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Future bright again as Armagh await the perfect storm

By Declan Bogue

On Wednesday night, two groups of Armagh underage prospects convened for a night of shooting practise and goalkeeping coaching.

They would find it hard to recall the deeds of Oisín McConville, Cathal O'Rourke, John McEntee, Brian McAlinden, Benny Tierney, John Toal, and Paddy McKeever. But if they asked their elders, my, the stories they could tell ...

And here they are now, veterans of the 2002 All-Ireland win and countless Ulster titles. All helping out in the Athletic Grounds one night, Callan Bridge another with the Orchard Academy; itself a brainchild of then-midfield warrior Paul McGrane among others.

After a league campaign that saw Armagh relegated to the third tier for the first time in decades, this is the kind of graft that is crucial for the future.

"There is a lot of work being done behind the scenes now," says Paddy McKeever.

"To see the fruition of that will take a while. The team was going well there for a number of years and it was just something that was taken for granted, rather than something that had to be worked upon."

Armagh's demise was a familiar tale to many. While they were smelling the flowers of senior success, the roots weren't watered. An under-21 All-Ireland came in 2004, a Minor followed in 2009, but converting a steady drip of underage talent into seniors has proven tricky.

It led to days such as last year's Championship defeat in Breffni Park. Armagh's pride was stung.

Being made a laughing stock of by the television pundits wasn't particularly pleasant either but Paul Grimley's apology to the Armagh fans, although well-intentioned, spun the cringe dial up to 11. And while the temptation in such circumstances is to scrutinise structures and management, so much of modern football is dependent on the core group of players and their prevailing attitude.

When Joe Kernan took over as senior manager he inherited a team with a few Ulster titles under their belts, threatening to take the next step, prepared to take the necessary risks.

Take Diarmuid Marsden in the 2002 final for example. With Armagh needing an injection of belief after McConville's penalty was saved in the first half, it was Marsden that dropped deep from corner-forward to the wing to collect a Benny Tierney kickout, before working it up the pitch for McConville to goal.

That wasn't a pre-rehearsed move, it was simply a senior player taking responsibility, something Marsden now believes must happen.

"The players have to start taking responsibility here for performing and they know that last year was not good enough," the former All-Star comments.

"Long-term, there are a lot of good young players involved and lot of players have been looked at over the last 12 months. Maybe Armagh are looking at the long-term future but don't get me wrong, it's a big Championship there at the minute.

"Long-term goes out the window, this is about playing Cavan on Sunday. You would need to see some sort of a kick- out of them this week, some sort of a reaction."

In Grimley's statement after the Cavan game last year, he said, " ... we have adopted a very attack minded approach from the start of the year, a high pressure high risk strategy which was practised throughout the league with limited success, but we will persist with our plan ... "

It now appears, with the team named on Thursday night that the Kamikaze approach has been shelved.

Former county coach John Morrison notes: "When you look at last year, their style of play was very ambitious and they didn't protect the defence. The real difference was not the goal that Cian Mackey scored, it was the manner of it.

"It was embarrassing because they left the middle wide open and Mackey was given a 50-yard run."

Paddy McKeever is even more straightforward.

"Football suicide," he notes. "That's the long and short of it.

"I think it's admirable to try total football of sorts, but not everybody has a panel capable of it. Especially when you are coming up against a team like Cavan who are going to draw back and leave your whole full-back line exposed. The spaces Cavan had last year are not logical and I can't see that happening."

Not with Kieran McGeeney there. Conservative by nature and a defender by trade, he has also done a lot of work on their mental preparation.

"There is a spirit back again and they are not deflated anymore," Morrison reveals.

Yet his presence as a second-in-command mirrors the Keane-O'Neill axis. The media fascination of such characters will always dwarf the set-up.

McKeever certainly feels so. "Paul has made it very clear that this is his last year as far as I am aware. So Kieran is next in line.

"His role now is probably more holistic, same as it was in Kildare when he helped out with changing structures as well."

Morrison agrees.

"It is the obvious scenario that Kieran would take over. A man of his profile and his expertise, it's a fresher voice, but I would imagine Paul is going next year.

"Paul was a victim of last year. This year they have been very private in their preparation. There is a gut feeling out there that it has gone from dark cloud to hope."

That's the short-term view. The long-term project is the Orchard Academy and McKeever believes that Armagh have a bit of catching up to do in terms of acquiring their own Owenbeg or Garvaghey. Their training facilities, he believes are "third-world compared to the rest of them."

In 2011, Down arrived at the Athletic Grounds as All-Ireland finalists the previous year. Brash and full of themselves, Armagh mowed them down on a dark and moody evening.

Morrison maintains there is always a kick in them.

"Armagh when they are rank underdogs, that's when they can produce their best. The fact is that they are at home this year –and I know it's only a pitch, but it adds something to the mystique of the game."

Mystique, expectation and hurt. The perfect storm awaits.

Belfast Telegraph

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