Time for management to take stock and introduce radical new structures
July 27, 2010
With the exception of Tyrone and Down, this has been a chastening championship for the Ulster teams. Derry made a brief splutter after their defeat at Celtic Park but went down badly to Kildare and looked grateful to be out of the competition. Donegal capitulated without a fight at Crossmaglen and the promise of Antrim in recent years simply disintegrated at Casement Park against Kildare as if there had been no revival at all. Fermanagh never got over their Ulster final loss in 2008 to Armagh and had a whimpering end to their campaign earlier in the month in Enniskillen while Cavan made the long humiliating journey home from Cork like the return from Kinsale.
Armagh’s championship disappointment is surpassed only by that of Monaghan who of all the teams in Ulster had highest hopes of serious progress. But they were twice outflanked and out manoeuvred, first by Tyrone and then by Kildare on Saturday last, probably ending the aspirations of that panel of players.
But what of Armagh? We can look around us and take comfort of sorts in being surrounded by chastened comrades from all over the province. Or we can turn our stare across the Blackwater and ask why our graph continues to slide while they are moving upward again toward a possible fourth All-Ireland. We may wonder how they continue to turn out such superb teams and that their transition amounts to a sabbatical or gap year when they recharge and head for another assault on the Sam Maguire, while our transition has lasted for seven years and shows no sign whatever of an upturn.
About a year ago I proposed in an article that who ever became the new Armagh manager was on a looser if totally fresh foundations were not laid. I pointed out that it didn’t matter what manager was appointed, he was going nowhere if the specialized groundwork was not done. I proposed that we were fooling ourselves unless people sat down and took long and serious stock as to why the decline had set in since the demise of the All-Ireland team around 2004. We needed to go back behind the starting line, create a whole new system, develop players in a new manner and push back the boundaries of the game even further. It must be remembered that the Armagh of Brian Mc Alinden and Joe Kernan created the revolutionary blanket system which was later perfected by Tyrone and adopted by every other team to the present day. That’s how Armagh won the All-Ireland.
The decline set in after 2003 and things moved downward from the heights to a ceiling of success at provincial level- unprecedented by Armagh’s past lack of achievement- but nevertheless a steady decline. The past two championships, 2009 and 2010 saw the tide go out even further so that as things stand, we are largely back to where we were in 1996.
There is always a tendency to pursue false hopes, for example waiting on last year’s heroic minors to come through, waiting on the All-Ireland U-21 players to fully develop, new stars like Brendan Donaghy and Jamie Clarke and others arriving on the scene and so on.
But the new management will have discovered something critical in their first year. There is no intense proper structure at senior county level for up and coming players to enter and develop their full potential, no in- depth system to fit into. We have nothing remotely like Tyrone where new players enter a professional and proven structure, a ready made formula and are now serious contenders for a fourth All-Ireland. Things are even more perfected in Kilkenny where personnel may change but not the system. New blood is fitted into the profound simplicity of the Kilkenny game.
They will have discovered for example within this lack of system and structures, that Armagh have still to crack the problem of the half forward line, that is, they have failed to end the no-mans- land created in the gap between defence and attack. We blame the players in the half forwards for failing to do the impossible. But they have no role the way Armagh play. Our natural half forward line of Steven Mc Donnell and Jamie Clarke are stuck up in the full forward line suffocated by defenders.
Management will have seen for themselves that the potential of our promising midfielders has not been developed, nor is there proper cover in this department. Nor has there been a full forward groomed to replace the injury prone Ronan Clarke who may not be an item at all in the future. This is all part of the lack of a proper forward thinking structure.
At the end of the first year, the management will have discovered that Armagh’s “system” involves some fine mechanical football out of defence- pass and run,- but it always runs into trouble about the half way line because it was never worked out how to involve the attack in the blanket system. We kept doing the worst possible thing by isolating Steven Mc Donnell up front (where he has the impossible task of both target man and finisher) but leaving the half forwards without a role. At the point where we most need precision football, the greatest unity of purpose, things fall apart. Against Monaghan, ideas eventually stopped at the halfway line and Armagh disintegrated into individuals.
Talk of promotion to Division One as a sigh of progress is nonsense. Tyrone were relegated. Is that a sign of decline? Many of the major teams are in Division One because they can stay there without breaking sweat in a competition that in reality is a series of off-season challenge games that confers no status at all. It is not like the English premiership where the league is the championship. If Armagh’s promotion was a sign of progress why have we collapsed in the championship? The answer is that the major problems have not been attended to and we are exposed when the heat comes on.
In my opinion it would be wrong for management to simply put their heads down and go for more of the same. It takes a year to get ones bearing in county management and I am convinced that this past year has shown that despite substantial effort, we are no further on than twelve months ago. It is only natural that players decline and new people are brought in and that there is transition. This is why every so often, a totally new momentum has to be created, a new and original system and the whole train set in fresh motion again.
