Old Armagh failures see us lose a match we had won

April 21, 2009

Dear Editor,

On last Wednesday night I was among those who managed to squeeze  into the confines of the small stand at Casement Park to watch the Armagh Down U21 final. The first GAA game I ever attended was the Ulster Senior Final of 1961, at this same venue between the same counties, when a rampant Armagh first half display faded  and we ended up losing by a goal to the then All-Ireland champions.

As the U-21 game  went into its last quarter and Armagh led by four points, I began to reflect on how times had changed , that it was now the turn of Armagh to be in the ascendancy and here we were, looking good for another championship victory in keeping with the encounters of the modern age between these two arch rivals.

Still, we were being beaten at midfield for most of the hour. We were generally good in attack and resilient enough in defence and a  powerful commitment was keeping us en route for an Ulster title.  But as Down made their do or die effort to take the lead in the final minute, which they did, other memories snapped into focus.  Chief among them were the thoughts of Armagh’s Croke Park defeat to Tyrone in 2005 when we led by two points going into the final five minutes.

       But first the midfield. Far too much pressure has been put on Ciaran Toner to become the overnight saviour of Armagh football.  Both he and his Carrickcruppen partner performed solidly enough , but in the aerial battles for possession they were outfielded by their more athletic Down opponents. Neither are what one might term “lead fielders” that is, players who can consistently dominate the aerial battles, but are more supporting midfielders who can forage and rough their way around the middle when strength is needed. As well, Toner may not be fully recovered from his injury yet. 

 Since the demise of Paul Mc Grane, Armagh has had no lead fielder, a player who will gain possession consistently no matter who is put up against him. As we look into the immediate future it seems that there is no replacement for him in this regard. Armagh have been  coming off second best in midfield all year. In the All-Ireland club final last March, Crossmaglen were largely blotted out at midfield by rampant, high catching opponents. It was a similar picture at Casement against Down Under 21s where we lost out consistently in this aerial department. The question of timing, judgement and confidence required to compete in the air at midfield are not present as they should be.

Armagh apparently does not have a ready made, mature high fielder of All-Ireland class who can compete with the best with total confidence, any place, any time. All those being currently earmarked as the new Mc Grane are falling short either because they are not being coached in high fielding or they just lack the natural athleticism to make the progress required or they fall somewhere between.

But the over riding memory from the game at Casement was the manner in which Armagh “let” Down come at them for the winning goal in the final minute of normal time. For the players and management this had to be devastating, especially as they all put so much effort into this game. Armagh had created some very good movements for their scores and, as said earlier, midway through the second half were leading by four points and doing all the running. Then came the fatal last minute.

Almost four years previous against Tyrone we had done the necessary donkey work and out muscled and outplayed our opponents. We missed some easy chances to go further ahead than our two point lead in the final five minutes. There was some controversy at the time about taking off Mc Geeney but that was not the real issue. The real problem was pure naivety. Instead of stopping the Tyrone build ups  far out, we let them move up the middle in their usual last- gasp basketball style attacks and then fouled them in front of goal. When defending a lead in the final minutes of a game, you  must foul far out and snip  things in the bud.  Several times toward the end Tyrone played the ball out of their own deep defence and we did not have the wit to foul them there and keep stopping them. The same sort of thing happened against Fermanagh at Croke Park when they were allowed to inter pass from eighty yards out all the way up the field out to score the winning point.

So when Down began their final surge out of the middle, and with a lone Down forward and a lone Armagh defender isolated up front, the alarm bells were ringing that we needed to squash the Down advantage immediately. Armagh defenders had been dragged upfield. We needed to stop things dead and restore a balance of numbers, but that did not happen and Down raced on and found the net.

For all the commitment, Armagh lost a game that they had won, the latest in a long, long list going back down the years and decades. I felt particularly sorry for the management who had put so much work into things despite the fact that they were preparing earlier in the absence of the Rangers contingent. But at a much deeper level, Armagh lost because they were not aired in the more subtle elements of the game such as protecting a lead. Remember as well the minor final of 1992. When are we going to get street wise?

And with the senior championship looming up, Armagh  are waiting on a new midfield messiah. A few promising figures have come along but as things stand, it is a weakness in the team  and this is an area where Armagh need to focus and see how the standard of midfield playing has evolved  and left us behind. It’s worth remembering that Paul Mc Grane did not arrive on the scene as a ready made high fielder in command of all the arts of the game. He developed his game by pure application and this took several years to evolve at senior level.

       I have a feeling that another factor is adding to our problems and the very name of Mc Grane is symptomatic of that. He and others have cast a shadow over things by their sheer presence in the background. I feel, and said it after Wexford 08, that it would have been better if the older heroes of 2002 had called it a day there and then and cleared the way for a new generation. I exempted of course Stephen Mc Donnell and Ronan Clarke who are still on the right side of thirty and still two of Ireland’s greatest attacking players.

It can not be good for up and coming players to feel they are only there until others get into shape or arrive from Rangers at the end of March. There is always the sense of being on loan in a position until the real article returns.  Why did Francie Bellew, Paul Mc Grane and Paddy Mc Keever not retire from county football last August instead of waiting until a few weeks before the championship. What has changed since then? The result has been a limbo situation and has only added to the difficulties of management during these already difficult transitional times.

Peter Makem