Overview: A tale of near-misses
AT their best Armagh had the potential to beat anyone - anything less and they were just short.
In Division One it seemed they played within themselves at times and tried to do enough to get over the line without draining too much energy from the tank in a compressed season.
The campaign started with a win against Monaghan and the form line went up and down from then on to the dramatic final weekend. Throughout their season, Armagh enjoyed huge support and hordes in orange and white followed them to Austin Stack Park, Tralee from where they should have come home with at least a point from a defensive tussle.
However, the Kingdom finished well and nicked a win and that result turned out to be a pivotal moment in the Orchard League season.
Victory against Donegal followed but losing at home to Galway – again Armagh were overhauled on the home straight and pipped at the post – meant they went into the final round of games needing to beat Tyrone at Healy Park to be certain of maintaining their topflight status.
Even if they lost, Monaghan had to beat Mayo to leapfrog them. Against the odds, Monaghan did just that, Armagh lost in Omagh and so they dropped into Division Two after three seasons.
“There’s days like this you wish you could do more for them,” said manager Kieran McGeeney.
“You want to protect them and make sure that they’re seen in the right light. Unfortunately I let them down today.”
DESPITE the disappointment of relegation, Armagh looked forward to the Championship with optimism and they had a sympathetic draw with opposition from Division Three all the way to the final.
Antrim were blown away in the preliminary round and Cavan fluffed their first half lines in the quarter-final. Armagh were well ahead by the break but needed a brilliant goalline save from Rian O’Neill to prevent a Cavan comeback.
Old enemy Down were the opposition in the semi-final but the Mournemen were outclassed on a rainy day in Clones and Armagh won by 10 points to make their first Ulster decider since 2008.
Derry, the defending provincial champions, were rocked in the build-up by allegations that saw manager Rory Gallagher resign. However, the Oak Leafers proved a tough nut to crack and a Brendan Rogers goal meant they led at the break.
Armagh pushed hard in the second half but Derry (just about) contained them. The Orchardmen had their chances - they missed a long-range mark at the end of normal time - but when Rogers was black-carded for the first period of extra-time it seemed the door to the Anglo-Celt was open. However, Derry managed to hang in there and, with goalkeeper Odhran Lynch outstanding, they won on penalty kicks. Callum Cumiskey was Armagh’s only scorer.
Grade: B (could do better)
On to the Sam Maguire series. Armagh began their Group Two campaign against Westmeath. They were hot favourites to win but this time they got out of jail and it took a late goal from Conor Turbitt to get them over the line.
Still looking ‘hungover’ from their Ulster final loss, they passed up early goal chances in their round two clash with Tyrone and then lost Rian O’Neill to a straight red card. A drab affair finished in a two-point win for the Red Hands and left Armagh up against Galway in neutral Carrick-on-Shannon needing victory and other results to go their way to progress to the quarter-finals.
Ethan Rafferty saved a penalty and, although Sean Kelly did score a first half goal for the Tribesmen, McGeeney’s men produced their best performance of the season to win a game that was level 11 times by a point, top the group and earn a quarter-final clash against Monaghan at Croke Park.
Armagh had been positive and attacking from the start against Galway and their performance whetted the appetite for more against their Ulster neighbours.
It didn’t materialise. Monaghan doggedly hung onto their coattails in the first half and the introduction of Conor McManus added fresh impetus to their challenge in the second half.
Extra-time was required and again Armagh’s opponents were reduced to 14-men in the additional 20 minutes when Sean Jones was black-carded. Again Armagh couldn’t capitalise.
As the minutes ticked away, Rian O’Neill gave Armagh the lead but the Farneymen conjured up a free and the inevitable McManus stepped up and curled it over the bar to force a penalty shoot-out.
It went into a second round of kicks and Rory Beggan’s save meant Armagh were the bridesmaids once again.
Player of the Year
THROUGHOUT a fine season, the St Paul’s clubman looked confident and focussed. Injuries kept his light under a bushel for much of his career but Murnin stayed ahead of them in 2023 although he did hobble off in the crucial League decider against Tyrone and missed the Championship opener against Antrim.
Withdrawn to a midfield role at times but at his best at full-forward, Murnin saved his best scoring form for the All-Ireland series with 10 points from four games. He kept a lacklustre Armagh afloat against Westmeath with three points and did the same as the Orchardmen went toe-to-toe with Galway in their final group game.
Another trio of points followed in the quarter-final against Monaghan to bring his season’s tally to 1-20. A quality player with the size and skill to worry any defence, Armagh will hope for more of the same from the Lurgan native next year.
AFTER nine seasons, Kieran McGeeney’s reign as Armagh manager went into extra-time when the clubs were called to vote on his future at a well-publicised meeting last week.
After prolonged debate in clubrooms and on street corners throughout the county, the meeting itself was short and, with the backing of the county executive committee and the majority of the clubs, McGeeney received a strong mandate to continue into a 10th season.
McGeeney left no stone unturned in his quest for success last season. The team spent training weekends at Carton House and worked furiously towards the definitive breakthrough that remained tantalizingly out of reach.
Armagh lost just once in open play in the Championship and even then by just two points against Tyrone at Healy Park. Critics argued that both games that were lost on penalties should have been won in normal time but an inability to seize the moment and change tactics cost Armagh.
However, Armagh will never come closer to winning an Ulster Championship or reaching an All-Ireland semi-final and supporters will hope that next year will be the year that fortune finally favours their manager and turns his team from contenders to champions.