I would make the following suggestions to them at the end of their first year, suggestions based on overwhelming evidence. They need to sit down and take stock on the following issues.
Armagh is a distinctive county with its own specific problems, different problems to Dublin, say, or Down or Antrim or any other county in Ireland.
It means creating afresh from a blank sheet, going back behind the starting line, getting rid of everybody and taking back those with genuine potential in every way along with specially chosen new players.
They need to create a completely new system of gaelic football, to push back the boundaries of the game just as the old Down team did in the late fifties, the Dubs did in the seventies, and what Armagh did a decade ago- perfected by Tyrone and taken up by all successful modern teams.
The requirement is to re think the manner of selecting players, away from the ready made, heresay, favourite club approach. (The old Down mentors, who planned to win an All-Ireland from a blank sheet showed that players will come in accordance with the intensity of the search.)
The need to set up new structures of training to develop the players individually as gaelic footballers to a standard surpassing anything that has gone before.
Work out a new system of play that will supersede the blanket system and introduce a new era in the game. As somebody said, you can’t put muscles on a brain.
Use the next four months to set up this operation and use the league to run it out.
Armagh will not survive as a viable team achieving major honours without such a new momentum and fresh sense of adventure. Why else bother? Why merely chug along? Why not go all out for another memorable era? Why descend into the land of excuses and what might have been, hard luck this and bad luck that, wheeling out false hopes, while those who decide to rise up and reach for the real heights will rule the glory years ahead as our neighbours have largely ruled the past decade.
I say to the management at the end of their path finding year. The time is now for a totally new start, to open up a totally new age.
If such a programme does not take place, Armagh football will continue to drift with league promise followed by early championship demise and we will be no further on this time next year, or the year after, or the year after that.
Finally, I want to repeat something that I have written on over the years, and people I have talked to from some of the counties involved agree wholeheartedly. The reality of team building is not that a group of players suddenly arrive but that the talent available is intensely organized.
The greatest of all teams, Down 60 and 61, Tyrone 03 to the present, Kerry in O’ Dwyers time and the Dublin of Heffernan were all created by vision and innovation. Tyrone had players as good in the past as they have now but they were never remotely as organized. There was no such structure as there is now. Pete Mc Grath’s two All-Ireland winning Down teams were also of this dynamic. Sean Boylan organized the talent in Meath to their four All-Irelands. Heffernan won an All-Ireland with Dublin in 1974 with a group of players who struggled in the past. It always appears as if players arrived out of the blue at a particular time, but the reality is that the leadership and system enables the potential to rise.
All these will tell you that the talent will come according to the intensity of the search, so when people wheel out excuse number one that “The talent’s not there,” it simply means that they have not searched too deeply. So, unless there is a plague in a county, lack of success is directly equated to lack of proper leadership, structures and development. That’s the lesson of history that Armagh must now attend to.
I am always inspired by the heroic figure of former chairman Tommy Lynch back in 1974 when single handedly, like Horatio on the bridge, he held Armagh together in their darkest hour, and initiated the revival of the county team in one of the great acts of leadership in the county’s history.
Conversely, I always feel bad when I think of the Armagh team of 1961 whom I saw as a boy narrowly loosing the Ulster final 2-10 to 1-10 to All-Ireland champions Down at Casement Park, and still cannot forget the lost potential of that outstanding group of footballers who had the class to be All-Ireland champions the following year instead of being allowed to slide into oblivion.
I remember giving a talk at the O’Fiaich Library a few years ago to a group that included many of this team. I had one question for them. What happened the following year? Why did they disintegrate whereas they should have been primed to win the 1962 All-Ireland which was there for the taking?
No one was saying much, but the real reason I suggested was that they were allowed to disintegrate. No genuine effort was made to sit everybody down, take stock of what went wrong, work out deeply what was needed in the team and plan a new assault on the coming championships. I looked down the hall and saw Kevin Halfpenny, Jimmy Whan, Harry Loughran and Danny Kelly, all outstanding natural footballers, and thought of Gene Larkin, Johnny Mc Geary, Harry Hoy, Felix Mc Knight and the others who formed that side, and one thought arrived that would not go away– “We let that generation down”.
I remember standing at the podium while a debate went on realising that the same was true of the Armagh senior players of the thirties and forties who did not win an Ulster title and were narrowly beaten by Cavan or Monaghan time and time again. The county let them down as well. A good measure of justice was done to the footballers of the early fifties with two Ulsters and an All-Ireland appearance and efforts made to develop of minors of ‘49. But the 1953 side quickly disintegrated and apart from the single promise of 1961, several generations of footballers were allowed to drift into oblivion, into a barren age that lasted a quarter of a century until the mid seventies.
So as a new generation of Armagh players begin to knock at the door of destiny, I hope that we will be true to them, and that somebody down the years ahead will not sit down and lift their pen and write – “We let that generation down”.
By Peter Makem