GAA Football

County Focus: A decade in the Armagh GAA football camp

Armagh's Kieran McGeeney talks to his players during the 2015 All-Ireland Senior Football Qualifying Round 2 clash against Galway at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Picture by Colm O'Reilly.
Padriag Kelly

Today we begin our new County Focus series, looking at the football fortunes .. or otherwise.. of each Ulster county, from the dawn of 2010 and the dreams of what the new decade might hold, right through to the end of the stop-start, shocker of a year that was 2020.

First up: The Orchard County of Armagh

Where they started the decade

AT the start of 2010, it seemed that Armagh’s transition period post Joe Kernan was coming to an end and a new era – led by an exciting crop of youngsters – was about to come to pass.

That enthusiasm was understandable because in 2009 the Orchard minors took the country by storm to claim the Tom Markham Cup for only the second time in the county’s history, and exactly 60 years after their first All-Ireland triumph at that level.

The final against Mayo may not have set pulses rating, but throughout the season the side had produced some wonderful football. Players like James Morgan, Andrew Murnin, James Donnelly, Declan McKenna and Rory Grugan caught the eye, but it was the inside trio of Gavin McParland, Eugene McVerry and Robbie Tasker that really got Armagh fans excited.

Their u-21s had also reached the 2009 Ulster final and narrowly lost out to a Down side that would come so close to All-Ireland glory. Mark Shields, Kieran Toner, Stefan Forker and a certain Jamie Clarke had impressed, so there was more than enough evidence to suggest that a new crop of stars were emerging.

Things had also changed on the sideline following the controversial appointment of Down legend Paddy O’Rourke in October 2009. The left-field decision caused plenty of debate amongst supporters while it was reported that some players needed convincing too.

The Burren man was experienced enough to know that the only way to win over the doubters was with results, and Division Two looked a good place for his settling in period.

Peter McDonnell had stepped down after a disappointing 2009 season that featured championship losses to Tyrone and Monaghan, but he had comfortably retained the side’s second-tier status. The Mullaghbawn man did deliver an Ulster title in his time – the county’s last – while he also unearthed a few forwards that would be of use to O’Rourke moving forward, most notably Ryan Henderson, who had scored 4-3 in a National League against Wexford in ’09, and Tony Kernan.

From the outside it may have appeared that Armagh were on the wind down, but inside the county there was definitely hope of a quick bounce back.

How they stand now

WHERE do Armagh stand now? Ask just a few fans and you’re sure to get a range of answers.

Two games from the 2020 season probably give fuel to both the optimists and the pessimists.

In the National League, a round seven win in Ennis against Clare secured Division One football for the first time in nearly a decade. Given that Armagh were preparing for a Division Three campaign when Kieran McGeeney was appointed manager in 2015, it is clear and tangible progress through the ranks.

It’s unfortunate that it looks likely that their league campaign will resemble a regionalised mini Ulster Championship, as the team had done the work to secure big days against the likes of Dublin and Kerry that their loyal fans would have really enjoyed.

Just three weeks later Armagh gave those of the half-empty persuasion something to sing – or moan – about.

Armagh had headed to Celtic Park and despite being far from their best, they got the job done against Derry in almost eerie silence. That set up a meeting with Donegal and a chance to banish the memories of 2015 when the Tir Chonaill county had torn them apart in the early Sunday sun.

As it turned out, this time was even worse as Armagh completely collapsed, and the fact that Donegal went on to lose to Cavan in the Ulster final means that it’s even hard to work out their standing. For the record, the Orchard county beat Cavan by 13 points in last year’s League.

Things have changed for the new season. Jim McCorry, Paddy McKeever and John Toal have departed the backroom team while Kieran Donaghy and Ciaran McKeever are in.

Of all the counties in Ulster, Armagh are certainly the hardest to work out. Hopefully the coming months may provide firmer answers.

Changing managers

HERE’S a statistic that may surprise, Kieran McGeeney has now been Armagh manager for as long as Joe Kernan was – six seasons.

As ‘Geezer’ prepares for a seventh season at the helm, and an eighth on the sideline having been head coach in 2014, there is no denying that he has enjoyed a longevity that is becoming rarer and rarer in today’s game.

Apart from Brian Cody, the magician who is preparing for year 23 with Kilkenny, and Clare football boss Colm Collins, McGeeney is the longest serving inter-county manager across those fighting for Sam Maguire and Liam MacCarthy.

The management situation was a bit more volatile in the earlier half of the decade and while McGeeney’s appointment was a rubber-stamping exercise, the appointments of Paddy O’Rourke and Paul Grimley carried with them much more drama.

O’Rourke was the man who lifted Sam Maguire in 1991 as rivals Down claimed All-Ireland honours for the fourth time. Given the rivalry that exists between the counties, the suggestion that he would go on to manager Armagh would have been laughed out of the room.

However, a lot had changed before the 2010 season as the Armagh County Board looked for a replacement for Peter McDonnell.

John Rafferty, who recently told the Irish News that he expected to move from number two to number one when Joe Kernan stepped aside in 2007, was tipped as a frim favourite after Grimley withdrew his name for consideration – but it was O’Rourke who got the role.

