County Focus: Left beleaguered in Brewster Park but Armagh recover to reach cusp of Super 8s
STORY OF THE SEASON
AS they trudged from the Brewster Park field at the end of their stunning Ulster Championship exit to Fermanagh, the Armagh players appeared shell-shocked.
The Ernemen enjoyed the moment, and why wouldn’t they? But, after a Spring that promised so much, it was as bitter a pill as the Orchardmen have had to swallow during Kieran McGeeney’s tenure.
Losing out to Down in Newry the year previous had been unbelievably tough to take but was nothing compared to, above all else, the huge sense of frustration felt as they exited Enniskillen.
That Saturday night in May, they simply had no answer to Fermanagh’s robust, defensive game-plan. A team that had averaged over 16 points per game en route to the Division Three title managed only seven – with just two coming from play.
Rory Gallagher and his rejuvenated Ernemen had that date circled on the calendar from the start of the year. Promotion was a target, but taking Armagh’s scalp was non-negotiable.
Despite two earlier League meetings, a drab draw in the penultimate round of games and a two point Armagh win in the Division Three final, the Orchardmen weren’t ready for the intensity Fermanagh brought.
That was a harsh lesson but, in fairness to McGeeney’s men, they were clearly determined to ensure that game didn’t define their year. Looking back at the summer now, that goal was achieved.
Expectations had been raised heading into 2018 after their run to the All-Ireland quarter-finals the year before.
Yet, missing a long list of players which included that summer’s talisman, Jamie Clarke, the Orchard found themselves having to rebuild and remould once again.
Having missed out on promotion back to Division Two in heartbreaking fashion the year before, getting back up to the second tier was the early objective. They set the pace early, stayed in front and finished on top.
Five wins, one draw and one defeat in their final, meaningless game against relegated Wexford. Job done. Beating Fermanagh in the final at Croke Park was a bonus, though it was only ever going to be the battle before the war.
And when they were out-fought and out-thought by the Ernemen seven weeks later, they used the criticism as fuel rather than folding and falling through the trapdoor.
A handy draw helped of course. Westmeath were in bad nick by the time Armagh rolled into Mullingar, having been bounced out of Leinster with 10 points to spare by a bang average Laois side.
The Orchard went one better, 11 point winners as confidence slowly but surely ebbed back. Sligo, beaten 4-24 to 1-12 by Galway in Connacht, were put to the sword next to set up an Athletic Grounds showdown with Clare.
Trailing by four with three minutes left of a pulsating game in sweltering conditions, Armagh looked dead and buried. But a goal from Joe McElroy, added to Andrew Murnin’s excellent strike minutes earlier, proved the spark the Orchard needed as they rallied to rise again in spectacular fashion.
Bad memories of Brewster Park had long since been erased as suddenly Armagh found themselves one win away from the Super 8s. Another hugely entertaining game unfolded in Portlaoise, with Roscommon in the opposite corner this time.
End to end, joyful football, it was a pleasure to behold. Yet, watching on, you couldn’t help fear for whoever got across the line. Those concerns weren’t without foundation.
Roscommon pulled away late on to earn their spot in the Super 8s, where they were dutifully devoured by the big boys. A timely reminder, as if it were needed, of the yawning chasm that exists between the middle tier and the top – a reality that faces so many counties now, Armagh included.
WHAT THEY NEED
THEY could do with getting a lot of the players back who were unavailable last year for one reason or another.
Indeed, that inconsistency of selection is something that has been a major problem for Armagh in recent years – though injuries have played a part too - and needs to be remedied if real progress is to be made.
The Orchardmen reached the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2017 but, in the next campaign, were unable to call upon Jamie Clarke, Stefan Campbell, Ciaron O’Hanlon, James Morgan, Oisin O'Neill, Shea Heffron and the injured Paul Hughes.
Armagh aren’t lacking in quality forwards, with the likes of Andrew Murnin and captain Rory Grugan superb at times this year, but having men of the quality of Clarke and Campbell available would be a huge boost.
Clarke opted off the panel as he was New York-bound, and recently helped the Longford club to the county championship. However, it is looking increasingly likely that he will be available to Kieran McGeeney next year, which would be a huge boost.
Campbell, meanwhile, wasn’t at his best in 2017 but, on his day, would be an asset to any side.
