I CANNOT remember seeing a bad match at the Athletic Grounds. Something about it brings footballers and supporters to life. In the same way as Donegal cannot lose at Ballybofey, even if they pick a tall u-14 in goals and half the team has hangovers, the Gods have decreed that the Athletic Grounds will bring forth excitement. In future I shall call it The Armagh Triangle.
Needless to say, their game with Mayo last Sunday was gripping. Mayhem, multiple terrible blunders, huge drama and a most unlikely finale, Armagh coming from 0-5 down against a powerful gale to draw it with the last kick. Indeed, Armagh could have won it, only for an instinctive reaction save from Andrew Murnin’s goalbound snapshot. Anything could have happened, and it did. It was the essence of great sport.
Aidan O’Shea continues to soak up the cameras like Beyoncé arriving at the Oscars naked, holding a leather whip. The handsome giant started at full-forward. It is his natural position, but like a wayward goat, he needs to be tethered to it. Every time the ball came in, the Armagh defenders bore the terrified expressions of teenage girls in a slasher movie as the hatchet slices through the door. If Aidan had stayed at number 14 since Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly put him there in 2015 (his one and only great season) it would have prevented a lot of bother and Mayo would surely have won at least one Sam Maguire.
The problem Holmes and Connelly had was exemplified by what happened against Armagh last Sunday. Having caused mayhem around the square for 55 minutes, O’Shea then drifted way out the field into that no man’s land he prefers around his own half-back line, leaving Mayo toothless in the last quarter.
The smart play would have been for him to stay at 14, with Ryan O’Donoghue operating alongside him or even pushing out to the 45. Ethan Rafferty is an exciting multiple choice question ( Q.Is he a) a goalie b) a midfielder c) an attacker), but disaster is always lurking. In the first half, Cillian O’Connor intercepted him, and with the goals empty, did what has come to be known as “a Ronnie Rosenthal”, and somehow put it over the bar. Rafferty then gave away a point in the second half after being caught way out the field.
In the last ten minutes, Rafferty decided to abandon the abandonness he had already shown throughout the game and go full kamikaze. Now, he was operating from midfield and the goals were completely unguarded. This is where Mayo missed the trick that cost them the win. As soon as they saw this, Mayo should have got in position for the killer goal. O’Shea should have stayed on the 21 with O’Donoghue and at least one other forward holding inside the 45.
This way, as soon as Mayo intercepted the ball, they could have kicked over the top and it would have been a humiliating end for Rafferty and an important win for Mayo. Instead, they all drifted back into the defence, which only invited Armagh on and encouraged the home crowd into a state of near hysteria. In that atmosphere, Armagh found the inspiration to go for broke.
For all the folks complaining about the referee’s performance, the referee in our game has no chance. He is a public sacrifice. A scapegoat for our emotions. It is only ever good fortune if the referee does a decent job. This is because he has simply has not been given the tools to do it. Imagine sending a rugby ref out on his own, and he only has a width of around 20 metres to watch given the offside rule? In our game meanwhile, 30 players are spread all around the pitch. Players are running in all directions. The ball can be moved very quickly. The ref is running and jumping to try to see what is going on, players all around him.
As I have argued for a decade, instead of having two elite intercounty referees deciding whether the ball has gone over the sideline, put one in each half of the field. This way, they no longer need eyes in the back of their heads. The referee can bring another cousin and uncle to do the sidelines, which will help to promote happy families. Secondly, let’s have a video ref, like rugby. That way, the referee would have known that the foul on Rian O’Neill that gave Armagh the equalising free kick was not a foul at all. Alternatively, keep things as they are, in which case STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT THE BLOODY REFEREE.