GAA Football

The Blaine Game: How Hughes came to end McGeeney's search for a number one

Blaine Hughes was a surprise addition to the Armagh panel last year, but he has made the goalkeeper's position his own with a string of impressive performances. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Neil Loughran

AS calls out of the blue go, this one was up there. Just shy of a year on from his last U21 game, Blaine Hughes was happily playing away with the club – wing-forward, centre-forward, he didn’t mind.

Working as a joiner in Dublin, it was early starts and late finishes. When he wasn’t spending spare hours on the golf course, Hughes looked forward to getting out on the field and stretching the legs.

He had worn number one on his back as St Paul’s, Bessbrook claimed All-Ireland honours in 2012, represented Armagh at minor and U21 and played the part of teenage debutant for Warrenpoint Town in the Irish League days after his 18th birthday.

But that was then.

Barring the odd emergency appearance between the sticks, the goalkeeper’s gloves had been safely stowed away.

Now Hughes was the one making the runs he once craved from outfield players, that smooth as silk kicking technique making him a natural candidate for the role of free-taker in chief with St Patrick’s, Carrickcruppen.

Fast forward to early February 2017 and an obstructed bowel robs Paddy Morrison of an entire National League campaign before a ball has even been kicked.

Had it burst, doctors told the Armagh Harps ‘keeper he would have had only a 20 per cent chance of survival. Emergency surgery left Morrison happy to be alive but facing a long road back to recovery while, for Kieran McGeeney, it was another injury headache he could do without.

The Orchardmen paid the price on the field too. Having surrendered a six-point lead to draw in Sligo before snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in a bizarre home clash with Laois, their bid to bounce straight back up to Division Two was floundering.

Ciaron O'Hanlon recommended Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney give Blaine Hughes an opportunity. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

It was at this point Hughes received a call he hadn’t been expecting.

“I wasn’t on the squad at all before but then Kieran got in touch before the third game in the League. I hadn’t done nets in about a year or so at that stage, but he said he had heard good reports about me.

“Ciaron O’Hanlon actually mentioned my name and then whatever way it happened Kieran said he’d give me a shot, see what I performed like at training.

“I ended up training on the Tuesday, trained on the Thursday, and then started against Longford on the Sunday. When I got called in I never thought I would’ve been anywhere near contention at the start - it’s mad how quick it happened.”

O’Hanlon had been on the same all-conquering St Paul’s team before being parachuted into the Armagh senior ranks in 2013, and knew what Hughes could bring to the table.

Still, following the lead of his golf buddy wasn’t on the 21-year-old’s radar. It just hadn’t registered.

Yet within months he was being talked about in the same breath as established figures like Niall Morgan of Tyrone and Monaghan’s Rory Beggan.

Indeed, by the end of the summer Hughes – who has since swapped joinery for stock control with Morgan Fuels - found himself watching and learning from those two men at the closest of quarters after being invited to Ireland’s International Rules training by Joe Kernan.

However, as Hughes trudged off the Pearse Park pitch after that first start against Longford, he feared his inter-county career could be over before it had even begun.

Armagh had won, a crucial two points to kick-start their campaign, but the three goals conceded left a bitter taste. In those earliest of days there was little sign of the meteoric rise to come.

But McGeeney kept the faith and was repaid in spades. Three shut-outs followed, with a crucial penalty save from Antrim’s CJ McGourty sparing Armagh blushes at the Athletic Grounds as he started to find his feet.

“To be fair, I would be confident in my ability but Kieran gave me massive help in that respect,” added Hughes, who was the seventh ‘keeper used during McGeeney’s time in charge.

“Kieran and the psychologist, Hugh Campbell… I would go to him a good bit to sort of boost the confidence.

“You’d be doing goal-setting, visualisation, that sort of thing, but having the backing of a manager is very important. If you’re a bit panicky thinking ‘I played bad there’, Kieran will back you up.

“Like, I played bad in that first game against Longford, but he said ‘relax, it’s your first game, there’s plenty more to come’. It had been a lot to take in, only coming in and getting to know the boys, so I was just glad to hear that.

“I went from thinking I was way out of my depth after the game to saying to myself ‘I’m better than that’.

“Once I had a couple more games in the League and found a bit of form I thought now that I have this spot, I’m keeping it. That was my mindset.”

Standing at 5”11, Hughes is not the biggest or the most physically imposing goalkeeper, but he is growing into a dominant figure for the Orchard.

