Armagh put relegation to good use as Kieran McGeeney prepares for Ulster challenge

A season of better balanced attack and defence has sent the county straight back to Division One and into Sunday’s final

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney has an idiosyncratic way with post-match media.

He frequently sends out another member of management to take the plaudits after a significant win but when things go wrong he generally turns up to face the music himself.

One such occasion was the final day of last season’s league. His team began the day needing to draw against Tyrone, but after an afternoon of fluctuating fortunes between Omagh and Castlebar – where Monaghan were as usual struggling to cast off the chains of another last-minute relegation encounter – it was Armagh who dropped.

Out came the manager to articulate the woes of the situation.


“It’s hard to take any solace today,” he said. “You know we probably could have and should have won most games we played in and it’s very disappointing but that’s sport at the top level – there are fine margins and you need to be on the right side of them.”

Now in his 10th year at the helm, McGeeney has at this stage been force-fed fine margins.

They got relegated 12 months ago with a scoring difference of -3, the second-best total of the past 10 years of relegation from Division One, a period when demoted counties have on average conceded 24 more points than they scored.

In championship, McGeeney has dealt with the perpetual sorrows of the penalty shoot-out, losing matches three times in two championships at the cost of two places in All-Ireland semi-finals and also, last year, a first Ulster title in 15 years.

Adding to last year’s frustration was the sense among supporters that a level of caution introduced to improve matters defensively had shackled what is seen as the team’s greatest asset, their forwards.

Before last year’s Ulster final against champions Derry, former Armagh joint-manager Brian Canavan articulated the slight sense of frustration.

“We have the players – there’s no getting away from it – especially going forward if we let them off the leash a wee bit. That’s the feeling in the county. We have forwards who would get on any team. They seem to do well in a match for a wee while and then go into their shell and let the other team back into it. They’ve been doing that all year.”

Prophetic words, as the provincial final was lost on penalties after extra-time during which Armagh had apparently winning positions, leading twice by two points but stalling when victory beckoned.

It was a case of rinse and repeat in the All-Ireland quarter-final when they had possession and platform to kill off Monaghan but didn’t, and once more lost on penalties as they had done the previous year against Galway.

This Sunday, McGeeney’s team are back in Croke Park after a restorative campaign in Division Two. Derry’s Conleith Gilligan has joined Kieran Donaghy and Ciarán McKeever on the coaching ticket, new players have been trialled and a sense of adventure restored, or at least a perceived rebalancing of priorities.

Aaron Kernan, the former Armagh player who recently retired from club activity with Crossmaglen and a leading pundit on GAAGO, says that, although the management dispute it, there appears to have been a readjustment.

“That’s what it looks like to the untrained eye! You hear from Geezer [McGeeney] and the boys that they haven’t done anything different. It’s only subtle change but it’s making a big difference. Like the concession rate – take out the match in Cork where they conceded 2-16 and the average is down around 0-10, 0-11, which is pretty measly defending.

“They’re scoring more as well. Again, take out the Donegal game which I felt was really cagey and Louth, which was the first day out, and they have been scoring heavily and getting scores more easily because they are keeping more men ahead of the ball than they did last year.”

An unbeaten league campaign ended in second place due to the point dropped in Cork. It was all fairly predictable, as from the start Armagh and Donegal, under the returning Jim McGuinness, had been the hottest favourites for promotion since Napoleon was a corporal.

The divisional final is likely to be as cagey as their regulation league match, which ended in a draw, as both counties eye the horizon where Ulster championship action awaits.

McGeeney has also used the league to expand his panel.

“The two key players who I expect to play championship,” says Kernan, “are Peter McGrane at corner back, who’s a nephew of Paul’s [2002 All-Ireland centrefielder] and Oisín Conaty from Tír na nÓg, in at corner forward.

“Even last weekend, he kicked 0-4 from play and has just been brilliant. He’d remind you an awful lot of his clubmate – and my former team-mate – Brian Mallon, who was not huge but a bull in possession, fast and comfortable off either foot.

“His work rate, his endeavour has been brilliant, which is valued by Geezer but he’s still putting scores on the board. Cian McConville was playing brilliantly but picked up a bit of an injury. He’ll not be too far away.”

Kernan acknowledges that the division hasn’t been of a particularly high standard but has been encouraged at how Armagh have outperformed their surroundings.

“Last year if you were told Rian O’Neill wasn’t playing for most of the league, you’d have thought Armagh would struggle. Instead, we got out of Division Two really easily when in the past it’s been difficult.

“You can only beat what’s in front of you. Whether they came on the way they’re playing by design or accident, it has worked and I think the balance is right. They look like a Division One team.”

Another potential change in emphasis has been the goalkeeping position. Ethan Rafferty has been one of the new breed, especially plentiful in Ulster, who play as a 15th outfielder. In last year’s Ulster final, he was almost quarterbacking the Armagh attacks from the opposition 45.

A long-term injury has kept Rafferty off the field and in his absence, Blaine Hughes has brought a more orthodox style to the position.

“Blaine would have been a goalkeeper with his club Carrickcruppin,” explains Kernan, “whereas Ethan would have been midfield, half forward. It’s maybe more making the best of what you have. Blaine has been very solid. Now, he does come out and will get on ball if they’re stuck and kick it back to him but Ethan was bursting on to it with the mindset of a half forward.

“I think the slight adjustment in the way we play has meant we haven’t missed Ethan as much because he was setting up a lot of play and coming late on the ball. Now, the outfield players are doing that, which is brilliant.

“I’m already looking forward to the championship.”

– Allianz Football League Division Two final: Donegal v Armagh, Croke Park, Sunday, 1.45

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times