A legend was born in Pairc Esler but Armagh remain a tortured soul
Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final: Armagh 2-21 Monaghan 4-17
YOU live and die a thousand times over with Armagh. Although they lost this semi-final, no-one will forget their heroics on the faded, sun-burnt field of Pairc Esler.
A legend of a game was born. After gifting Monaghan four first-half goals what unfolded in the second period defied logic.
There was nothing run-of-the-mill about what took place at the Marshes between four and six o’clock on Saturday.
The afternoon started with a football match before morphing into a glowing parable about the limitless beauty of the human spirit and bravery of 40 young men who lived their best lives on a burnt field in Newry.
It was awesome, compelling and unforgettable.
And just when Armagh’s remarkable comeback looked complete, up popped Conor McManus – a player of scandalous consistency for more than a decade - to steal their soul with two nerveless stoppage-time frees.
Gaelic football’s forensic department will have an absolute field day with the opening 25 minutes of Armagh’s performance – but by the end there was as much to admire among the vanquished as there was among the victorious.
With only players’ families and TV and radio crews left in Pairc Esler, Kieran McGeeney didn’t sugar-coat his own assessment of the game.
“I just think we threw it away," he said.
"We were a wee bit jittery in defence at the start and it cost us dearly and we were letting boys out in front. We solidified that. I really felt we would come back and I told them that at half-time because any balls that were going up front we were scoring.
“We had possessions, we went forward four or five times at the end there, they had nobody in their defence and we kicked the ball away once and passed it away three times.
“You get excited when you’re not used to being in those positions, whereas you take the other side of it and a boy like Conor [McManus], who's able to buy a few free kicks at the end.
“Though it’s one thing buying them, it’s another thing putting them over and you have to admire his coolness - and that’s the difference.”
After Darren Hughes waltzed through to grab Monaghan’s fourth goal on 26 minutes, Aidan Forker was sprung from the Orchard bench, and the game soon took on a life of its own.
“Monaghan kept their men criss-crossing and we were soft on that,” said McGeeney, who was trying to account for the concession of four goals.
“We weren’t tight enough and we were giving them handy passes but once we tightened up on that I don’t think they threatened our goals after that. Now Aidan made a big difference when he came on.”
If Jack McCarron, McManus, Ryan McAnespie and Darren Hughes flourished for Monaghan, Rian O’Neill, Andrew Murnin, Rory Grugan, Forker and Conor Turbitt grew a foot taller during this truly epic encounter.
“They are the things you can’t coach,” McGeeney said.
“You can’t make a man block. You just can’t give it to a man but when you start to see it come through as it is with those boys, you know then that there is something different.”
Asked if he feels this group of players will reach the provincial summit before the end of their careers, ‘Geezer’ said: “I think if they want to, they will. You always have to remember the difference between ‘like’ and ‘want’. I think they have recognised that and are going in the right direction.
“You couldn’t ask anything more of them, I couldn’t have asked anything more the last two years. They have learned what it’s like to be a county team and they have given all they can. It’s a pleasure to be associated with them.”
On his own future, he told BBC: "As long as the players want you and the county board, you will definitely sit down and chat about it but whether it’s me or someone else..."
Armagh sits on the last ledge just below the mountain's peak. Perhaps there's one more push in 'Geezer' and these players in 2022...
Shea Magill: Unexpectedly thrown into the Championship cauldron after Blaine Hughes was ruled out. A rough opening period but showed admirable resilience to hit some smashing kick-outs. Killeavy will be proud of him. 5.5
James Morgan: You can keep Conor McManus under lock and key for 99 per cent of the game but it’s the other one per cent where ‘Mansy’ steals your soul. Morgan was defensively solid. 7
Aaron McKay: Struggled one-on-one with the brilliant Jack McCarron. Armagh’s tactical malfunction further out the field was the root cause – not McKay. Something had to give though and it was his withdrawal. 5
Ryan Kennedy: The Ballymacnab defender didn’t lose his head in the opening 25 minutes and kept a tight rein on Conor McCarthy. 6.5
Ciaron O’Hanlon: Has had a good year upon his return to county duty but the movement of the Monaghan attack knocked him out of his stride. Replaced at the break as Armagh tried to reset. 5.5
Greg McCabe: If a hole needs plugged, McCabe is usually the one on-call. A typically selfless display. 6.5
Connaire Mackin: Played the sweeper’s role but there were worse fires further out the field and as a consequence he was easily by-passed by the Monaghan attack. 5.5
Niall Grimley: Grabbed a 14th minute point, but the clever movement of the Monaghan attack saw him too easily pulled out of the centre and couldn’t catch Darren Hughes for Monaghan’s fourth goal. 5
Oisin O’Neill: The Crossmaglen man hit a couple of wides but he also hit two important points. Like his brother, Oisin plays the game with incredible conviction. 7
Jemar Hall: Faultless work-rate from the lauded foot soldier but his creativity was nullified. Made way as Armagh chased the game. 5.5
STAR MAN: Rian O’Neill: Some of the Crossmaglen’s play was bordering on super-hero status. His catching and kicking were exemplary. The great thing about O’Neill is that he plays without fear. Bullet-proof self-belief who just knows he’ll hurt the opposition every time he takes to the field. An incredible talent. 9
Jarlath Og Burns: Jarly Og has the full skills set to be a leading inter-county footballer. Probably doesn’t realise how good he is. Shook off early hesitancy in front of the goalposts to point in the 18th minute and got through a mountain of work. 6.5
Rory Grugan: Intelligent, gutsy, inspiring. It’s rare to find a playmaker that has the same appetite for chasing lost causes as they do for creating chances. A special player. 8
Andrew Murnin: Not a prolific scorer, but a prolific creator of chances. Murnin is a force of nature and wonderful to watch. His late block on Stephen O’Hanlon was just awesome. 8
Stefan Campbell: ‘Soupy’ had a mixed day. Worked his socks off but no matter how hard he tried he remained on the fringes of this game. 6
Aidan Forker: Settled Armagh’s defence and curtailed Jack McCarron when he entered the fray. A leader. Appeared to be booked twice and stayed on the field. 8
Conor O’Neill: Played with energy and conviction and hit a confident point. 7
Conor Turbitt: As brave and talented as they come. Knew he was going to get clattered by Rory Beggan to score Armagh’s first goal. 8
Tiernan Kelly: Earning the 'super sub' tag by hammering home Armagh’s second goal. 7
Ross McQuillan: Effective every time he gained possession and grabbed a point. 7