Like everybody else, I was deeply saddened to read the social media post that shocked the country last week. It truly was one of those moments in life that just stops you in your tracks.
In the days beforehand, I had been contemplating match-ups, considering tactics, wondering to what extent kick-outs would be pressed in an eagerly anticipated Ulster final. There were so many intriguing elements to the contest, but in the blink of an eye all of that was gone.
A different story had come to dominate conversations around the country. It was uncharted territory, leaving all of us trying to make sense of the situation as best we could.
There are big questions here for us collectively as a society to consider but if there is one thing we have learned from our history on this island, it is that silence is not the answer.
The days and weeks ahead are important ones for the GAA. For while the Ulster final might be over, the conversation that started in the middle of last week is clearly not.
It was in that context I sat down to watch the Sunday’s game in Clones.
With such a glaring spotlight looming over the provincial decider, it was impossible to know how the game would play out, so great credit must go to both sets of players for producing a compelling encounter under such intense pressure.
In psychology speak, focus can be best described as a strong connection to those things that are critical to your performance, and in that regard both teams did an excellent job keeping their minds on the task at hand.
The Derry players settled early and within seconds of the throw-in they had engaged their familiar keep-ball approach.
However, it was also clear Armagh had a plan for what Derry would be bringing and the Orchard County asked questions of the defending champions that others had not. Significantly, they favoured a high press, which could then become a mid-block and eventually a low-block.
Armagh battle lines started in the offensive 45, not the defensive one. Staying high meant Derry had to work extremely hard to progress the ball forward. This high press shaped a lot of the tactics around the game.
Armagh’s defensive structure in the final third was also interesting, it was very much zonal in nature which meant they weren’t pulled or dragged out of shape, something Derry had shown to be quite adept at achieving in previous games.
Armagh had clearly gone to great lengths on preparing for Derry and they even had a plan in place for Odhrán Lynch. Whenever the Oak Leaf goalkeeper joined their attack to create a 15 v 14 situation, Armagh allowed him to venture behind one or two of their full forwards, who were back defending.
But as soon as that happened, those same full forwards pressed Lynch from behind. Suddenly Derry were in a different place, the game was not all in front of them but rather pressure was coming from all sides.
As a result of Armagh’s preparedness, Derry’s attacking threat lacked the same teeth it had in their previous championship games. All of these tactics provided a steady and positive start for Armagh, predicated on strategies that went to the heart of the Derry game plan.
The only exception here was their decision not to go after the Derry kick-out early in the game. Possession is key for Derry and for me this was a missed opportunity by Armagh, because they are one of the best equipped teams in the country to engage in a physical battle if they can force it long.
Despite all of their positive strategic innovations, in the ninth minute Armagh got caught for an early goal that was a pivotal score in the game. Ethan Rafferty’s decision to come out for a high dropping ball was one of those moments where you felt there was an outfield player in goal.
Brendan Rogers seized the opportunity to fist home and with every passing match his importance to Derry’s success grows, his athleticism, quality, decision-making and his global understanding of their game plan make him an invaluable presence. In many respects, Rogers, Conor Glass and Shane McGuigan are the heartbeat of this Derry team.
The goal was such a crucial score because for almost the entirety of the match thereafter it created a barrier. On each occasion Armagh got to within a point or two, Derry would manage to tag on a score and keep that narrow buffer between the sides right up until injury-time.
Kieran McGeeney’s side then had a chance to actually win the game after some intelligent play resulted in a dinked ball across the 45 to Rory Grugan’s chest – providing him with the chance to win the game from an advanced mark. It was a huge moment for Armagh football, but Grugan’s effort dropped short.
Lynch gathered the dropping ball and started out along the endline where he was quickly surrounded by Armagh players. In most other games he probably would have been blown for overcarrying, but there was no whistle.
The ball went to ground and what followed was like a scene from of rugby ruck, with the ball sitting on the endline but no player able to access it. David Gough eventually decided to throw it up, only to blow the final whistle as soon as he did. It felt like a bit of a cop-out by the referee.
Ultimately, Lynch was the hero of the first Ulster final to be decided by a penalty shoot-out.
But Derry had found a way during extra-time to stay alive in the contest, driven on by the likes of Glass, who is a real clutch-moment player – his fetch in the middle of the park late on was exceptional.
For Armagh, they will have left Clones knowing they are capable of competing with the top teams. And in Rian O’Neill they possess one of the best forwards in the business, his contribution on Sunday only enhanced his growing reputation in the game.
The joy on the faces of the Derry players at the final whistle was clear to see, however for me there was also something missing from the atmosphere in what would normally have been a euphoric moment.
I felt Ciarán Meenagh carried himself exceptionally well in the moments afterwards. In his post-match interviews he was calm, composed, measured and very humble. For me the gravity of the situation was not lost on him.
Nor should it be lost on any of us.