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Armagh must act now or face total decline

August 2, 2011

By Peter Makem

There’s a difference between the problem of Armagh senior football and the problem of the current management.

In an article two years ago and largely repeated this time last year, I proposed that who ever became the new Armagh senior manager was on a loser if totally fresh foundations were not laid beforehand. I proposed that the problem was bigger than any manager  and we were fooling ourselves unless competent people within the county sat down and took long and serious stock of the situation  to undo the decline that had set in since the demise of the All-Ireland team around 2004-2005. 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.

I also pointed out in last year’s article that if the above development was not undertaken, we would be no further on in twelve months time, nor in the year after nor the year following that and so on. In other words the decline would continue, and that we would end up where we were in the mid nineties and indeed back to the mid seventies. That’s exactly where we are now.

The past few championships have seen the tide go out as far as it did in those days. But even then, it was only marginally a problem of a manager. As a general rule going away back into the sixties, the managers were competent people who knew their football, Paddy O Hara, Jimmy Whan, Mal Mc Evoy and so on and there were plenty of good  and very good players around. That was not the problem. There was nothing to manage. There was no structure or order of things, and it was a good night when five or six turned up for training- if there was any training at all- with the dressing room before a match was full of strangers to each other.

By structure does not mean an assembly of training and weight “specialists”, specialist coaches, psychologists, stats people  and so on. Armagh has all that now and are going nowhere. In fact every county in Ireland has such an array of staff but again, it makes no difference to the vast majority. All the psychology in the world, all the weights programming and huddles is useless if the player doesn’t know what to do when he gets the ball, or where to be to take a pass. All the physical fitness in the world will be useless in the long run if players have no system to perform in.

Structure is a basic, simple thing and the approach to it will vary from county to county  depending on how high they genuinely aim.  To achieve a new structure in Armagh- as the old one is dead and gone- it means first of all clearing the decks totally of everybody involved including the players and management set up. Next, people of experience and thought in the county will sit down and work out how the game can be brought to a new level through a new system of play . They will then carefully select players of potential –some of whom are already on the panel- and fit these into an effective system of football where everybody knows their role and all is geared toward the maximum scoring facility. It will take five or six months from now to do this preparatory work involving setting up a system of individual training to bring the player toward a  new level of  physical and mental ability– but only after he knows his role in the grand design.  The bringing in of a manager is part of this new structure  and system, in other words, he is the pilot of the new ship that is built.

CAN NOT HIDE BEHIND EXCUSES.

But although there has been no development of the Armagh team under his management, Paddy O’Rourke is not the source of our ills. The problem is not managerial but structural. Paddy had limited success with Down and there was no evidence that he would have any more with Armagh, especially an Armagh with little momentum left. The mind-set that made the appointment instead of concentrating on the creation of a whole new system and structure is the problem. Armagh were not facing up to the deep realities  of what was wrong  and instead threw the job at somebody and get that much off their backs. But that merely of course merely deepened the problem.

The real issue at present is the very mind-set that that allows the current situation to continue. All the underage work- which is very substantial and well organised including the minor achievements of recent years- disintegrates when things reach senior level because the very thing it all aspires to, that is, the senior team, is a void, an emptiness. There are good structures everywhere in Armagh except at the very place where they are most required for ultimate development. It’s like a hypothetical system in education where children go from primary school into secondary, get their A levels or other qualifications but find that the Third Level institutions like Queen’s and Jordanstown no longer offer degrees.

Accordingly there is a real sense that O’Rourke is a scapegoat and a cover for deeper failures in Armagh to address the points I mention. The bottom line, and it seems to be obvious to everybody, is that the County Board simply can not continue with the present set up or dress it up in some other way as this is not facing up to the reality of the problem.

Decline sets in to every institution and it goes on and on unless deliberately stopped. This is why every so often, a totally new momentum has to be created, a new and original system thought out and the whole train set in fresh motion. To realistically aim for the Sam Maguire in the near future Armagh requires the creation of a  team to do extensive groundwork as indicated in new ways of team building and training before even thinking of a manager. As things stand, it doesn’t matter who we appoint as there is no system to manage. But under a new system, the appointment is critical.

