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Kings of replay out to strike again

Current mixture of Armagh stars are hoping to follow suit and continue record of going the extra mile

By Declan Bogue

It's one of those special records that teams build up without even realising. Once a trend develops and people begin to draw attention to it, then it becomes part of your armour.

In 1999, Armagh were on the verge of something with a special generation of players coming up through the ranks.

Crossmaglen Rangers provided inspiration in casting off inferiority complexes for Armagh sides, but they got stuck in a rut against Donegal in the first round of Ulster.

It took a replay to get through. It was the first replay Armagh had been involved in since the Great Escape of the Athletic Grounds against Fermanagh in 1993. But from that point on, one of the most impressive records of modern times in the GAA was born.

Since 1999, Armagh have been involved in 10 replays. They have won nine of them.

Their one loss in that time was the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final to eventual champions Kerry and even at that, they took the Kingdom to extra-time.

The thing about football is that there is always a next game. Records don't tend to colour their thinking and it's not something they pondered when they were together as a group, maintains Oisín McConville.

"If you asked anyone who played alongside me about their record in replays they wouldn't realise that it was nine out of 10!" he laughs.

In his mind, the replays were a case of Armagh making work for themselves.

Whenever Crossmaglen prepared for games, the opposition would be written up on a blackboard. Once they felt they had their strengths and weaknesses covered, they would rub them out.

That simple act might have been the most unintended but effective psychological tool they could have for a group that had swept the boards coming through the underage ranks.

"I would have thought that sometimes we sort of built teams up for the sake of it," McConville recalls.

"As I went on, one of the things I would have done at club level was to try and keep it as real as possible. If a team was rated, I didn't think they were great. I think we did that too many times, and that was proven in the replays."

Overall, the Armagh team of the noughties were an austere, cautious bunch. A striking feature of their squad was how many went on to manage and coach at inter-county and club level, or work for bodies such as the Ulster Council.

They thought about the game on a deep level, says Paddy McKeever and while cleaning the blackboard might have worked for the likes of McConville, it wasn't for everyone, especially those from less successful clubs.

"When Oisín's involved, it's a Cross thing that no matter who they are playing they think they are better footballers and let's get out and show it," he says about his partner in that half-forward line.

"Sometimes you can over-analyse things and forget actually what you are meant to do."

Given how fine the margins were between them and Tyrone in that decade, there is no surprise that their neighbours across the Blackwater featured in two of the replays.

More surprising is how Donegal and Fermanagh could hold them when they might have been expected to sail past.

"There's something about the weeks leading up to some of the bigger games, that there's just a different level, a different intensity in training, regardless of competition for places or whatever. There's just a different buzz about the place," McKeever describes.

"Sometimes you can go in flat if you don't have that. If you get a second bite at it you can right the wrongs."

In a team of big personalities, they never liked when their progress was halted.

Inevitably they delivered payback and the alpha males among the group produced more of themselves and expected that reflected right across the board.

There were days they got out of jail. Such as the 2005 Ulster quarter-final against Donegal when they were three points down heading down the stretch, but, much like the present Armagh crop did six days ago, they found a way back into the light and forced a replay with scores from McConville and Paul McGrane.

Mention of McGrane now sparks a memory for McConville.

"I recall getting the equaliser, we were horrendous that day.

"Paul McGrane was always a great man for instructing defence and midfield to let the ball in long rather than mess about with it in the middle of the field."

With Ronan Clarke and Stephen McDonnell inside and Diarmuid Marsden feeding off the breaks, Armagh had perfected the diagonal ball and as any forward will tell you, nothing delights quite like an early ball forward.

"We used to create a lot more chances when we would do that," McConville notes.

"Ironically we would do that a lot more when we played in replays because invariably, in the initial game we would have had a lot of turnovers and make nothing of the possession."

And the rearguard also would come to the fore.

"I would have seen where let's say Geezer, or Enda McNulty or Francie or whoever didn't have a particularly good game in the first game from a defensive point of view and maybe they wanted to right that wrong," McConville says.

"My memory of it is that in the replays we gave away very few scores and that was down to our defence feeling hurt by what they did in the first game. I don't know if that bears out but that would be my thinking of it."

Indeed, the records would bear him out. In three replays, they cut the opposition's goal tally by one. In two games, they narrowed it by two.

The character and ability of this side has been heavily questioned, but it has been held up against a harsh light of the brilliance of the previous decades' team.

Whether they can step out of their shadow or not, depends on extending their winning record in replays all the way back to 2002.

Belfast Telegraph

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