Armagh are plotting for the future

Armagh is developing a multimillion-pound training facility at St Malachy’s, Portadown. Shaun Casey writes…

AFTER Armagh’s one-point defeat to Donegal in the Division Two league final at Croke Park, Kieran McGeeney lamented the fact that his side couldn’t train for a week in the build up to the game as there were no pitches available.

The weather had wreaked havoc on the county’s training ground at Callanbridge (as can often be the case) and with the club season kicking into gear the following weekend, clubs were unwilling to offer up their pitches to the county team.

The Armagh boss wasn’t suggesting any excuses for the underwhelming performance or defeat to Jim McGuinness’ side, but McGeeney was instead just stating the facts. In Armagh, pitch availability has always been an issue.

“We had no pitch on Thursday and then it was too soon to the game on Sunday (to train), we didn’t get the first team out at all this week,” said McGeeney after the league final.

“(It happens) a wee bit more regularly than you’d like, but pitches are hard to get coming up to club season.”

When McGeeney captained Armagh to their one and only All-Ireland title back in 2002, Joe Kernan’s men used Callanbridge as their training facility. Fast-forward 22 years, and that’s still where most of the Armagh squads go.

The senior team, the minors, u-20s, all the development squads in both hurling and football, all gather in Callanbridge at different stages of the year, which consists of two changing rooms, a meeting mobile, one full-sized pitch and a warm-up area.

Even the Armagh minors, who are on the crest of a wave having reached the counties first Ulster final since 2014 and will now compete in the All-Ireland semi-final for the first time since 2009, trained at Dromintee in the build up to last week’s All-Ireland quarter-final.

Most other counties have now got their own centre of excellence to call on and don’t need to rely on the assistance of club grounds. Tyrone have Garvaghey, Donegal have Convoy, Derry have Owenbeg. Armagh are well behind the curve in that regard.

But they won’t be for long as the county is plotting its own multimillion-pound training facility at St Malachy’s, Portadown, and the development of the 26-acre site is now officially underway.

The behind the scenes work of creating an environment that will help Armagh compete at the top level goes hand-in-hand with the success that the Orchard County are currently having on the field of play, says former defender Aaron Kernan.

The Crossmaglen clubman spent his entire county career training at Callanbridge and he believes that the performances served up by Armagh under McGeeney will help to grow the project currently being undertaken at St Malachy’s.

“It’s a huge undertaking from the county board and all those officials and it is going to take our county to the next level,” said Kernan, who won four Ulster titles with Armagh and was named as Young Footballer of the Year in 2005.

“I suppose the perfect link between all of this is what they’re doing behind the scenes and the platform they’re creating and what the players do. It’s all about what the shop window does.

“The fact that we’ve been in two Ulster finals in the last two years, the fact that we’re going back to Division One next year, that’s the best way that you can get buy-in, that’s the best way that you inspire people.

“What the county board is doing now is providing facilities that’s going to cater for this county for the next 50-100 years, but what the players can do on the field is the biggest driver, the biggest motivator to take the next generation along.

Aaron continued:

“Everyone is working hand-in-hand here, one has to complement the other, so in terms of what we will have provided for us, it will be absolutely state-of-the-art.

“It will be brilliant for every development squad right up to the shop window of the senior team within the county and it’s something that every player will look up to and cherish.”

The facilities at St Malachy’s will consist of two sand-based floodlit pitches and a state-of-the-art strength and conditioning facility, which are planned to be fully operational by the end of the season, with four pitches eventually being present in total.

Former Tyrone captain Peter Canavan, who won two All-Irelands with the Red Hands, knows a thing or two about how important a training facility is to a county and Tyrone have one of the best in the country at Garvaghy.

During his early years in the Tyrone panel, dating back to the 90s, Canavan and his teammates would have trained in Augher, but like McGeeney explained after the league final, there was no guarantee training would always be on.

“Throughout the 90s and the early noughties, you could have been here, there and everywhere training with Tyrone,” suggested Canavan.

“You would have got the call maybe the day of a training session to say that a pitch wasn’t up to standard, or a club weren’t able to give it for some reason so you would have had to go elsewhere.

“There would have been training sessions cancelled down through the years because we didn’t have a venue or a good enough pitch maybe.

“That was a long time ago and you’re listening to Kieran McGeeney a couple of weeks ago saying that Armagh are still having those same problems.”

The development at Garvaghy changed all that from a Tyrone perspective as they no longer needed to call on their loyal clubs for pitch availability.

“Number one, you had a base but more importantly it was a quality base in terms of the pitches that you were training on.

“With no disrespect to a lot of the clubs and a lot of the places where we were training, you’d have done well to get a shower whenever you came back in.

“So again, in Garvaghey you had excellent training facilities in that regard.”

Thinking of the clubs, Canavan added: “You were putting a strain on clubs. Clubs in Tyrone take a great pride in their county team so you had clubs that were very willing, and I recall various groundsmen that were so proud to see you and very welcoming.

“It didn’t feel as if you were a burden on the club but now when I’m involved in my own club, you think twice whenever you get the phone call even when your own county teams might need the pitch.

“You’re thinking of a lot of other things in terms of upkeep of the pitch and do we need another team coming in tromping down on our pitch and maybe preventing our girls or the u14 boys from a training session. You could see why a lot of them were reluctant to go.”

Armagh GAA are putting in the hard yards on and off the field and are working hard to raise enough funds to develop a quality training facility which the county is crying out for.

At a recent business lunch held just before the Ulster final, Jarlath Burns’ jersey from Armagh’s Ulster winning side in 1999, when Burns captained the team to a provincial title, ending a 17-year went, auctioned off at £20,000.

There is always the ‘Win with Armagh’ house raffle where you can win a 3-bedroom house located in Donegal (or the cash alternative of £250,000) and tickets for that competition are currently on sale for £25.

It’s a project that has been long overdue but with the relative success on the field that the men in orange and white are experiencing, the project at St Malachy’s will only enhance their chances of competing for the top prizes for years to come.


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