What is happening is all wrong. Promising players throughout the league have just vanished from the scene, one after the other. Our talented midfielders have not progressed at all nor is there proper cover in this department. Younger players from the minor grade have not appeared. The team keeps changing from game to game and Stephen Mc Donald, lone survivor of 2002 and one of Armagh’s three or four greatest footballers of all time, is still the central figure on the team. Nobody  appears to know what anybody else is doing on the field and things change from game to game. This is all because a total halt was not called to the drift some years ago, and a totally new system introduced.

Talk of maintaining Division One status as a sign of progress is nonsense. Many of the teams are in Division One because they can stay there without breaking sweat in a competition that in reality is a series of challenge games that confers no status at all.  It is not like the English premiership where the league is the championship for in the GAA, the All-Ireland champions could have Division two status. If Armagh’s division one status is a sign of progress why are we collapsing in the championship?

Nor can we hide behind the usual waffle that “the players are just not there.” Only last year Armagh gave Donegal a bad beating at Crossmaglen, a  Donegal side that contained twelve of the players who are now in the All-Ireland semi final. I met Brian Mc Eniff over a month ago in Bundoran and he said that Donegal were now a very different proposition and was confident they would win in Ulster at least, that Jim Mc Guinness had restructured the whole scene, that Donegal went back behind to the drawing board and took stock as to what had been going wrong for the past nineteen years and moved in a new direction.

It’s never a question of the talent available. It’s what you do with the talent available and Armagh are drifting year by year toward disintegration at senior level- not because of lack of talent- but because of lack of organisation.

Tyrone had players as good in the past as now but they were never remotely as organized. Their system has remained unchanged for the past ten years and new players just fit into it. Kevin Heffernan won an All-Ireland with Dublin in 1974 in his first year as manager with a group of players who struggled earlier in the National League of that year. He created a system and moulded the talents available into a superb team where not six months previous people were saying that “the players are simply not there”. From a superficial perspective it always appears that success comes because a group of talented players arrive on the scene at the same time, and the logic of this is that you have to wait on this to happen for success. All the evidence points to the opposite. Success comes through the intensity of organising and planning and in the case of teams who have had no tradition, it involves creating a totally new system of play and approach.

Armagh did this to win the All-Ireland in 2002- now know as the blanket  defence- which was perfected by Tyrone to win their three All-Irelands, and adopted by every other successful team including Kerry and taken to a new intensity recently by Donegal.

The proof of this  is the great  innovation by Down in the late fifties, a county that had scant tradition at senior level and whose mentors in 1957 decided to stop waiting on the fates  and take things into their own hands by working out how to create an All -Ireland winning team. They built the players available into an idea, into a totally innovate structure of training and teamwork so that it appeared  in hindsight that Down were lucky that a group of exceptional players just happened to arrive at the one time. But the truth is that there was only a blank sheet in 1957 when the new structures were set up and not an All-Ireland winning player in sight. It was a supreme victory of organisation and innovation.

However, Down went into a slow decline as the sixties progressed culminating in a serious defeat by Cavan in the Ulster Final of 1967. It was at this point that mentors decided to sit down and take stock and find out what had gone wrong and to end the drift.  So they brought out the blank sheet again,  took back the best of the old team of 60/61 merged with largely members the minor team of two years previous and began a fresh momentum with a new system of play to end  the drift. The following year they won the National League and the Sam Maguire.

COUNTY BOARD NO CHOICE.

This is a much darker hour for the Armagh senior team than we imagine. The truth is this, that the powers that be have no choice but to do something radical regarding the critical situation at present, and a patchwork job, which is always the temptation, will merely mock the present generation of up and coming footballers who want to represent us at the highest level of competition.

To repeat, Armagh will continue to drift at senior level, moving deeper and deeper into the fog of the bad old times unless we go back behind the starting line with a blank sheet and work out a totally new enterprise. There is absolutely no hope without this.

We did it twice before in the mid seventies and the mid nineties and we have a solemn duty to do it again for the dignity and pride of Armagh and for the thousands of supporters  and the new generation of footballers who all long for a return to the glorious days.

INSPIRED

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 losing 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”

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