O’Rourke, who delivered a Division Two title in his first season in 2010, beating his native Down in the final, did not seek a renewal to his contract after his three-year term came to an end after the 2012 season.

Grimley was an obvious candidate for the job, but previous events meant that it was by no means a done deal, although fences were mended in 2011.

Before O’Rourke’s appointment, the Armagh players had released a statement slamming the selection process after Grimley opted to become Seamus McEnaney’s assistant in Monaghan.

The selection committee was subsequently dissolved after two members stepped down.

The wounds looked deep, but in September 2011 Grimley was surprisingly announced as O’Rourke’s new assistant manager. The following season the clubs unanimously appointed him manager.

After two seasons and having come so close to shocking Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final, Grimley stepped aside and McGeeney stepped up.

Changing captains

THROUGHOUT their glory years Armagh had real leaders wearing the armband with Jarlath Burns, Kieran McGeeney and Paul McGrane lifting the silverware during their 1999-2008 run of one All-Ireland, one National League and seven Ulster titles.

Ciaran McKeever succeeded McGrane as captain in 2009, but by the turn of the new decade Paddy O’Rourke had opted to give the honour to Stevie McDonnell and the Killeavy man led the team for two seasons.

In O’Rourke’s final season, McKeever would once again be named as captain and Grimley would keep faith with the Cullyhanna man for his time in charge, even if injury forced him out of that one-point All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Donegal in 2014. Aaron Kernan deputised in his absence.

McKeever continued his duties in McGeeney’s first year but as he was well into his 30s, new leaders needed to be found and a few players have worn the armband since.

Maghery’s Aidan Forker was the first of those in 2016 with teammate Rory Grugan taking over in 2017 and continuing until 2019.

Stefan Campbell’s evolution from flair player to key cog saw him entrusted with the role last season.

 

Armagh's Stevie McDonnell and Down's Brendan McArdle in action during the 2010 National Football League Division 2 final at Croke Park in Dublin

 

Players gone

ARMAGH lost some big names to retirement over the last decade, including the remaining few members of the 2002 panel that had won the All-Ireland.

Star forward from that era Stevie McDonnell stepped away in April 2012 with Paul Hearty following him out the door a week later. Ronan Clarke also had to give up the ghost having continually tried to get over his horrible injury run. Enda McNulty’s county career came to an end when Paddy O’Rourke omitted him from his 2011 squad.

The Orchard county also lost a number of players who had starred in their 2004 All-Ireland U21 success.

October 2014 proved particularly painful for supporters as two big players from that side called time on their inter-county careers, Aaron Kernan and Brian Mallon.

Another player from that side hung up the boots in October 2015 as Finnian Moriaty bid farewell while his fellow corner-back on that team, Andy Mallon, managed to hold on until May 2017. Ciaran McKeever, the captain of that U21 side, ended his career a few months later.

Given the young age profile of Kieran McGeeney’s squad in recent seasons, retirements have been few and far between.

Charlie Vernon did retire at the end of the 2019 campaign while Jamie Clarke is understood to be considering his future currently.

 

Crossmaglen's Oisin O Neill races past Maghery's Ben Crealey and Ciaran Higgins, in the 2020 Armagh Football Final at the Athletic Grounds. Oisin and his younger brother, Rian, look like they will also be stars for the county for years to come. Picture by Seamus Loughran.

 

New players introduced

THE big influx of players from 2010 onwards came, not surprisingly, from the 2009 All-Ireland Minor Championship winning squad.

Of the panel that faced Mayo that day, Declan McKenna, Niall Rowland, James Morgan, Gavin McParland, Eugene McVerry, Rory Grugan and Andrew Murnin have all since played Senior Championship football.

There have been other notable debuts too, particularly in the forward line.

Jamie Clarke lived up to the hype when making a starring cameo off the bench in 2010 in Paddy O’Rourke’s first Championship game in charge.

The Orchard county were battling it out with Derry at Celtic Park, but with almost his first touch he fielded the ball brilliantly and finished to the net.

In more recent times, a pair of brothers from Crossmaglen have left Armagh fans really excited.

Oisin O’Neill made his Championship debut against Down in 2017, a forgettable day in Newry.

His first year was mixed but after taking 2018 off to overcome some injuries, he has been superb for Kieran McGeeney’s men.

He was joined by his younger brother Rian in 2019 and his Championship debut went much better at Páirc Esler as he gave Down all sorts of headaches. The pair look like they will be stars for the county for years to come.

Top Scorer of 2020

IT’S no surprise to see that Rian O’Neill was Armagh’s top scorer in the 2020 League and Championship as he chipped in with 41 points.

The Crossmaglen ace only managed nine points from play, but his accuracy from dead-ball situations was so impressive as he continued his brilliant start to his Armagh county career.

Jamie Clarke scored 2-12 and with just four of those coming from frees, it meant that he was Armagh’s top scorer from play. Rory Grugan (1-15), Oisin O’Neill (0-18) and Conor Turbitt (1-11) were other big scorers for Kieran McGeeney’s side last season.

