Armagh's six shining stars of the 2010s
THE 2010-2020 decade has been one of transition for Armagh as the final few members of the 2002 All-Ireland triumph started to drift away while a new breed were brought through in recent years under the guidance of the Kieran McGeeney.
The 2010 season started off with a major surprise in Armagh as Down legend Paddy O’Rourke was appointed to succeed Peter McDonnell as Orchard county manager.
The news undoubtedly split opinion, but one player who instantly got on board was Stevie McDonnell.
“I think a lot of negative feeling among some people is because Paddy's from Down,” the Killeavy man told the Irish News at the time.
“Apart from the likes of Kerry and Tyrone, most counties have opted for an outside man, so we shouldn't get too wrapped up in that.”
McDonnell followed up his words with action as he rounded off his county career with fine seasons in both 2010 and 2011.
In 2010 he was the fourth highest scorer across the National Leagues as Armagh won the Division Two title against O’Rourke’s home county.
The highlight was a superb 1-9 tally against Westmeath with every score coming from play.
That form continued into the championship as he claimed the assist for Jamie Clarke’s first goal in Armagh colours as they won in Derry.
Four points from play followed in the loss to Monaghan while the Qualifiers would produce 0-14 in three games.
In Division One in 2011 McDonnell was Armagh’s top scorer with 36 points, while the Championship produced 0-21 in five games with McDonnell ending the season playing around the half-forward line.
As well as his scoring, McDonnell provided plenty of encouragement and knowhow to those players breaking through and that no doubt eased Clarke’s transition into the Armagh team.
The Crossmaglen ace burst onto the scene with that match-winning goal against Derry in the Ulster Championship and since then he has delivered a series of breathtaking displays.
Clarke has found the net 22 times in all since his debut while his point-taking from ridiculous angles has left fans – and defenders – flabbergasted.
Some notable displays included the 2010 Qualifier win in Cross when he took the Tir Chonaill defence for 2-2, the 2012 loss to Tyrone when he kicked some unbelievable points from seemingly impossible angles and his Man of the Match display at Croke Park as Armagh defeated Kildare in the 2017 Qualifiers.
His travelling bug has meant that he hasn’t played as much for his county as some would have liked, but he has undoubtedly been one of their most important players of the decade.
Also in that bracket at the other end of the pitch are a trio of defenders who often shared the pitch together – Aaron Kernan, Ciaran McKeever and Brendan Donaghy.
It speaks volumes of Kernan’s talent that his retirement announcement in October 2014 was not met with ‘congratulations’ from some Armagh fans but instead ‘can you not keeping going for a while yet?’
Even in his final seasons, the Crossmaglen man kept playing to an excellent standard.
Noted for his dedication to training and nutrition, Kernan continued to run the legs off the defenders who tried to stop his influence on the game.
O’Rourke tried to maximise that game intelligence by occasionally playing him at centre half-forward under his watch while his kick-passing, rather than his direct running up the wing, really stood out under his final Armagh manager Paul Grimley.
While Kernan may have been noted for his finesse, fellow half-back McKeever was more known for his physicality. That’s not to say that he couldn’t deliver a pass when it mattered.
McKeever has been a superstar for Armagh during the last decade, right up until his retirement after the end of the 2017 season.
The Cullyhanna man had the honour of captaining his county and he always led by example.
Like Kernan, McKeever made his mark in the 2005 Championship and was originally noted for his tight man-marking abilities. In the second half of his career though he had become the team’s designated sweeper.
He did it brilliantly, forcing turnovers, cutting out opposition passes and linking up the play between defence, midfield and attack.
McKeever is a close associate of McGeeney and maybe that friendship played its part in the player coming completely out of his comfort zone in the 2017 League.
In a real surprise move, McKeever was moved to full-forward and he caused some real havoc for a couple of games and found the net against both Louth and Antrim.
Donaghy, meanwhile, made his debut a year after Kernan and McKeever came to national attention and he is still a key player for Armagh.
His career has had plenty of interruptions through injury, but when he has been fit and available he has been a rock.
His Championship debut came in 2007 when he was preferred to Francie Bellew at full-back against Donegal and although the Tir Chonaill men stole it with Brendan Devenney’s late goal, the Clonmore man was excellent.
Since then he has been an almost automatic pick when fit. Whether it has been protecting the square in full-back or playing a sweeping role after McKeever’s retirement, he has continually produced the goods.
The 2019 season was another example of his powers as Armagh went on a good run in the Qualifiers with Donaghy putting in some great performances as Monaghan were dumped out and Mayo were pushed all the way.
While Donaghy is now the veteran of the team, and the only player in the Orchard squad with an Ulster medal, one of the new blood has already been elevated to one of Armagh’s most important players.
Rian O’Neill may only have a season and a half under his belt but his performances in that time have been nothing short of outstanding.
An Allstar nomination arrived last year after an incredible breakthrough season.
His first-half performance against Down in the Ulster Championship was something special, particularly as it was his Championship debut, while he found the net three times in those Qualifier games with Monaghan and Mayo.
The 2020 season may have been interrupted but O’Neill was already looking like Armagh’s go-to guy as McGeeney’s side pushed hard for a return to Division One.