Ahead of Armagh’s date with destiny this Sunday, Shaun Casey talks to the last man to led them to Ulster glory, Peter McDonnell.
IT’S been 15 years since Armagh last competed in the Ulster final and Peter McDonnell, who guided them to their 14th provincial title in 2008, insists the current squad must focus on the task at hand rather than the occasion.
Derry stand between Armagh and the Anglo Celt Cup and the Oakleafers, who know all about ending long waits for silverware, pose a serious obstacle for Kieran McGeeney’s men.
While Sunday will be the first time lining out in an Ulster final for all the players in orange and white, McDonnell believes there’s enough experience and success inside the Armagh changing room, that their focus won’t be diverted by the occasion.
“There’s a good sprinkling of lads there that have all won medals. There are the minor All-Ireland medals from 2009, that was a huge experience that won’t have left those players,” said the Mullaghbawn man, who draws on his own experience when describing Armagh’s mindset.
“You have Crossmaglen players who have experienced big match successes. You have college players there as well that have medals in their back pockets. It’s an event, it’s an occasion and it is a big thing.
“But it’s not any bigger than the lads in Mullaghbawn in 1995 who had won nothing (and then won the Armagh championship) and they were fit to hold onto what was important and that was about playing football on the day.
“I’m talking as a previous manager of Armagh who nearly lost an Ulster final as well as having won it, it can happen so easily. You have to stay focused for the full 70 minutes and I know it’s a cliché but ball by ball, moment by moment, if you don’t concentrate on that, it can evaporate very quickly.”
There’s a big Armagh crowd heading to Clones on Sunday and expectation, as it has been for the past number of years, is high. But those outside influences shouldn’t creep into the Armagh changing room.
“All the Armagh supporters all want Armagh to win, of course they do, but people have got to realise that in the hearts and minds of those lads going out, they shouldn’t be worried about Armagh supporters,” added McDonnell.
“They shouldn’t even be thinking about Armagh supporters. They are a group of lads that have worked awful hard together through the dark months of the winter when nobody was looking at them, when nobody was paying in to see them.
“They’re the lads that have been picked to play some of the time and not picked at other times. They’re the lads that have gone through that emotional roller-coaster that comes with being part of a county panel.
“They’re the lads that have taken injuries, done rehab and maybe for some of them thought they were never going to get back
“They don’t need to be worried about the media, the fans or anything else.
“Those are all outside influences. This is about winning a game of football and all the rest of us can delight in any success that they get.
“All of us can cheer and roar and shout from the sideline but those lads have got to stay focused on the next ball right through that whole game. Moment by moment and inch by inch, otherwise the occasion can creep in and steal away everything they’ve ever wanted.
“Kieran McGeeney knows all of that, so does Ciaran McKeever who was part of that last team in 2008 and of course Kieran Donaghy as well. But if I had a message for the lads, it would be that they should just concentrate on doing the things that you can do best.
“Don’t worry about what someone is going to write in the paper or don’t worry about what’s on the TV or what the supporters will be saying. You can enjoy those things after the event.”
15 years is a long wait for an Ulster final appearance, especially for a county that dominated the province during the noughties, and McDonnell certainly didn’t predict such a barren spell for the Orchard County.
McDonnell guided Armagh to an u-21 Ulster title in 2007 while Armagh earned Ulster minor successes in 2005 and 2009, when they also won the All-Ireland, so a golden period should have followed.
But for one reason or another, it didn’t pan out that way and instead, Armagh have been in the wilderness for a decade and a half.
“No, I didn’t envisage that at all,” says McDonnell, looking back on his time in the Armagh hotseat.
“There was a number of players who came in in 2008 with me from the successful u-21 team the year before in 2007.
“ I fully expected that cohort of players to integrate and merge seamlessly into the senior team, and some of them did.
“But for one reason or another after I departed, so too did a lot of those players. I thought the future would have been very bright at that stage but that’s water under the bridge now.
“There were fabulous footballers there and several of them were lost but the likes of Tony Kernan, Charlie Vernon, Kieran Toner all came through.
“There were lads there that didn’t really get a chance to consolidate their place at senior level.”
A generation can flash by in an instant. And for the likes of Rory Grugan, Aidan Forker and Stefan Campbell, who have given immense dedication to the Armagh cause during those trophyless years, they’ll hope to end that run.
Along with the older heads, there’s a new generation of players bursting through and helping Armagh along the way. And McDonnell knows all about those youngsters as well, having guided them through the underage ranks.
McDonnell was the Armagh u-20 boss when they last reached the provincial decider in 2018. Conor Turbitt, Rian O’Neill and a host of others played that day as Armagh lost out to a Derry side containing senior stars such as Conor McCloskey, Oisin McWilliams and Padraig McGrogan, who they’ll face on Sunday.
“A lot of lads have come and gone in the last 15 years,” said McDonnell. “A lot of lads have seen favour from successive county management and some lads haven’t. However, I would use the current midfielder Shane McPartlan as an example of perseverance.
“He’s lad who back in 2016 scored two goals against Down in the first round of the Ulster u-21 Championship. He always got my recommendation, but he’s only getting recognition now, so there’s lads there now that have complimented the established lads like Rory Grugan, Aidan Forker and Stefan Campbell. Our panel is getting stronger and that’s important.
“There are good players that have come out of those groups, the likes of Turbo (Conor Turbitt), Rian O’Neill, Jason Duffy all came through that team. There’s always been a good sprinkling of lads in recent years coming into the senior setup and it’s going to take everyone of them to put the shoulder to the wheel.”
Armagh aren’t the only team McDonnell will be keeping an eye on this Sunday. He was involved the last time Armagh reached an Ulster final, but he also coached Louth to their most recent Leinster final appearance in 2010, under the management of Peter Fitzpatrick.
“I’ll have a very keen interest in how it goes. It’s a huge match for them. I’ve know Mickey (Harte) for years from back in college times and I wish him well. I wish Louth well and all the supporters and I hope everything goes to plan for them.”