AFTER a glass or two of the house red on Easter Sunday, my brother-in-law slagged us that Armagh were like “a bad bra”.
“What are you on about?” I asked.
“All support and no cups,” he answered to roars of derision around the table.
And him from ‘mighty’ Longford!
In fairness I could see his point although I didn’t admit it – cups have been in short supply over the past few years but Armagh do have very loyal supporters.
Last week I had the privilege of talking to Sean Rice who played and scored the last time Antrim beat Armagh in the Ulster Championship. That was almost 60 years’ ago in 1964 and back then Armagh had neither cups nor a big support. Back then it was two men and a reluctant dog at many of the games and one of the men might well have been a fella called ‘Bim’ Rafferty.
When I was growing up Bim was our milkman and he was as passionate a GAA supporter as it is possible to be.
I can remember on dark winter evenings listening for the front gate to open and hearing him coming up the path to our house. As he was putting the milk bottles on the window sill and lifting the empties, I would pull back the curtain…
“Up Armagh,” I would shout.
“Up Armagh,” answered Bim.
That was our exchange evening after evening after evening.
And he never missed a match. Indeed he turned up for one game – in the 1960s I think – and Armagh didn’t have enough players to field so Bim was called out of the stand and had to fill in at corner-forward until the rest of the players turned up.
Isn’t that every fans’ dream? To be called out of the crowd and asked to play for your county!
I remember going to a game with him and his son John who, I’m sure to Bim’s immense pride and pleasure, went on to play for Armagh for many years as an all-action, man-marking corner-back.
One of John’s team-mates was of course Kieran McGeeney and the support for his teams over the last few seasons – despite regular setbacks - has been incredible.
Inspired by last year’s Championship run, the Orchard faithful followed Armagh in droves to every game in the League this year. There’s nothing like playing in Division One to get the support out. Playing a Dublin or a Kerry or a Mayo is always a big draw and that’s why relegation last month was such a setback for Armagh and why promotion was so timely and necessary for Derry.
The Athletic Grounds was packed for every match this year but the travelling support at the Kerry match was something special. There wasn’t a room to be had in Tralee and I heard of people who had to make the four-hour drive back home after the game. Nothing would put them off.
The Orchard players (and in fairness all county players) do their best to encourage and reward their supporters. I haven’t seen a player from any county get off the field with his gloves yet this season and selfies and autographs are given to every youngster who wants them before anyone leaves the pitch.
The game that night in Tralee didn’t come close to matching the occasion and the match itself was a bad advert for modern football. Armagh went down looking for a point and they almost got it and, in fairness, if they had it would have kept them up.
A couple more losses and Armagh went down but throughout the League I had the distinct impression that they’ve been holding a bit back. It’s not as if they put out the reserves but Armagh seemed to be content to grind out results and get enough points to survive.
The gamble didn't pay off and the real Armagh, the team the fans have flocked to watch, will appear in the Championship. Even last Sunday, if Armagh had really needed them, if it had been an Ulster final or even a semi-final, would we have seen Rian O’Neill, Andrew Murnin and Jarly Og Burns? I think we would.
Armagh won comfortably without them which is a setback for Antrim who were desperately disappointing, particularly in the first, crucial, 25 minutes when they looked rudderless and played as collection of individuals.
McGeeney is in his ninth season as Armagh manager and, if Antrim are going to get anywhere close to where they are (and it’s not that long since Armagh were in Division Three) Andy McEntee will need to stay with the Saffrons and he will need the majority of Saturday’s squad to stay with him.
A couple of seasons of this and then a couple of seasons of that is getting Antrim nowhere and their lack of support at the Athletic Grounds was another disappointing factor about the Ulster opener.
Expectations in Antrim are low while in Armagh they are always at a fairly high level. They dipped after relegation but you can be absolutely sure that they’ve rocketed back up again after that nine-point walk-in-the-park win.
Next up is Cavan who have their fanatics too and plenty of them. When the Breffni county won the last of their five All-Ireland titles in 1952 there wasn’t electricity in most homes but, 70 years on, youngsters are still brought up on the proud history of their county and the passion for football in Cavan remains insatiable.
There’s always an atmosphere and an edge at Kingspan Breffni. The Cavan crowd there like to see direct, attacking football and the Armagh support want the same so the battle on April 22 should be something to behold.
My brother-in-law will be there.
All support and no cups? We’ll see…
VERY sad news last week that Jim McKeever had passed away.
I never met him but I knew of his career as a brilliant footballer and I knew of his reputation throughout Ireland and beyond as ‘Gentleman Jim’.
He was the Derry captain in their first-ever All-Ireland final and the inaugural Gaelic Footballer of the Year in 1958. Alongside that he had a massive impact on the development of Gaelic Games in Ulster because of the passion for coaching he passed down to so many of the men and women who came through St Mary’s College in Belfast during his time there.
Mickey Harte, Art McRory, Peter Canavan and Peter McGennity are just a few of the many future managers and county stars who were coached by the late Ballymaguigan doyen.
Another man who was inspired by Jim during his time at St Mary’s was Jarlath Burns, the next President of the GAA.
Jim McKeever’s legacy are the coaching skills that will inspire the boys and girls who will play our games for generations to come.