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Armagh’s McKay back on track

By Niall McCoy

THE 2020 season is one that Armagh defender Aaron McKay won’t mind forgetting in a hurry – for individual reasons anyway.

As far as the Orchard county were concerned, promotion back to Division One represented a realisation of one of their key ambitions for Kieran McGeeney’s squad in recent times.

Looking back on his own year however, the Dromintee defender isn’t taking too many positives out of it as suspension, a lack of form and even a Covid-19 diagnosis meant that his playing time was limited with the half-back failing to play a single second in an Ulster campaign that ended with a heavy semi-final defeat to Donegal.

“I suppose last year was a bit of a disaster,” said the primary school teacher.

“I was suspended for the McKenna Cup, so I missed the start of it, and then I got another suspension for something else and missed more games.

“To be honest when I did get back in, and I think it was the Laois game, I was just terrible. I just wasn’t playing at the level required. That’s the way the squad is now, it’s so competitive that if you’re not delivering the goods you can’t be playing.

“That’s a healthy thing, you can’t be complaining about it as an individual. It’s about what is best for the team and if you’re not playing up to the standard then you’re not going to be playing.

“Obviously Covid hit and there was a big break in the league. I was working hard to keep myself fit or get myself back to that level during lockdown, runs and that.

“I felt that I was moving well with the club when things did get back. Then we were supposed to play Roscommon and I ended up getting Covid.

“It completely rattled me, I just lost a heap of weight, had no endurance in me, no diesel in me. I probably shouldn’t have played in that Roscommon game.

“If you tell ‘Geezer’ you’re okay he’ll take your word for it, but it was nearly under false pretences that I was back at that level. I wasn’t.

“2020 was a frustrating year in terms of football. Your season was cut short after that Donegal game, another lockdown, more runs on your own, more GPS, having to forward on data. Starting from scratch all over again.

“You just put the head down and get on with it, you can’t complain about it.

“The squad this season is so competitive like, again if you’re not playing well you’re out.

“We have been unfortunate with some injuries. ‘Shieldsy’ (Mark Shields) had a really bad injury, Aidan Forker too, in the Tyrone game boys were just dropping like flies and we weren’t even at half time.

“Then there were others who we lost to injury like ‘Bug’ (Stephen Sheridan) with the broken jaw and Ethan (Rafferty) with the cruciate. So we have had a fair bit of bad luck in that department this season.

“But that happens in football, every team has injuries. Boys just need to be ready to jump in, know their role and know what their position demands of them. The competitiveness in the squad at the minute is unbelievable.”

That was then and this is now though, and when Armagh attempt to make amends for last year’s Donegal loss against Monaghan on Saturday, McKay will be one of McGeeney’s most trusted lieutenants on the pitch.

The lack of crowds for the early stages of the National League gave a chance to hear the vocal instructions both on-pitch and in the dug-out – or up in the stand as McGeeney prefers to view the action from.

It’s quite apparent that not only is McKay in there because of his talent, but his organisational ability is also highly respected. To put it another way, listen carefully and you’re unlikely to hear any other Orchard player talking to his teammates as much.

He grew up watching Armagh reach Ulster finals at an almost annual rate, but with the last of those coming in 2008 it’s understandable that his desire to help the Orchard back to that stage shines through with force.

He does take issue with those who say that they have had an easy route to the final with the player left scratching his head by the underestimation of Monaghan’s quality by some.

“It’s massive,” he said of the opportunity of a first Ulster final for everyone in the squad bar one player.

“Growing up you were watching all the O’Rourkes in Ulster finals nearly year in, year out.

“Probably Armagh fans took it for granted, they were in an Ulster final nearly every year.

“As a young fan watching you were thinking ‘this is great, this always going to be happening.’ Now we haven’t been in an Ulster final since ’08 and there is probably pressure building.

“Even before the Ulster Championship threw in, clubmen were telling you that this was the easiest opportunity for Armagh to get an Ulster final. A bit like England in the Euros, it was a bit of a failing if they didn’t get to the final, and our own county men were saying that to ourselves.

“Even a few years ago against Cavan, the first drawn game, we threw it away. It was a great opportunity to get to an Ulster final.

“I was chatting to Brendan Donaghy last week. I think he’s the only man in the whole squad now with an Ulster medal and has played in an Ulster final. If you compare our squad with the Monaghan squad with two Ulster victories, that will stand to them though.

“I know some of them have moved on but they still have that core group of lads who have played in Ulster finals and have won.

“There is a bit of inexperience but there is huge expectancy from Armagh fans to deliver. We’re just hopeful we can get through the game.”

Armagh, of course, have had the big build up before only to fall flat with last year’s Ulster semi-final 1-22 to 0-13 loss to Donegal the prime example.

In the lead up to the game the narrative in the press was that while Armagh were certainly underdogs, they simply couldn’t be as bad as they were when they faced the Tir Chonaill county and were savaged in McGeeney’s first Ulster game back in 2015.

As it turns out, they were equally as bad, if not worse.

What has changed then that makes Armagh a more formidable semi-final participant when they go to battle this time around?

“It’s a good question,” McKay said.

“I think with last year there was that expectancy to put it up to Donegal and we started well. It was probably from the first-half water break where they had a complete purple patch and we completely capitulated during that time.

“A team like Donegal, a team expected to be challenging for All-Ireland titles with Dublin and Kerry, they punished us and punished us heavily. I think it was 1-6 or 1-7 (Donegal scored) whereas we had opportunities during that purple patch to stop the rot or tag on a few points, but we didn’t do any of that – I’d nearly call it a red zone against us.

“I think the league has stood to us this year when we have been playing against the likes of Donegal although I know we didn’t see the game out against them and it was a draw.

“Monaghan, in that game, kicked back against us late on and I know we didn’t win against Tyrone, but I think as a squad we’ve learned maybe not how to control the tempo but how to deal with those situations.

“Other teams are going to have their purple patches against you and we have learned how to cope with that a lot better and to try and take the sting out of it.

“Perhaps we’re more clinical ourselves up front when we do get our opportunities.”

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GROWING INFLUENCE….Aaron McKay has been excellent for Armagh this season, and will hope to continue that good form against Monaghan

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