In Profile: Rory Grugan still pondering a world of infinite possibilities with Armagh

Armagh's Rory Grugan still standing after all these years Picture: Philip Walsh.
Armagh's Rory Grugan still standing after all these years Picture: Philip Walsh.

When Rory Grugan won an All-Ireland minor title with Armagh in 2009, he imagined the medals would keep coming at senior level. But after much heartache on the provincial and national stage, the Ballymacnab clubman will compete in his first Ulster final this Sunday at the age of 32. Brendan Crossan spoke to some former mentors and team-mates about what makes Grugan special...

PLAYING careers last as long as a blink of an eye.

Croke Park, Sunday September 20 2009. The Kerry and Cork players are marching behind the band on All-Ireland final day.

Earlier, the Armagh minors climbed the mountain to win their first All-Ireland crown in 60 years, beating Mayo in a scrappy final, 0-10 to 0-7.

The Tom Markham Cup is probably still in the changing room at the bottom of the Cusack Stand. One by one, the fresh-faced Armagh players file out of the back door and into a world of infinite possibilities.

In the immediate afterglow of becoming an All-Ireland minor champion Rory Grugan, the team’s unmistakable playmaker, agrees to be interviewed by The Irish News.

Even though the mother of all parties awaited Grugan and his team-mates, the Ballymacnab youngster couldn’t quite fathom that his minor days were officially in his rear view.

“It’s probably the last time we’ll play together as a team,” the 18-year-old said.

“It’s sad after a long year, but you would hope we’d make the step up to the next grade, U21. It’s a bit strange finishing with the minors because we’ve been together since trials and thinking 10 months later we’d be All-Ireland champions...”

Grugan spoke with wisdom beyond his years…


CLONES, Sunday April 30 2023. Rory Grugan is happily snared by Armagh fans on the wet turf, each of them asking for autographs and selfies.

A few minutes earlier, referee Conor Lane ended Down’s misery by blowing the final whistle in what was a comfortable Ulster semi-final win for Armagh.

It’s the first time in 15 years they’ve reached a provincial final.

Amid the smiles and chats with the young Armagh fans surrounding him, Grugan pauses to chat to The Irish News and explains what it means to him to be playing in an Ulster final.

“You think when you’re starting off you’re going to be in plenty of Ulster finals as a young player,” he said. “I’ve just turned 32 and I’m in my first one.

“It’s been a long time coming. I started playing [for Armagh seniors] in 2011 and we left so many opportunities behind, but we knew we’d a good chance of reaching one.”


IN 2008, the Cavan minors blew Armagh out of the water in Ulster. They were just too big and powerful, while quite a number of the Armagh players were still finding their feet at the U18 grade.

Paul McShane kept the faith. The unfashionable environs of the Ulster League proved Armagh’s springboard for success in 2009.

On a bitterly cold Friday night, up in Inniskeen, McShane’s young charges chiselled out a draw with Monaghan.

“From that night on, we never looked back,” McShane says, who is now in charge of the Silverbridge Ladies.

Enjoying his second year as an Armagh minor, Rory Grugan had won a Herald Cup in fifth year at St Patrick’s, Keady and in 2007 he made his senior debut for Ballymacnab Round Towers as a 16-year-old – a club that had won their first intermediate championship a year earlier.

McShane had made Declan McKenna captain and Grugan vice-captain.

“We’d a good minor team back then,” McShane says. “We’d a full-forward line of Robbie Tasker, Eugene McVerry and Gavin McParland and Rory could put the ball on a plate for any of them, especially Gavin because they were club-mates.

“That Armagh minor team all had their strengths. Declan McKenna was a superb captain coming out with the ball. You’d James Morgan at corner-back. Kevin Nugent of Maghery in the other corner.

“James Donnelly, a Killeavy lad, in middle of the field who was physically strong. And, of course, Andy Murnin had a great engine and could go on forever. Conor King was a great workhorse, another Killeavy lad. We were blessed.”

“The belief we had was incredible in that minor team,” says Gavin McParland, a team-mate of Grugan’s at both club and county.

“We trusted each other in every line. The whole team went into games knowing that we were going to win – even at half-time of the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry we were losing but we knew we were better than them.”

Wearing number 10, Grugan was the unhurried metronome of the minor class of ‘09.

A brilliant left foot and vision on the field that “you cannot teach”, according to McParland.

“Rory could cut you in two with a pass,” McShane says. “He could give a pass that nobody else was capable of and you’d often wonder, how did he do that?”

Scything through everybody in the Ulster League was one thing – beating defending All-Ireland champions Tyrone in first round of Ulster at Clones in '09 was quite another, with Niall Morgan in goal for the Red Hands, Ronan McNamee manning the edge of the square and Ronan O’Neill one of the most feared forwards at minor level.

