Brendan Crossan: Kieran McGeeney deserves one last push with Armagh

Kieran McGeeney is seeking another year in charge of his native Armagh
Kieran McGeeney is seeking another year in charge of his native Armagh Kieran McGeeney is seeking another year in charge of his native Armagh

ANY time I’ve met and spoken with Stephen Sheridan, it has always been interesting and enlightening. His inter-county career with Armagh dates back to the days of Paddy O’Rourke – but his time at the top level really took off when Kieran McGeeney assumed the managerial reins.

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The affable Forkhill man came to prominence during Armagh’s gallant run through the All-Ireland Qualifiers in 2017.

Parked behind a Sky Sports pay-wall, I was mesmerised watching Sheridan put the jets on in the final throes of their All-Ireland Qualifier against Tipperary in Thurles that led to a brilliant pass to Gavin McParland who, in turn, set up Jamie Clarke to find the net.

Sheridan has always been there or thereabouts in Armagh’s midfield. In the season just passed, he found game-time hard to come by such was the competitive nature of the Orchard midfield.

In every panel, there are energy-givers and energy-sappers. It often depends on the amount of game-time a player gets as to what category they fall into.

You naturally find more energy-sappers among the substitutes, guys who are frustrated at not getting on the field and are therefore quick to pick holes in tactics, team selection, training drills and the man-management skills of the coaching team.

Stephen Sheridan was given a chance with Armagh under Kieran McGeeney
Stephen Sheridan was given a chance with Armagh under Kieran McGeeney Stephen Sheridan was given a chance with Armagh under Kieran McGeeney

It was strange to survey the number of players leaving the Tyrone senior panel after they’d won their fourth All-Ireland title in 2021. Each player exit made back page news.

You could probably understand if the same number of players were leaving other inter-county panels across the country – like Armagh. After all, they haven’t won meaningful silverware since an Anglo-Celt under Peter McDonnell in 2008.

But nobody seems to ever leave the Armagh panel.

That suggests they have a disproportionate number of energy-givers in their 35-plus panel. In other words, the culture of the group – easily the most important thing in a team environment – is extremely healthy.

Stephen Sheridan hasn’t decided on whether he’ll be playing for Armagh next year. He’s over-30 and didn’t get a lot of minutes during the year – and yet, it was his voice that emerged this week to support McGeeney staying in the role.

He made an impassioned appeal to the clubs of Armagh ahead of Monday night’s meeting to retain the 2002 All-Ireland winning captain for a 10th year.

Everybody knows Armagh’s tale of woe in the Championship. They exited last year’s All-Ireland series on penalties to Galway. They suffered penalty shoot-out heartache again in this season’s Ulster final – their first appearance in the decider since ’08 – and if that wasn't tough enough to take, they exited to Monaghan on penalties.

Armagh were better than Derry and Monaghan – but didn’t close out the games.

And it probably doesn’t make them feel any better watching how Derry schooled Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-finals – and then threw it away – and Dublin struggling to shake off an unfancied Monaghan going down the home straight at Croke Park.

The simple, irrefutable point here is, Armagh have never been closer to winning Ulster or an All-Ireland.

Why would Armagh change horses now? Ah, but ‘Geezer’ can’t get them over the line.

“Some people think we’re not getting over the line because of management,” Sheridan said. “We’re not getting over the line because, as players, we probably made wrong decisions going down the stretch in games.”

There was a stronger rationale for a managerial change back in 2021.

In one of the greatest games of our time, Armagh conceded four first-half goals against Monaghan in an Ulster semi-final at Pairc Esler and were still desperately unlucky to lose after a remarkable comeback that was ruined by the irrepressible Conor McManus.

Armagh were exhilarating to watch but they were just too open at the back to be taken seriously.

Somewhere along the line they got fed up with losing classic matches. So, they recalibrated and are probably where Donegal were at in 2011 – a period when Jim McGuinness’s side just didn’t have the transition between defence and attack right.

Sheridan added: “Our transition was slow at times throughout the year. That wasn’t management; they were pushing us hard in training, when we turn the ball over, we get our attack off in 16 seconds. I would love people to come and watch our training sessions because when we get the ball, we attack, it’s first-touch forward, move the ball.

“And I think that is the frustrating thing because we played a wee bit within ourselves at times in games.”

For all of Armagh’s surprisingly tentative attacking play in 2023, they are still in the middle of a development phase where we want to see its conclusion.

It may end in tears in 2024 or it may end in a podium appearance. But McGeeney deserves the opportunity to finish what he started.

Why? Because they’ve never been closer. And then there is the experienced nucleus of the side: Rory Grugan, Aidan Forker, Andy Murnin and Stefan Campbell.

Would a managerial change at Monday night’s meeting of the clubs be the desired outcome for these key performers?

Perspective is easily lost in a county like Armagh where there is unrivalled passion and emotion for the game.

When Kieran McGeeney took over from Paul Grimley in 2015, there was this inarticulate belief that the good times were just around the corner.

Sometimes Armagh were too gung-ho in their approach. Sometimes they were tactically outfoxed and too slow to react to the opposition.

They failed the Championship stress tests they were presented with at times and had this unerring habit of being part of classic matches and losing them.

And sometimes the opposition just had better players in key areas of the pitch.

In the early years of McGeeney’s time in charge, there was a clutch of Armagh footballers whose quality was either slightly inflated or they simply needed time to develop into top level inter-county footballers.

Sometimes it’s important to look back to see how far you’ve travelled.

When Stephen Sheridan was cutting a dash down in Thurles six years ago, Armagh were still miles off the top teams in the country.

They reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals that same season – and Tyrone ran over the top of them in a painfully one-sided contest in Croke Park.

That yawning gap has since disappeared through their ceaseless efforts and they are now within reach of Gaelic football’s summit.

Why would you change now?