By Shaun Casey
WHEN Armagh fans reflect on the 2022 season just gone by, they’ll have fond memories as it was a year worth remembering. There may not have been any silverware to mark a memorable campaign, and it all ended in bitterly disappointing circumstances, but Kieran McGeeney’s men displayed an ability to mix it with the top teams in the country.
Twenty years on from the greatest day in the history of the county, hopes are high that more glory days are just on the horizon. The sea of orange and white that flowed through Clones and Croke Park in recent weeks shows the appetite for success in the county.
For years while struggling along in the lower levels of Division Two and Division Three, Armagh just wanted a taste of top tier football. Next year will be their third season in Division One and they more than proved this year that this is where they belong.
For the Orchard County, consolidating their position as a top flight side would have been a huge objective from the off and they passed that test with flying colours, finishing third just behind Kerry and Mayo.
The start to the league made a lasting mark and pointed to a team that were ready to make the breakthrough and were on the verge of finally delivering on the promise that they have flirted with over the last few years.
Downing the Dubs in Croke Park and toppling the All-Ireland champions Tyrone in a packed Athletic Grounds was the perfect way to kick off a season to remember. Not only that, but the big names of Rian O’Neill and the likes were playing with confidence and belief.
The rest of the league didn’t really pan out so well as Armagh won just one more game, against Kildare, but it was enough to leave a real chance of a place in final heading into the last round.
Donegal ended those hopes and six weeks later destroyed the growing notion that this Armagh team could finally end 14 years of hurt and land an Ulster title. Kieran McGeeney’s troops trudged off the Ballybofey turf with heads hanging low as another missed opportunity and another year had passed them by.
But Armagh’s championship run was only just starting. Wins over Ulster rivals Tyrone and the Tir Chonaill men sparked an excitement the county just hasn’t been used to and all roads led to Croke Park for the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Similar to Ballybofey, it all ended in heartache, but this time it was different. Yes, Armagh were defeated by Galway on penalties, but they died with their boots on.
One concern of course will be the brawl, or brawls, Armagh have been involved in this year. Twice in the league against Tyrone and Donegal it all kicked off while the melee against Galway was probably the worst of all.
It’s something Armagh will need to rectify if they are to push on against next season and make the step up.
Armagh’s record in Ulster speaks for itself. It’s not good enough and their displays outside of the province this year along with the fact that Derry picked up the Anglo Celt Cup, will just intensify the need for some silverware next season.
There’s no one jumping ship. Both in terms of players and management, it’s not a time to be stepping away. The Armagh team has been boosted by Kieran Donaghy’s influence while Ciaran McKeever helped to bring a harder edge to the defensive shape.
There are young fellas coming through that earned crucial experience this year, like Ciaran Mackin who was arguably Armagh’s best player throughout the league. Justin Kieran and Eoin Woods both raised white flags in Croke Park while Conor Turbitt continues to flourish.
The change of positions for some of the players has helped them reach their potential, potential that came from unexpected places. No more so than Ethan Rafferty who was magnificent in his transformation to sweeperkeeper.
Not only his scoring threat, but his ability to man the square, support the play and break lines all helped Armagh reach the last eight. Jarly Óg Burns was another who excelled in his new position as a wing half-back while Stefan Campbell quashed the notion that he’s an impact sub.
All in all, the year offers some hope for the Armagh faithful. Anticipation will be high whenever the new season comes around with dreams of more big days out in Clones and Croke Park starting to become a reality.
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