-Ireland title ever. No Ulster title since 2008, two Ulster final appearances in the 16 years between, the Orchard haven’t been beyond the All-Ireland quarter-final stage since that epic 2005 showdown with Tyrone.

Of the last 11 National League campaigns, only two were spent in the top tier. Yet the enduring promise and hope that McGeeney can spearhead a return to the kind of glory days last seen during his own playing pomp brings supporters out in their droves every time.

Kieran McGeeney is in his 10th year in charge of Armagh. Picture by Philip Walsh
Kieran McGeeney is in his 10th year in charge of Armagh. Picture by Philip Walsh

There is an intrigue around this group of players, its manager – even though he divides opinion within the county - that simply doesn’t exist in other places. Take media coverage as a guide. On the morning of the Ulster final, Malachy Clerkin of The Irish Times and Michael Foley of The Sunday Times both rolled out pieces about their peaks and troughs.

Our own paper has dedicated countless column inches to the same subject, and will no doubt continue to do so in the weeks, months and years ahead. Radio stations and podcasts were full of Armagh in the days leading into the final.

Heading to Clones on Sunday it was difficult to shift the sense that, irrespective of what happened or who won, the fall-out would focus on them.

Yet the net result of all this attention is a level of expectation that has not, and maybe cannot be matched, leading to subsequent crushing despair when things don’t work out.

Losing to Donegal was a hammer blow, especially as it came via a fourth penalty shoot-out defeat in under two years, following on from Galway in the summer of 2022, then the Ulster final against Derry and All-Ireland quarter-final against Monaghan last year.

Had they got over the line on any of those occasions, and particularly those provincial deciders – when, let’s not forget, Armagh had unquestionably come through the handier side of the draw - who knows what kind of galvinising effect it might have had on the players and the county as a whole?

Or maybe it only serves to embolden those expectation levels, with Sam Maguire the only silverware that matters?

After Sunday’s defeat, the post-mortem inevitably, and rightly, focused on the fact Armagh led by four points approaching the midway point of the second half. McGeeney has long looked on with envy at how the likes of Dublin and Kerry put their boot on opponents’ throats once any bit of control is seized.

During his decade at the helm, it is something the Orchard have never quite been able to master. For a team so far along in its development, the indications are they never will.

As a result, Armagh have become everybody’s ultimate ‘ah but they might’ or ‘on any given day’ team – hence why hope is never allowed to leave the building. That’s a great place to be, and so many counties would be only too delighted to assume that role.

Yet so many Orchard supporters seem to be stuck between two stools. When Armagh win, it’s because of the players. When Armagh lose, it’s because of McGeeney. The social media outpouring is often swift and brutal when the dust is still settling on the sorest of defeats.

But would they even be in the position to challenge without him? Talk to Armagh player past and present, on or off the record, and almost all will eulogise about the “culture” McGeeney has created among the county panel.

Perhaps, rather than failing to meet expectations, Armagh are actually maxing out. Their athleticism is scary. In terms of personnel, any county where Ross McQuillan doesn’t make the matchday 26 must have an embarrassment of riches at its disposal.

For the first time, perhaps at any stage under McGeeney, there is a really settled look to the side.

But the likes of Stefan Campbell, Andy Murnin and Rory Grugan (all 32) and Aidan Forker (31) are closer to the end than the beginning. Gems like Peter McGrane will continue to come through but, without any meaningful underage success over the past decade and more, there is no guarantee the Orchard will continue to rub shoulders with the best in the land for years to come.

Success and silverware are what everybody strives for, but not everyone can have them.