GAA Football

County focus: Plenty to build-on but Armagh will look back on missed opportunities in 2019

Rian O'Neill scored 2-1 as Armagh defeated Monaghan in their All-Ireland qualifier clash at Clones. Picture by Sportsfile
Neil Loughran

Story of the Season

JUST over a year earlier, it was Fermanagh who had inflicted the most bitter of blows on Armagh when sending them spiralling out of the 2018 Ulster Championship – yet it was victory over the Ernemen that got the Orchard up and running in 2019.

Prior to that make-or-break clash with Rory Gallagher’s side, Armagh had taken four points from five games courtesy of draws with Kildare and Clare and victory over Tipperary.

In both drawn games, Kieran McGeeney’s men looked to have the game won before events conspired against them. In Newbridge, Armagh were the better side and led by four well into the second half – only for the Lilywhites to battle back and level with the last kick of the game.

Forced to host the Banner in Newry after being slapped with a ban for their pre-Championship excursion abroad in 2018, more frustration lay ahead as a controversial David Tubridy goal at the death snared a share of the spoils for Clare.

“The second goal came off Stephen Sheridan’s hand and came off the post and on our video it doesn’t look like it crossed the line but the Meath umpires think it did,” said an unimpressed McGeeney, whose side would meet Meath the following weekend.

They lost to the Royals and Donegal either side of a win over Tipp, leaving the Orchard right in the relegation mix heading towards the final two games.

Welcoming Fermanagh to Crossmaglen, Armagh needed a win – though few were tipping them to do so.

After all, the Ernemen had successfully neutralised their attacking threat the previous summer, and Gallagher’s men harboured serious promotion ambitions after coming into that game unbeaten.

Substitute Ethan Rafferty's well-taken goal after 62 minutes was a pivotal score in a low-scoring tussle, with Armagh coming out on the right side of a 1-9 to 0-6 scoreline to fend off any relegation fears heading into the final day.

They lost to Cork to round off a strange, topsy-turvy League campaign but, with Division Two status secured, all eyes were turned towards Pairc Esler and an Ulster Championship renewal with rivals Down.

This was the game when young duo Jarlath Og Burns and Rian O’Neill, who had featured intermittently through the spring, really announced their arrival on the inter-county stage.

Both were brilliant as Armagh seized control but, in typical fashion, they allowed Down back into the game late on as the Mournemen forced extra-time. This time it was the Orchard who were forced to show what they were made of as they fought back from three down to win, a late fisted goal from sub Andrew Murnin sealing the deal.

From there, many fancied the Orchardmen to go on and secure a first Ulster final appearance since 2008, but Cavan had other ideas.

Armagh were left kicking themselves as they walked from the field at the end of 90-plus minutes, unable to kill off a determined Breffni outfit inspired by super-sub Cian Mackey.

Cavan came flying out of the blocks in the replay to send the Orchard hurtling towards the back door – familiar terrain for McGeeney’s men in recent times, but not where they wanted to be.

More Ulster opposition awaited and Armagh regrouped impressively to bring a swift end to Monaghan’s summer, 2-1 from O’Neill sending them into a heavyweight Qualifier clash with Mayo in Castlebar.

Rocked by Roscommon in Connacht and unconvincing in victory over Down, there was a sense James Horan’s side was there for the taking. Armagh started like a team believing that was the case, tearing into their experienced opponents, only for Mayo to slowly but surely take control.

With the clock ticking down, the Orchard rallied and almost pulled it from the fire late on, but it was Mayo who lived to fight another day while Armagh were left to ponder what might have been.

The return of Jamie Clarke to the Armagh fold was a huge boost. The Orchard support will be hoping they can call on him again in 2020. Picture by Philip Walsh

What They Need

A BIT of continuity. There were positive strides made this year and there are the makings of a serious team in Armagh.

However, Kieran McGeeney hasn’t always found himself able to play his strongest hand and, if that isn’t the case, Armagh could find themselves back to square one. After the run through the back door that brought them to an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2017, the Orchard boss lost a host of players for the campaign that followed.

The New York-bound Jamie Clarke was one of those on the unavailable list, so too Stefan Campbell. Take two attackers of that quality out of any side and they’ll struggle to put teams away. Armagh did.

Both came back into the fold this year and while Armagh still struggled to get over the line at times, the threat posed by the likes of Clarke, Campbell and Rian O’Neill has real potential going forward.

