“We’ve given people some good days but I want a winning day...” Armagh skipper Forker shoots for the stars

New Centre of Excellence will help Orchard County to challenge the best says Paul McGrane

Ground zero: Work is underway at the Armagh Centre of Excellence in Portadown (J_Merry)

THE higher a county climbs the ladder, the more the GAA becomes a way of life for its players.

As teams push for edges in tactics, preparation, nutrition and recovery the facilities must be put in place to make it all work. We demand total commitment from amateur players with careers and families so training has to be streamlined to suit them.

Ulster champions Derry have Owenbeg. Tyrone, Ulster’s last Sam Maguire winners, have the superb Garvaghey facility. Monaghan, All-Ireland semi-finalists last year, have their impressive base at Annyalla…

Just behind are Armagh who are throwing everything they have into catching and beating them but lost to all three in edge-of-a-knife battles last season.

What part did Armagh’s comparatively humble facilities play? The Orchard county’s Callanbridge training ground served its purpose but, in these days of glass and steel and made-to-measure sand-based pitches, it is now well past its sell-by date.

That’s why the Armagh GAA brethren are so excited about their county’s new facility. For years Portadown was a focal point for sectarian controversy, now it is to be the base of the Armagh Centre of Excellence at the 26-acre St Malachy’s Hurling Club grounds.

The two pitches and the gym that will be delivered by the end of this year are just the start. Four more phases are planned and two more fibre grass pitches (one made to the exact dimensions of the Athletic Grounds surface) are in the pipeline along with a sports pavilion which will incorporate four sets of changing rooms, a multi-purpose hall, meeting rooms, office accommodation and treatment/physio rooms, a strength and conditioning performance hub, a sports dome 3G pitch and inflatable bubble for all-weather training, a ball wall, a spectator stand and terrace area, a maintenance building and a coach/car parking area…

Aidan Forker sets Armagh on the front foot against Meath. Picture by John Merry
Aidan Forker sets Armagh on the front foot against Meath. Picture by John Merry

Armagh skipper Aidan Forker has been soldiering in the orange jersey for 14 seasons now and that’s long enough to know the impact the development will have on the county’s prospects.

“It is always a great sense of pride to pull on an Armagh jersey,” said the Maghery clubman.

“I suppose where we are is exciting, we were a kick of a ball away from getting over the line last year in terms of winning Championships and winning an Ulster title, which is long overdue and as a group we are very aware of that.

“Just to touch on the impact of this project: If you imagine such small margins, we are getting ready for the Championship, an All-Ireland quarter-final or an Ulster final and we have to go outside the county to emulate the pitch.

“We are always trying to find the small margins, so we are trying to find a pitch that has the exact same dimensions as Clones or Croke Park and we don’t have that in the county. So, whenever you are planning a training day you go to Abbottstown (Dublin) or you go to Inniskeen (Monaghan) and that is the reality of us trying to prepare our teams the best we can before the big games.”

A computer-generated image of how the Armagh Centre of Excellence will look

The gym the Armagh players use is at a separate location to the Callanbridge ground so, if they decide to have a kick around after their workout, they need to contact a groundsman to have the fields opened for them. The system is not as straightforward as it could be and the new facility will cut out that extra layer of red tape.

“I’m just thinking of the ease which the boys can get their practice in and take goal-kicks and free-kicks,” Forker added.

“We know how important frees are in a game, we had one (a mark) in the last minute of the Ulster final last year and it didn’t go over. It wasn’t the player’s fault, but those are the small margins that could get you over the line if you have such a facility.

“That is where we need to go in order to create that environment, the platform to keep competing at the higher level. We are close but every year is different and there are no guarantees any year that we will get back to an Ulster final or be as close as we were last year. We’re pushing hard and we had some good days but ultimately, we haven’t had a winning day.

“We’ve given people some good days but I want a winning day.”

Forker agreed that the Armagh County Board is playing its part in the drive for success and there’s a bonus for him that travelling to training in Portadown is only a short commute from Maghery.

“It might add a few more years my career,” he said with a chuckle.