How they will fare in 2021?

IT’S looking increasingly likely that 2021 will be a very disjointed season so judging how Armagh, or any team for that matter, is going to get on is a difficult task. Indeed, the question may be can we truly analyse sides given the parameters put on their preparations due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

We can only go on the information we had to hand, and for Kieran McGeeney’s side that looks like National League games against Donegal, Monaghan and Tyrone with the top two escaping the relegation play-offs.

The sight of the Tir Chonaill jersey can send shivers down the spine given the two thumpings they have given Armagh in their last Championship matches – a nine-point win in 2015 and a 12-point hammering last year.

They have performed better elsewhere though, being unlucky to lose by a point in the 2019 League and beating them in that year’s McKenna Cup. With the stakes set to be high though, it may be more a case of trying to close the gap.

Tyrone and Monaghan are sides that probably carry less fear, even if the Red Hands seem at a similar level to Donegal. Armagh and Tyrone clashes have been good battles in recent times while they earned an impressive Qualifier win over Monaghan in 2019.

Overall though it’s hard to see them avoiding a relegation play-off. Given that Kerry, Dublin and Galway are on the other side, a play-off with Roscommon could possibly be a route to survival.

The Qualifiers are set to return this year, and that should be good news for a squad who do their damage in the backdoor.

We all know about McGeeney’s struggles in Ulster – two wins in six seasons – but they do perform well in the Qualifiers. That seems a likely scenario this year, a good run through the backdoor that will hopefully cumulate in at least an All-Ireland quarter-final appearance.

Armagh: The Stats

2010 Championship results:

Ulster SFC preliminary round: Derry 1-7 Armagh 1-10

Ulster SFC quarter-final (Casement Park): Monaghan 1-18 Armagh 0-9

All-Ireland SFC qualifiers round one: Armagh 2-14 Donegal 0-11

All-Ireland SFC qualifiers round two: Fermanagh 0-7 Armagh 0-11

All-Ireland SFC qualifiers round three: Dublin 0-14 Armagh 0-11

Last 2010 Championship team:

All-Ireland SFC qualifiers round three: Dublin 0-14 Armagh 0-11

P Hearty; B Donaghy, V Martin, A Mallon; F Moriarty, C McKeever (0-1), P Duffy; C Vernon, K Toner; M Mackin (0-1), A Kernan (0-1 free), G Swift; B Mallon (0-1), S McDonnell (capt.) (0-5, 0-3 frees), J Clarke (0-1).

Subs: J Feeney (0-1) for Toner; J Lavery for Mackin; T Kernan for Vernon; F Hanratty for B Mallon.

2010 League table and results:

Division Two

Team Pld W D L F A Diff Pts

Down 7 6 1 0 6–94 3–65 +38 13

Armagh 7 5 0 2 6–94 5–60 +37 10

Donegal 7 4 0 3 7–71 5–75 +2 8

Meath 7 4 0 3 4–76 5–76 ?3 8

Laois 7 3 0 4 3–89 9–76 ?5 6

Kildare 7 3 0 4 3–80 5–80 ?6 6

Tipperary 7 2 1 4 9–65 5–88 ?11 5

Westmeath 7 0 0 7 8–58 9–107 ?52 0

Meath 2-8 Armagh 0-13

Armagh 2-19 Westmeath 0-8

Laois 0-12 Armagh 0-13

Armagh 0-12 Kildare 0-5

Down 1-13 Armagh 1-6

Armagh 1-15 Tipperary 2-8

Armagh 2-16 Donegal 0-6

Division Two Final: Down 1-12 Armagh 0-17

2020 Championship results:

Ulster SFC quarter-final: Derry 0-15 Armagh 0-17

Ulster SFC semi-final (Kingspan Breffni): Donegal 1-22 Armagh 0-13

Last 2020 Championship team:

Ulster SFC semi-final: Donegal 1-22 Armagh 0-13

B Hughes; P Burns, R Kennedy, J Morgan; C O’Neill, A Forker, M Shields; O O’Neill (0-1), S Sheridan; R Grugan, G McCabe, S Campbell; J Clarke (0-2), R O’Neill (0-7, 0-6 frees, 0-1 45), J Burns Subs: N Grimley for Sheridan (50), A Murnin for J Burns (h-t), J Hall for O’Neill (h-t), E Rafferty for Murnin (47), C Turbitt (0-2) for Grugan (50)

2020 League table and results:

Division Two

P W D L F A SD Pts

Roscommon (P) 7 5 1 1 10-83 2-84 23 11

Armagh (P) 7 4 1 2 8-106 8-79 27 9

Kildare 7 4 0 3 3-97 2-93 7 8

Westmeath 7 3 1 3 7-85 5-96 -5 7

Laois 7 3 1 3r?2????p??&Rr2BR?Rb??`?f?"?r2Br?B??R?`?W&??v??"?rb2?b?"? ?&?v?"?6f?????b&?v???&?v??b??&R??W7F?F?2?"&?v?"?P?W&??v??&?v?2?@?&?v??R&?6???2???&R?2&?v??

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