Tyrone led by two points entering stoppage-time and Armagh looked a busted flush before Conor King was fouled.

For the second time in the game, referee Fergal Cleary awarded Armagh a penalty - and Robbie Tasker converted again.

And there was still time for McParland and King to split Tyrone’s posts to advance to the semi-finals. They breezed past Monaghan before winning an untidy Ulster decider against Down.

“It was a poor final,” McShane recalls, "because a lot of those lads went to school together in St Colman’s and the Abbey. They knew each other inside out. Some of them were best friends. We just got there and no more.”

McShane reckons Armagh’s first half display against Kildare in the All-Ireland quarter-finals was their best by some distance that year, Eugene McVerry weighing in with a sublime display.

Wilting towards the end, as the Lilywhites came on strong, Armagh held on to their unbeaten record and despite some turbulence in the first half against Kerry, they negotiated their semi-final brilliantly in the second half.

In the final, Armagh simply held their nerve a little better than Mayo to repeat the feat of the late Jack Brattan and co in 1949.

With the hype that swirled around the all-conquering minors of ’09, McShane was wily enough to know that nothing was guaranteed going forward.

“Somebody said to me after the All-Ireland minor final, ‘the future’s orange’, but you don’t know how life goes for young players,” McShane says, “maybe ones will emigrate, work overtakes them too, they get married and they just don’t bother with it. You’ll never keep a full minor team together.”

A sizeable amount of them gave the Armagh seniors a crack. Over 13 years later, Niall Rowland, James Morgan, Andrew Murnin and Rory Grugan are still standing.


GRUGAN stepped into the Armagh senior set-up in 2011 where he would bide his time before becoming a regular in the side.

“We were all following them the year they won the All-Ireland minor,” says Aaron Kernan, who was an established member of the Armagh senior team at the time.

“Armagh had lost a minor in ’92 and it gave everyone a big lift. We were excited about fresh new faces coming in. Rory was one of those who came straight in. What struck me about him, he was very level-headed.

“Winning an All-Ireland minor didn’t go to his head at all. He came in, it was head down and work hard. He was mature beyond his years, really.

“I can remember having conversations with maybe [Paul] McGrane, myself and Rory and you’re talking about a 19-year-old, someone in their 30s and myself in my mid-20s and Rory easily fitted into the conversation.

“I also knew he was a good enough footballer. He had a good personality, a good team player, he was driven and he wanted to learn. The only thing was I thought it would take him a few years to develop into a senior player, but that wouldn’t have been just an issue for Rory.”

Around that time, Armagh were a basket case of a team and were probably still dining out on the glory years.

Contrary to popular opinion, the future wasn’t orange. Yes, Armagh could be brilliant one day and awful the next.

“You couldn’t trust us to perform consistently,” Kernan adds. “That was the unfortunate reality of it.

“Down reached the All-Ireland final in 2010 and in the first round of Ulster the following year we played unbelievable stuff against them at The Athletic Grounds.

“It was man-to-man, great kicking game, great scores, huge work-rate, huge intensity – and we went out the next day against Derry and absolutely flopped. It was so far removed from the Down performance.

“Eoin Bradley and the likes of Mark Lynch ate us alive. Every time we looked like taking a step forward we took five or six back.

“And yet, we had a real good mix of players. We still had Stevie [McDonnell], [Paul] Hearty and Andy Mallon who would have been around in ’02 and ’03.

“You had myself, [Ciaran] McKeever, Finn ‘Mo’, Brian Mallon and these boys who were really well established, and then we were getting Rory Grugan, Gavin McParland and Jamie [Clarke] coming through.

“You had a perfect mix of experience and people who were winning. We won an All-Ireland at U21, they’d won an All-Ireland at minor and we’d boys who’d won an All-Ireland senior and it’s just so hard to understand how we were so inconsistent.

“I’m sure that made it even tougher for those younger boys to deal with because as they were growing up they knew nothing but Armagh winning Ulster titles. But when they came in the reality was totally different.”

As part of his teaching practice, Grugan lived in Vannes, France and missed the 2013 season – which turned out to be another miserable Championship year for his native county.

He returned to play a bit-part role in 2014 when Armagh enjoyed a splendid run, only to lose by point to 2012 champions Donegal in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

In 2015, Grugan’s studies took him to Liverpool. Another year reluctantly crossed off, but he would come back to become an integral member of Armagh’s forward line under Kieran McGeeney.

Since 2016, Grugan’s inter-county career has been a combination of pain and torture doused with some wonderful Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons wearing the famed jersey.

Fancied to end their provincial drought, Armagh suffered gut-wrenching provincial exits to Down (2017) and Fermanagh (2018) and although redemption was found on the All-Ireland Qualifier road, they never got their hands on meaningful silverware.