There has been no suggestion thus far that Clarke won’t be available but, as previous years have shown, that doesn’t mean he will be. He relocated to London through the summer and has been playing his football with Neasden Gaels.

Considering how good he was in the Ulster semi-final replay against Cavan, the win over Monaghan and in defeat to Mayo, Armagh can ill-afford to be without him.

Oisin O’Neill showed glimpses of his potential with Armagh in 2018, only to miss most of this year with injury.

His return would be significant, although with the likes of Niall Grimley, Jarlath Og Burns, Stephen Sheridan and Ben Crealey also in the mix around centrefield, the Orchardmen could do with a more defensive midfield presence.

Perhaps someone like Aaron McKay could be the answer here as, having previously been the full-back of choice, he found himself in and out of the side.

Despite the creativity and attacking flair Armagh possess, they have still struggled to keep teams out at the other end, which might explain the indecision around which defensive personnel to select and where.

James Morgan came back into the fold, but more out and out defenders are required to give the Orchard a harder edge.

Kieran McGeeney is to continue as Armagh manager for the next two seasons. Picture by Philip Walsh

Manager Status

DESPITE casting doubts over his own future in the aftermath of the All-Ireland exit to Mayo, Kieran McGeeney will continue as Armagh manager for the next two seasons.

The 2002 All-Ireland-winning captain joked that there were “101 reasons” why he might not remain in charge after that one-point defeat, as some wondered whether he might call time after four years at the helm.

However, McGeeney was ratified by the county board last month and, following a campaign that showed signs of promise, he will be hoping the Orchardmen can kick on again.

Mr Consistency

ARMAGH haven’t exactly been synonymous with consistency of performance in recent years, and 2019 was no different.

Jamie Clarke was superb in quite a few games but struggled to make an impact in others.

Newcomers Jarlath Og Burns and Rian O’Neill produced some eye-catching displays, most notably in victory over Ulster rivals Down and Monaghan, but drifted in and out of games too – as you would expect for two young men still finding their way at this level.

The industrious Jemar Hall performed solidly throughout the League and Championship, so too the evergreen Brendan Donaghy, but Aidan Forker was probably Armagh’s most consistent player.

Redeployed as a man-marker during the summer months, he may not have grabbed the headlines but the Maghery man generally edged whoever he was up against and played a key role for Kieran McGeeney’s men.

End of the Line

ARMAGH have a fairly youthful squad, therefore the same two names have tended to crop up in this section during recent years – Charlie Vernon and Brendan Donaghy.

Vernon is 32 and didn’t feature as regularly as in previous years following the emergence of Jarlath Og Burns around the middle. That said, he is still a great option to have from the bench, and can also do a solid job at full-back.

The experience of Donaghy, meanwhile, remains crucial to the Orchardmen. Playing mostly as a sweeper, his reading of the game is top notch, and his absence from the Ulster semi-final replay with Cavan was keenly felt.

It looks likely he will be back in 2020 too, with the 33-year-old indicating last year that he had “no notion” of retiring just yet.

Jarlath Og Burns was one of the stars of the Ulster Championship, impressing particularly against Down and Cavan. Picture by Seamus Loughran

The New Breed

THE emergence of Jarlath Og Burns and Rian O’Neill gave Armagh a serious shot in the arm in 2019. Despite their undoubted potential, you can never be totally sure how underage stars will transition onto the senior stage.

Burns was instrumental in St Mary’s University College’s unlikely run to the Sigerson Cup final, and continued that rich vein of form when given his chance by Kieran McGeeney.

Strong, pacy, powerful and with an eye for goal, he was superb in the victories over Down and Monaghan and the drawn clash with Cavan. Still only 21, he has so much to offer Armagh going forward.

The same applies to O’Neill. A year younger than Burns, he too showcased his huge potential with some outstanding performances.

Looking ahead to next year, there isn’t a groundswell of talent ready to make the same kind of impact just yet, although Dromintee’s Aaron Boyle and Clann Eireann’s Conor Turbitt could both be given opportunities in the Dr McKenna Cup and National League.

The loss of Cullyhanna speedster Ross McQuillan to Aussie Rules outfit Essendon is a blow as the 20-year-old is very highly-rated.

4: Armagh followers will reflect on 2019 as a year when solid foundations were laid, and rightly so. Yet the Orchardmen still managed only four wins (Tipperary, Fermanagh, Down - after extra-time - and Monaghan) from their 12 League and Championship outings.

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