“Training does get changed. We train in Callanbridge and it has flooded a couple of times this year and there was one morning we were waiting on management to make a decision and we upped sticks to go to Middletown’s back pitch.

“We don’t have a real trustworthy pitch to train on, I know at the time Callanbridge was state-of-the-art but we are definitely behind when you go to Owenbeg and Garvaghy.

“It is well needed and the chat I suppose was that it would never happen, but now the first sod has been cut and they are aiming to have it opened in October, so it’s a ‘bring-on-pre-season-next-year’ kind of thing.”

The Armagh players can help to drive the ambitious project on by continuing their winning ways. So far this season Armagh have beaten Louth and Meath at home and, although there is a long way still to go, they are on course for a return to the top flight.

Improved facilities will help Armagh compete with Ireland's best, says Aidan Forker

After that the quest for a long-awaited Championship breakthrough begins.

“We can’t take our eye off the ball on performances,” says Forker.

“We are in Division Two now, the buzz around the county when we are in Division One is important. I think winning cures a lot of things and creates that buzz around the county where people want to get involved. From a (playing) group point of view, we are focusing on performances and wins.”

Forker’s team-mate Greg McCabe says “to be the best, you have to have the best”. He explained how preparation for important Championship games has reached the level where teams want to prepare on a replica of the match pitch.

“The new centre looks amazing,” said McCabe.

“We do need new training facilities, Callanbridge has held up well over the years but, after looking at the plans, you know that any young player would be happy being a part of them. The pitches look unreal, the gym facilities are class so the future is looking bright.

“You need those facilities. To be the best you need to have the best. If you want to train on a pitch that’s the same size as the one you’re going to play on then Callanbridge is a bit small for that. “Practising the way you’re going to play on game days is massive for us and hopefully these training facilities will drive us on a wee bit more because it is small margins that make the difference.”

Armagh president Jimmy Smyth and chairman Paul McArdle view the plans (J_Merry)

YOU can detect the passion and commitment he brought to his performances in the Armagh midfield during the glory days of the early 2000s when Paul McGrane discusses the impact the £10million Centre of Excellence development could have on his county.

Since his playing days came to an end, McGrane has been among the leading lights behind-the-scenes who have pushed for investments in and improvements to Armagh’s infrastructure. In McGrane’s day the Armagh senior team didn’t have a permanent base so they trained on whatever pitch was available. Callanbridge solved that issue but the bar has been raised and McGrane says Armagh have to match their rivals to compete with them.

“We’re all Armagh folk,” he said.

“I can’t put on boots but I can go and do whatever I can do. We’re a small county and we need to maximise what we have just to compete. We’ll all come and go so this is about leaving Armagh in a better place for the youth coming through so we can continuously push on. Call a spade a spade, you look up the road at the Tyrone facility at Garvaghy and Owenbeg and places like that and we want that for our senior team.

“It is definitely going to help the senior team, it’s going to help Armagh to challenge. To think that you are going to have players like Aidan Forker and Rory Grugan and any of the senior team training next to a pitch of underage players…

“Imagine what that is going to do for the younger players! They are going to be inspired by seeing their icons and they’ll continue to strive to be the best they can be. Ultimately you want a facility that creates an environment where the whole lot can grow and strive and push on and that is the importance of it.”

The idea for the Portadown development was first mentioned over two decades ago by then county board member Brendy McCann. With funding unavailable, the project was put on the backburner but the seed had been planted and the first sod was turned at St Malachy’s last week.

“There are people in the background at county board and many others and it has gone on for years,” explained McGrane.

“It hasn’t all been straightforward but they have been resolute to make sure that it is going to happen and it has been given the go-ahead in Croke Park.

“There were different things tried and other things didn’t happen but ultimately there was this real appetite to enhance the facilities and that is what has happened now, there is physical thing, the sod has been turned.

“I would say there is a lot of excitement to push on and get it done. When you consider other Centres of Excellence around the country in Ulster and beyond, we have to get to that level and do more.

“Let’s go and give our lads the state-of-the-art facilities to create and environment to allow them to push on and be the best they can.”