By Shaun Casey
RORY Grugan was named as the 2022 Armagh Player of the Year after another fantastic season in the orange and white at the start of December.
The Ballymacnab playmaker, who won an All-Ireland minor title in 2009, first represented his county at senior level in 2011. Over the past decade, he’s moulded into a real leader during Kieran McGeeney’s tenure as Armagh manager and remains one of the key members of a star-studded forward line.
“I had a fairly consistent year,” recalled Grugan. “Going through the league I started off fairly well and was able to keep it going. During the early parts of my career, Armagh were in Division One and then for a long time them we were going between Two and Three.
“These last few years we’ve finally got back up to the top table and it’s just about wanting to test yourself, obviously as a team, but as a player as well you want to test yourself at that top level and see are you fit for it.
“I’ve got that wee bit older and a big thing is staying injury free and getting that consistency of performance and that’s something I’ve tried to do. I got on fairly well with that and it was a nice honour to be voted as the Player of the Year by your peers.
“When you don’t get the team success and months go past, to get that type of individual recognition is a nice thing. To get the respect of your own teammates means a lot.”
It was a year to remember for Armagh as they enjoyed a fantastic league campaign, finishing third in the table, before reaching the quarter-finals of the All-Ireland series. However, their championship began with a difficult away defeat to Donegal as their struggles with the Ulster Championship continue.
“There were probably a couple of key periods. We’d started quite well, and Donegal came back into it, and we were just a wee bit sloppy with a couple of attacks that they punished just before half time.
“The key period was that ten minutes after half time where we had all the pressure, there was the disallowed goal and a few wides, we missed about 1-3 consecutively, and then they just went up and got the goal.
“So instead of it going level or a point in it, you’re suddenly chasing your tail and against a seasoned team like Donegal in their home patch, when they get that lead, they can just see the game out from there.
“We probably didn’t react well to that goal. We tried to force things trying to get back into it straight away instead of realising there was actually still a long time to go, that we weren’t out of the game.
“Collectively there wasn’t enough of us who maybe got control of the ball and settled things down a wee bit to just get a score or two to get us back into the game and it just petered out.
“It’s so frustrating because you build up towards the championship and we all know how much an Ulster Championship would mean for everyone. It is really disappointing when you let yourself down in a big game like that.
“You just see the years going by and it just feels like one less chance to win one. Every year the hope’s there, they’re the medals that you want. Whatever about other provinces and the talk of restructuring the championship, an Ulster Championship just means so much to people from Ulster, just look what it meant to Derry.
“You were just so envious seeing them go and do that and it’s something we really want to do. It’s a big part of our year when you start out, you take the league and then you give it you’re all for Ulster. The dream is there to go and win it.”
While Ulster didn’t go to plan, the Orchard County still tasted some big victories over their provincial rivals. Back-to-back wins over Tyrone and Donegal sent Armagh through to the last eight for the first time since 2017.
“There has probably been too many days when we haven’t represented ourselves well in big games in the championship, especially against the likes of Donegal, it was a nice one to get that monkey off the back,” said Grugan, who hit 3-31 across all competitions for Armagh this season.
“You always know that you’re going to have it tight going through the Ulster Championship anyway, especially when you’re playing Division One teams, but it does mean something to beat those bigger teams that have had more success in the last few years.
“It’s about doing it consistently because we were really disappointed with Ballybofey in the Ulster Championship and we had to wait a long time, there was a five- or six-week break, to try and make up for it.
“We delivered a big performance against Tyrone which was brilliant in front of our own fans, but we knew the Donegal one had a wee bit more to it because of how badly we played against them just a few weeks previous, so it was definitely nice to get that one.”
The Galway game was one for the ages and Armagh have made quite a habit of appearing in these classic encounters. Roscommon in 2018, Mayo 2019, Monaghan 2021 and Galway this year, but they have come up short on each occasion.
“You’d much rather be involved in one that isn’t just as pleasing on the eye, and you get over the line. I don’t necessarily think we’re doing anything wrong, in terms of how we’re playing, it’s just happened.
“But then you have to break the ceiling. You have to get some of these wins when it is nip and tuck so that you know how to get over the line. Then it’s about repeating it, where you have the confidence to go and do it again,
“I think given our experience now in Division One and the kind of results we had against the likes of Dublin, a couple of times against Tyrone and Donegal the second time, you’re starting to know what it’s like to beat these teams and learning how to manage the game.
“Sometimes a game like Galway just happens and it’s hard to put your finger on it, it just took on a life of its own. It’s such fine margins, the way that game twisted and turned. They should have beaten us, they were the better team in the second half and then we seemed to have done enough in extra-time.
“You can always look back at it and think there’s wee things you could have done better but I’d like to think that if you get back into those types of situations and the more you’re there, the more you’ll learn.”
The support Armagh received this year was spectacular and it’s adding to the enjoyment of representing the Orchard County for Grugan.
“I don’t know what sort of mania just took on this year, the early games in the Athletic Grounds, that Tyrone game and the night down in Croker as well against the Dubs, it just ignited.
“There was just as brilliant buzz all year and I suppose a couple of the standout ones were the two championship wins against Tyrone in Armagh and Donegal in Clones where it just took off.
“The sheer colour and the number of fans there just wanting to be part of it was brilliant. It seems like it’s carrying on going by recent events, the jersey launch recently, the place was packed out, so the mania hasn’t died down yet.
“I’m loving it to be honest. You always have to put in a bit of hard work this time of year for pre-season and that gets tougher as the years go on, but we were talking about the buzz of the supporters, just imagine what that feels like to be a part of.
“We feed off that and I feed off it myself and for Armagh to be back playing in Division One and to be challenging in those big games and that want to go and win medals and trophies, it’s still driving me.
“There can be a narrative that it’s a slog or whatever, but the thing is, there’s nobody forcing anyone to do it, you do it because you love it. If you’re not invested in it, you’re going to find it very hard to give that commitment and then you won’t add any value as a player – it’s unlikely that you’re going to be an addition on the pitch.
“There’s a real brilliant group of players and a really great management team who we’ve had consistency with for so many years now that it’s hard not to love being a part of it and everyone is pushing in the one direction so long may it continue.”
2023 is sure to be another year for of excitement and anticipation as Armagh continue their hunt for an Ulster title. Grugan suggests Armagh’s first aim will be to maintain their Division One status and take things from there.
“With only seven games and the divisions are so tight right across one to four, you just have to tick that box first. You just want to have that secured as soon as you can and then you could maybe get to a league final.
“I think Geezer said that as a county, we’ve only won two national titles, a Division One in 2005 and obviously Sam in 2002 so the opportunity to contest for those don’t come around a lot for Armagh.
“If you get that chance, you have to be ready to go and take it. Outside of that then, Ulster would be a massive target for us and we’re in the preliminary round this year so we’ll be at in action a wee bit earlier this year and the route will be a wee bit more difficult because of that.”