There was the unrelenting heartbreak of Castlebar in 2019 and a losing-my-religion kind of defeat to Donegal in a soulless Breffni Park during the COVID year.

Enhanced by the happenings on a sun-burnt field in Newry in 2021, they still came out on the losing end against Monaghan in one of the best games in the modern era.

Given the Darwinian nature of Gaelic football during a large portion of his inter-county career, artisans like Rory Grugan could easily have been purged from the game.

“The way Gaelic football went for about eight or nine years, it was almost becoming irrelevant to what his strengths were,” Kernan says.

“They weren’t necessary because it was just running up and down. But he still developed physically and his defensive awareness improved.”

Gavin McParland credits his Ballymacnab and former Armagh team-mate Rory Grugan with assisting for over half of his career scores
Gavin McParland credits his Ballymacnab and former Armagh team-mate Rory Grugan with assisting for over half of his career scores

FOR as long as they were on the same field, Gavin McParland and Rory Grugan made sweet music together. They played literally hundreds of games with each other coming through the ranks at Ballymacnab – Grugan the provider, McParland the finisher.

It was the same deal when the pair played a bit of soccer for Armagh City. Grugan was midfield and McParland striker. They were telepathy itself.

Best friends and living two doors from one another just outside Armagh City, McParland reckons Grugan created over half of his career scores at club and county level.

Reflecting on their All-Ireland minor triumph, McParland says: “The vast majority of scores I got that year came from Rory. He was serious. He scored a lot too. Any score we got, I’d say Rory was involved in it.”

McParland played for the Orchard seniors between 2011 and 18 – an inter-county career that was sadly pockmarked by too many near-misses.

But he’s watched Grugan's growth with interest and how he's evolved into a more complete player over the past few seasons.

“A lot of people don’t realise what Rory does during games,” McParland says.

“People would come away from a game and might say: ‘Rory didn’t play that well.’ And I’d say: ‘Watch the game again and you’ll see what he does.’

“His work-rate is unreal. Rian O’Neill’s goal against Down last week came from Rory. He won the ball in his own half of the field and he fisted it out, two kick passes later it was in the back of the net.”

For the way in which Ballymacnab climbed the ranks in Armagh over the past couple of decade is an uplifting parable in resilience and ceaseless spirit – but winning a senior championship has proven a bridge too far.

Three county final appearances [2011, 2018 and 2019], all against Crossmaglen Rangers, finished in defeat.

“Ballymacnab came from junior up,” says Kernan. “They had a real good crop of young players coming through which included Rory, Gavin McParland, Ryan Kennedy and Michael Beagan.

“They won a couple of Division One titles and reached three county finals. Unheard stuff – and it’s no coincidence it’s coming in an era when Rory Grugan was there.”

Former Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson, who coached ‘Nab in 2016 and ’17, says Grugan was a dream player to manage.

“Rory’s massively calm under pressure in tight spaces,” says Harbinson, who guided his own St Gall’s to an All-Ireland title in 2010.

“I’ve seen him getting the ball in the square for Ballymacnab, dip his shoulder and just pass the ball effortlessly, just that calmness he has.

“He almost plays as if he’s got an elevated view of the pitch. When you sit in the stand and you can see people peeling left and right but when you’re pitch level and you’ve bodies around you, it’s difficult to see a run or a pass. But Rory has that unique ability.

“Nowadays, everybody talks about heads-up football but Rory always played heads-up football. He always makes good decisions on the ball and very seldom gives it away. Every time you watch him he’s almost an eight-out-of-10 every game, he’s that solid.”

Time is a weird, merciless thing. Sometimes it feels like Rory Grugan has been around forever.

At other times, it feels like a blink of an eye.

Standing at the changing room doors, deep in the bowels of the Cusack Stand back in September ‘09, already missing his minor team-mates, to signing autographs on a rainy day in Clones in April 2023, Rory Grugan is 32 and still pondering a world of infinite possibilities with Armagh.

“When we won the All-Ireland minor I thought we’d win all the time,” says McParland.

“For the fans, it was frustrating. For the players, it was heart-breaking not to get to an Ulster final because I believed in us, we’d a good team. But we just didn’t click on the big days.

 “A lot of people deserve a lot of things but you just don’t get it handed to you. The dedication those boys have put in... but you have to do it on the day.”

“If Armagh are to win on Sunday,” Kernan says, “Rory needs to have a big game because he can do the things that we’re going to need in order to win.

“The tracking back and the tackling and all that sort of stuff is important, but Rory Grugan still needs to do what he does best because that’s where his biggest influence is on this Armagh team.”

Rory Grugan celebrates with the Tom Markham Cup in 2009
Rory Grugan celebrates with the Tom Markham Cup in 2009