There are few better defenders in Armagh than James Morgan, Paul Hughes is a class act while Oisin O’Neill has made an impression any time he has featured under Kieran McGeeney. Brother Rian is also rated extremely highly.
Something else Armagh need is a win in the Ulster Championship.
Across his four seasons in charge, McGeeney has yet to pick up a provincial win following first hurdle defeats to Donegal, Cavan, Down and Fermanagh.
Armagh were favourites to see off the Ernemen when they travelled to Brewster Park last May but were frustrated in their attempts to find a way through Fermanagh’s well-organised defence.
And while Rory Gallagher’s men went all the way to an Ulster final, a stage the Orchardmen haven’t graced since 2008, Armagh were forced to build again through the back door.
They have had reasonable success through the Qualifiers during McGeeney’s time, but must find a way to make that breakthrough in Ulster.
PATRICK Burns barely put a foot wrong. Has been around the panel in the last couple of seasons but the 25-year-old really grabbed his opportunity with both hands this year, delivering some strong performances as Armagh gained promotion from Division Three.
Quick, powerful and as good a man-marker as the Orchardmen have, the Forkhill man also impressed in the run through the back door.
Captain Rory Grugan led the line brilliantly at times, and an honourable mention must go to Aidan Forker as well.
Other than that night to forget in Brewster Park when the whole Armagh team under-performed, the experienced Maghery man was excellent, driving forward with the doggedness that has become his trademark and showing real leadership.
QUESTION marks were raised about Kieran McGeeney in the aftermath of Armagh’s Ulster Championship exit to Fermanagh, especially as it extended the county’s winless run in the province to four summers.
However, with a panel shorn of some star names, the Orchardmen recovered to enjoy a decent campaign, recording wins over Westmeath, Sligo and Clare before defeat to Roscommon saw them just miss out on the Super 8s.
Great to watch at times, you get the sense they are not that far away, and the 2002 All-Ireland winning captain will lead them into a fifth season under his watch hoping to build on 2018.
THROUGHOUT his time in charge, Kieran McGeeney has never shied away from introducing young blood into his panel.
Connaire Mackin (23) forced his way into the reckoning during the summer, and his height and athleticism could make the Shane O’Neill’s man a real asset in years to come.
Nineteen-year-old Ryan Owens impressed enough to feature in Championship, coming off the bench in the second half against Clare before starting the Super 8 shoot-out with Roscommon. That experience will stand to him.
Another teenager, the versatile Ross McQuillan from Cullyhanna, is highly-regarded.
He caught the eye with his pace after coming off the bench in that late, late victory over the Banner. Club-mate Jason Duffy could also find himself part of McGeeney’s plans next year.
Rian O’Neill is regarded as one of the top talents within the county, impressing in Crossmaglen’s championship campaign thus far. However, it remains to be seen whether he or brother Oisin – who opted off the Armagh panel last year – will be involved in 2019.
END OF THE LINE
BOTH 31, Brendan Donaghy and Charlie Vernon are among the elder statesmen on the Armagh panel yet there is no suggestion that either intends to leave the inter-county stage any time soon.
The two survivors from Armagh’s last Ulster title success 10 years ago are still going strong, and were regular fixtures for Kieran McGeeney throughout the summer.
Donaghy can still fill pretty much any position among the back six comfortably, while Vernon remains a stalwart at midfield.
Goalkeeper Patrick Morrison (34) finds himself behind Blaine Hughes in the pecking order but is not expected to walk away.
The only question mark hangs over Kevin Dyas. The Dromintee man, currently with Kilmacud Croke’s in Dublin, has battled back from hamstring and knee injuries when it looked as though he may never play competitive football again.
The 30-year-old featured in Armagh colours for the first time in three years towards the end of their Division Three final win over Fermanagh back in March, and came on as a substitute in the All-Ireland Qualifier defeat to Roscommon.
ARMAGH’S positive points difference as they secured promotion back to Division Two of the National League. Only Carlow posted a better points difference across the four divisions.
“At times you listen to a lot of shit outside – usually from people who haven’t a clue. They sit outside and they pontificate. I played against a lot of these fellas and they were f***ing useless back then and they’re still f***ing useless”
Kieran McGeeney didn’t mince his words after Armagh’s Qualifier exit to Roscommon