MIKE McGURN, the artist formerly known as Mickey McGurn, the handsome rugby fitness coach from Fermanagh with a penchant for posing for photographs wearing shorts and a vest (Yeah baby, Yeah), may well have turned out an Armagh team with powerful physiques and excellent conditioning.
However, last Sunday’s game against Kerry underlined the point that as a football team, they have all the subtlety of Ian Paisley junior.
Even the good players in the team play with pained expressions, which is scarcely surprising given the dullness of the fare on offer. They have become a desperately ugly, boring team to watch. As for playing against them, uggh.
We had our fill of them in Celtic Park last year. Only Jamie Clarke’s delightful moment of opportunism remains in the memory from an otherwise joyless game. Against Kerry, following the pattern established over the last 18 months, they showed no spark of creativity or imagination. There was no freedom of expression. There was little to enjoy, save for the goal which was a beauty.
Mayo’s Billy Joe Padden was picked in the forward line but, at the whistle, stationed himself permanently behind the Armagh centre-back, presumably with a view to stifling Kieran Donaghy.
This immediately deprived Armagh of a forward and the rhythm of the game was quickly established, as Kerry attacked in waves and Armagh endured, at least for a while.
The tactic – which is only effective if the defending team can counter-attack Joe Brollywith wit and pace – consigned them to inevitable defeat. Kerry probed and probed until eventually the house of straw blew down. The final scoreline could have been even worse.
Armagh’s solo-run out of their packed defence, passing sideways and going into the tackle. They never kick the ball into the forwards. The Athletic Grounds are a self imposed ‘No Fly Zone.’ The basic problem is that the Armagh County Board has decided that in order to create a successful team, they must throw money at it.
Instead of living up to their responsibilities, choosing from within and adhering to the self help philosophy which underpins the culture, they have brought in an outside management team, adding a local to take the bad look off it.
They have bought in a very expensive coach, who has worked with renowned athletes and rugby teams. But he is not a Gaelic footballer and has no background in the game. This is unimportant, because when you start to buy in, you buy the people with the highest reputations.
Sadly, Alex Ferguson was unavailable for the big job. Buying success is a model that is used in professional soccer. However, the fundamental problem with translating this approach into Gaelic football is that the most important assets, the players and the bonds of community, cannot be bought.
Armagh’s malaise stands in stark contrast to Crossmaglen’s rude health. Cross don’t buy in. They don’t go in for weight training. Jamie Clarke doesn’t bother with it at all. They prefer circuits and speed work. Primarily though, they focus on football.
hey spend their time on the training ground wisely, honing their skills and working on match situations. The end result is a thing of beauty. The strategy is harnessed to the players’ needs, not the other way around. The ball is kicked quickly and accurately, switching the play from defence to attack with lightening speed.
Opposing defences are moved all over the place as they struggle to cope with their movement and speed.Oisin McConville looks like a teenager. No brawn, but lots of brain and plenty of pace. In the end, the group is utterly loyal. Managed by old boys, trusted by the new boys, all the hearts are in the right place.
On the subject of Oisin, if his career ended last week, it was one hell of a farewell!
This final though, like the semi-final against Crokes, was all about Jamie Clarke. At 21 he is already a fully formed football machine. I thought when he was a Minor he would be a great poacher. It is already obvious that he is much more than that. His daring, alertness and positional sense is frightening the pants off every defence.
The Crokes’ keeper fumbled the ball for Clarke’s killer goal in the semi-final because he was thinking to himself “Where is the wee b.......?” as it was dropping out of the sky.
Jamie controlled that game as he controlled the final. His pass for the first goal was sublime. His 1-3, with both feet, from a variety of angles was a masterclass, so effortless that none of it seemed that big a deal. In the last quarter, he even tried to give Oisin the ultimate send-off when he sent the veteran clean through on goal with a long, featherlight pass over the top.
Unusually, Oisin’s kick wasn’t true and it rose for a point. He’ll probably get over it. The curtain may be going down on one star, but it is rising for an even bigger one. Armagh are about to get an injection of subtlety. A concept the County Board must start to wrestle with.
Finally, the brilliant Kilcoo club is celebrating the latest phase of its development with a big game tonight between their Seniors and an All-Ireland Select, including Bernard Brogan. Hit him as hard as you can lads. Just not the face . . .