And while a run of clean sheets in the League helped build confidence, it was Hughes’s conviction from kick-outs that suggested a gem had been unearthed.

A dramatic late catch in the Qualifier win over Tipperary will live long in the memory, but it was his dead-eyed accuracy against Kildare the next day that really made people sit up and take notice.

And while Jamie Clarke deservedly got much of the post-match praise for his attacking tour de force at Croke Park, it was the variety and eye-of-a-needle accuracy of Hughes’s kick-outs that laid the foundations for victory.

Even the wise men in The Sunday Game studio sat up and took notice.

“One of the boys actually said to me to watch it and I ended up going to somebody’s house and they showed me it – I couldn’t really get my head round it. It’s hard to explain. It took me by surprise a bit,” said Hughes.

“But in terms of the kick-outs, the soccer background definitely helped, big time. In soccer you’re on your toes the whole time. The likes of Niall Morgan and Stephen Cluxton have soccer backgrounds and you can tell that.

“There’s probably a big element of backing yourself too; knowing you’re capable of hitting those sorts of kick-outs. When you get a couple in-a-row, keeping 100 per cent retention, that’s when your confidence starts to build.

“You just have to stay calm. It would be very easy to lose the head after one bad kick-out, but when you’re playing Championship football, you can’t show any weakness.”

Tyrone’s full court press left Armagh chasing shadows as the journey came to an end on a day of radically contrasting fortunes from the Orchard’s previous visit to Jones’s Road a week earlier.

It was an 18-point defeat that would have sucked the hope from lesser men, especially a starry-eyed newcomer. But Hughes is made of sterner stuff and can’t wait for another taste of Championship action – starting against Fermanagh on May 19.

“We didn’t play to our game-plan or to our capability that day. I’d say all of our team going into that game had full confidence we were going to win. I was fully confident we were going to win, but it wasn’t to be.

“But that was my first Championship run and I ended up getting out in Croke Park a couple of times which was brilliant.

“Hopefully we can get back there this time too.”

Armagh are well staffed when it comes to man-markers, with Aaron McKay a tough man to get the better of. Picture by Hugh Russell

STRENGTHS

THIS Armagh team is pretty solid looking right across the board. Defensively, they have cut out some of the individual errors that blighted their League campaign last year when missing out on promotion.

Aaron McKay is a fine man-marker, while Forkhill’s Paddy Burns has made a real impression in his first year on the panel. Brendan Donaghy brings bags of experience, although Paul Hughes would be a big loss if he fails to recover from injury in time for the Fermanagh game.

There is no shortage of options at midfield either, with Stephen Sheridan, Charlie Vernon, Niall Grimley, Ben Crealey and Aaron Findon all in contention. Sheridan, one of Armagh’s driving forces last season, tweaked his hamstring playing with Forkhill last month but should be okay for May 19.

In the forward division, Ethan Rafferty top-scored in the League and, along with the excellent Andrew Murnin, is an obvious outlet if the Orchard decide to go long instead of building from the back.

Captain Rory Grugan showed his class at times through the League, Aidan Forker is a real leader while the pace and industry of Ryan McShane could be an asset as Kieran McGeeney’s men carry the tag of dark horses into the Ulster Championship.

Jamie Clarke was Armagh's star forward during the Orchard's run to the All-Ireland quarter-final last year. Picture by Seamus Loughran

WEAKNESSES

THEY may not have needed them to get out of Division Three this time around, but the absence of men like Jamie Clarke, Stefan Campbell and the O’Neill brothers from Crossmaglen could catch up with Armagh as the summer wears on.

Campbell struggled for form last year but, on his day, is one of the better forwards in Ulster while Clarke was the talismanic figure who was crucial in big Qualifier wins over Tipperary and Kildare.

The two O’Neills – Oisin and Rian – are serious footballers too and would be a major asset to any panel in the province.

Occasionally guilty of panicking in front of the posts and failing to take the opportunities that present themselves, there is no doubt Kieran McGeeney’s hand would be strengthened could he call on that quartet – especially if Ethan Rafferty, rated very doubtful for the Fermanagh game, and Rory Grugan fail to shake off injuries.

In terms of what was achieved during the spring, Armagh achieved their objective in gaining promotion, but playing in the third tier is hardly the best preparation for Championship – as evidenced by the gulf in class when they came up against Tyrone at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage last summer.

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