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Armagh flame burns bright as Grimley and McDonnell gripped by championship fever once again

By Decla Bogue

Last Thursday night, the Armagh squad were conducting their warm-up at a brisk pace. Along the sideline, manager Paul Grimley and selector Peter McDonnell were locked in conclave about players pushing their case hard for inclusion for this Sunday's game against Cavan.

It was a typically agonised conversation between football men, until McDonnell put his hand on Grimley's shoulder and said: "You know something Paul, this is why you and I are still involved in football."

Grimley asked: "What do you mean?" and McDonnell replied, "Championship! This is what it's all about!"

For McDonnell, the flame still burns just as hot as the sun on that July day in 2008 when he managed Armagh to their last Ulster Championship.

Now, his role is different.

On his way out after 2009, he made some murmurs about outside influences infiltrating his Armagh camp and was deeply upset.

A spell as Louth selector under Peter Fitzpatrick almost cured it before it went terribly wrong. More about that later.

When Grimley (pictured) took charge as manager, he recruited McDonnell instantly.

Both realise that the Orchard County men are at the start of a cycle, similar to ones they lived through in the mid '70s and '90s.

And they know what that entails.

"I would have to say there is a tremendous honesty, an integrity in the group and an honesty of effort and people applying themselves. It's exciting to be involved with Armagh!" says McDonnell, bubbling with enthusiasm.

"There are things I don't miss," he explains about the difference in being a selector these days rather than a manager.

"Like the trips to Croke Park for disciplinary hearings. Being hauled into Croke Park to listen to some new revolutionary thing that is going to change our game – which is underpinned by a vast amount of ignorance!"

Talking of disciplinary matters and being hauled to Croke Park, Armagh have had their travails this season in that regard with the suspension of Ciaran McKeever being a particular low point.

If there is one facet of the Championship opener that McDonnell is nervous about, it is that the first game tends to be refereed with a certain officiousness that soon drops off after an initial outcry.

"This was always an issue," he says.

"There seems to be a tremendous urgency with the powers that be to tweak and interfere, to manipulate, for whatever reasons beyond me, for the reasons cited, to clean up our game.

"All the time, they are asking the same about officials – to officiate and adjudicate, to make decisions on the back of a split second."

Asked if he was sympathetic to Roscommon boss John Evans' suggestion of having two referees, he replies: "Linesmen didn't do anything years ago, now you have linesmen flagging constantly, so effectively you have a second tier of referees officiating from the sidelines.

"Added to that, the umpires are being consulted and they have been in the aftermath of the 2010 Leinster final.

"I would imagine that if linesmen and umpires are being consulted with – as opposed to dictated to – then maybe Louth might have got a more favourable result in 2010."

It still smarts. Of course it does.

McDonnell was an Armagh supporter for years when winning a single game in the Championship "was a good day out. But the inevitable was just around the corner."

Therefore, when he was part of the 2010 Louth management that led the 'wee county' to within moments of their first Leinster title since 1957, only to be denied by Joe Sheridan carrying the ball over the line in the 74th minute and referee Martin Sludden's refusal to consult with his umpires, it hurt him like the injustice was against his own.

"The winning and the losing of that match was on the back of an absolute and disgraceful arrogant call. And I could put it much stronger than that," he fumes now, almost three years on.

"I appreciate the Louth County Board, and in relation to the Leinster Council – there is politicking going on. There are compromises and a mild vocabulary used. But that would be very, very far removed from the vocabulary used behind the dressing room door.

"Louth's dream was destroyed, absolutely destroyed."

And you know in the way he talks about integrity, in the way he stares straight at you when he recalls the moment, that this is a Championship animal.

Just as he gets up to leave, he shares one last thought.

"It's a pity there's a backdoor, that it's not do or die. It heightens the whole experience of it, the whole enjoyment of it."

• Tyrone have received a major boost ahead of their opening Ulster championship clash with Donegal with the news that Peter Harte returned to action for his club yesterday afternoon.

Harte lined out at centre half back for County champions Errigal Ciaran away to Ardboe.

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