By Shaun Casey
FROM an early age, Jarly Óg Burns was destined to pull on the famed orange and white jersey that his father, ten years before his Armagh debut, had worn when holding aloft the Anglo Celt Cup.
Jarlath senior helped the Orchard County end a 17-year wait for a provincial crown and now his son is on a similar journey. Heading into the 2023 season, it’s been 15 long years since Armagh climbed the steps of Clones and were crowned kings of Ulster.
Burns’ father, who is currently in the running to become the next President of the GAA, along with current Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney, have been two huge influences on his career.
“I see the work Dad puts in behind the scenes. There’s barely an evening that he’s in the house and he’s not going around stewarding at matches and at different games or club events. He just loves the GAA, it’s in his bones,” said Burns on his father running for President.
“He lost narrowly last time and there’s no guarantee he’ll get it this time, it’s going to be a tough run, but I suppose he has to run for it to try and get it. We’re all behind him, I know the whole county is behind him and we’re just hoping for the best.
“He had a pretty successful career, winning Ulster, so you’re sort of going off the back of that. There’s always expectation when you’re the son of someone who’s done that, so you just try to take it all in your stride.
“It’s the same as anyone I suppose, their father that played before them is going to be a massive inspiration and inspires belief in yourself too.”
“Each year (of county football) had been very different; it’s been a rollercoaster ride up to now. You can build every year upon the last. It’s been very enjoyable so far and hopefully there’s many more enjoyable years to come.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and obviously having the same manager every year, it helps with the continuity as well,” added the Silverbridge man. “It’s no secret that the Armagh players love him (McGeeney) and get on the best with him.
“What he’s done so far for this county as a player and as a manager is unbelievable. At the same time, we want to bring a bit of silverware, not only for the county but for him, I think he deserves it.
“The stuff he has been doing with us over the past few years has been phenomenal and hopefully we can bring that for him. It’s going to be tough but we’ll give it our best shot.”
It was on a cold December afternoon in 2018 when Burns was thrust into inter-county action. His debut yielded two points from full-forward against St Mary’s, the college he attended at the time, in the opening round of the McKenna Cup.
Since then, Burns has lined out 46 times for Armagh, and featured in all 13 of their championship outings in the last four years. Things have changed from that frosty Sunday in Crossmaglen and in that time, Burns has gone from scoring forward to towering midfield to attacking wing half-back.
“This time last year, around November or December, Kieran approached me about moving to wing half-back and at first, I was pretty apprehensive. He explained to me, and he was right, wing half-back is quite similar to midfield anyway, that the middle eight all play very similar. It probably suited my game a big more facing the opposition goal more than going the other way.
“It’s been pretty seamless, the transition. I’ve been helped obviously by Ciaran McKeever, such a great defender himself, he’s helped me with everything so it’s been good and hopefully I can push on now again.
“You find yourself in more one-on-one situations than you would have around midfield and maybe sometimes out the pitch you can get away with someone getting by you.
“But when you’re inside your own scoring zone, you don’t want to be giving away frees so you need to be able to tackle properly and get your footwork and stuff correct.
“I worked very hard on that last year and again this year so it’s the same with all of us, we’re all trying to improve and that’s the important thing.”
It was an experiment by Kieran McGeeney, who never fears trying something new, and it certainly paid off last year. “You have to adapt very, very quickly against top players, and I suppose once I got a few performances under my belt I knew what I was doing and I’ve a bit of experience now. Again, it’s very similar to midfield thankfully.
“It’s not the same as a switch for Ethan (Rafferty) where he went from out the field into nets so I can’t complain that way. It’s worked out so far thankfully.”
In his breakthrough year in 2019, when he netted against Cavan in the quarter-final of the Ulster Championship, Burns picked up an All-Star nomination alongside Rian O’Neill, who also made his debut that same season.
Burns, along with four other county teammates (Rafferty, Rory Grugan, Stefan Campbell and O’Neill), received another All-Star nominations this year. “I try to take those sorts of things in my stride, I don’t think too much about them.
“Obviously, the ultimate goal is to win things with the team and sometimes it’s nice at the end of the season to pick up awards like that but at the same time you’re nominated but didn’t get one.
“That’s in your mindset too that you didn’t get it, but I’d never complain about being appreciated like that, it’s such a huge honour for me, my club and the county.
“For me personally, it was probably my most consistent season in terms of game in and game out, I definitely felt happy about that consistency. I suppose it was the same for the team for the most part in the league apart from a few blips obviously which we’re going to get against the good teams.
“We were consistently performing, even in some of the games we lost we were still pretty happy with some aspects of our performances. Again, we can hopefully build upon that for next year and try and go again and try to get to a league final or beyond, we’ll see.”
There are huge sacrifices and commitments involved in being a county footballer nowadays, does it ever feel like it’s too much?
“Obviously, there’s times you maybe question it, it’s a lot of commitment and a lot of work but when you’re putting on that jersey and running out in front of our incredible fans, it absolutely is worth it and more so.
“I try not to take any of it for granted, every game I go out I treat it as if it’s my last and I appreciate it and try to take it all in. I feel that’s important too.”
Armagh and Burns enjoyed a good 2022 season. They retained their Division One status and made it all the way to the All-Ireland quarter-finals but lost out in a dramatic penalty shoot-out to Galway.
For the season ahead, remaining in the top tier of the National Football League is the first goal. “You have two top teams coming up in Galway and Roscommon, so it doesn’t get any easier in Division One and that’s what we want. We want to test ourselves against all those big teams and safety is number one,”
“We can find very quickly if you’re not at yourself, you could be straight back down to Division Two and obviously we don’t want that. Safety would be number one and then after maybe three or four games we’ll see where we’re at and take it from there.”