The Blaine game

By Shaun Casey

THE Armagh goalkeeping position has been the subject of much debate in recent seasons. If truth be told, the Orchard County struggled to find a permanent replacement for Paul Hearty after the Crossmaglen man’s retirement in 2012.

In the years that followed, many men guarded the goals for Armagh, but none really made the position their own like Blaine Hughes. Between 2013-2017, Armagh tried out seven different ’keepers before Hughes made his debut.

It wasn’t exactly a dream start for the Carrickcruppen man. He conceded three goals, but Armagh earned a 3-11 to 3-9 win over Longford in the third round of the National League. That first appearance came just days after Hughes had been drafted into squad.

Paddy Morrison was injured while Matthew McNiece had hit a poor run of form. After a suggestion from Ciaron O’Hanlon, former St Paul’s, Bessbrook teammate of Hughes, McGeeney called the youngster into the setup.

“He was straight in for the next game against Longford. I remember him coming in and I was thinking he looked like a big 12-year-old” laughed Morrison, thinking back to his first impressions of a youthful Hughes.

“He was thrown in at deep end, he was starting literally in his first week. He grew into that role and every game he was getting more and more confident; you could see that he definitely had played goals before.

“It was just about trying to keep his confidence up. I remember he used to tell me he felt like he was stealing places, but he was performing well and deserved to be there. By the end of the summer, he was playing a starring role.”

Hughes was undoubtedly the number one choice with standout performances against Tipperary and Kildare helping Armagh reach the last eight of the All-Ireland series, although they suffered a humiliating defeat to old rivals Tyrone.

It seemed like the goalkeeper debate had finally ceased. But McGeeney threw a spanner into the works in 2022 when Ethan Rafferty, an outfielder since making his debut in 2013, was fired in between the sticks.

It was an instant success and Rafferty earned an All-Star nomination in 2022 as Armagh reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Hughes stepped away in 2023 and Rafferty filled the number one jersey for the entire season.

A nasty ankle injury to Rafferty saw McGeeney make an SOS call for Hughes to return, and he has been exceptional since coming back into the fold. He has only conceded four goals in 10 games, two against Cork in the league and two the last day out versus Down.

The time away has only helped Hughes’ case says Morrison, “Taking yourself out of the environment, and being able to look back at all the different places where you could have done things better allows you to go back in with more freedom.”

Hughes’ club manager Barry Flynn agrees that the year out has helped freshen up the goalkeepers perspective. “Blaine played for a long time in Armagh and, not that there was no competition, but he was very much established as the number one,” added Flynn.

“The Armagh management team thought they needed to play something different and put Ethan in. I think competition for places helps to push people on. He almost got through the league without conceding a goal, barring a couple of mistakes out the pitch in the Cork game.

“In the Down game, Armagh conceded two goals,but I know they’ll be looking at how Down got into those positions, more so than any goalkeeping aspect. For both goals, he was down at the forwards feet and the rebounds ended up in the net.

“There’s not much you can do about those things, but he’s looked solid. You can hear him, particularly in the games where there’s not as big a crowd – you can hear the communication going on. He’s calling defenders into the right shapes that they need to be in.

“His form has been absolutely brilliant,” Flynn continued. “He is playing the best stuff that he’s ever played for Armagh. Maybe it’s because he’s refreshed, but I think there’s competition there. A lot of the time when you have a jersey, it’s easier to keep it than to get one.

“He’s very clued into what he needs to perform at his best. He’s very meticulous in terms of ticking the boxes through the week coming up to a big game – that’s definitely led to the performance he’s shown. He’s been so steady at the minute and hopefully that continues.”

Morrison took Hughes under his wing during his first season in the Armagh panel and the pair worked hard together in an attempt to get Hughes up to speed as soon as possible.

“He couldn’t really afford not to get up to speed,” added Morrison.

“I was coaching at the time as well with a few teams so I knew how to put the information across to him in a way that he would understand it, so just getting the basic stuff right first and foremost was important.

“Then as the year went on, we started concentrating more on the complicated stuff. We went for a training camp down in Johnstown House during the summer and we agreed we’d go down about half an hour earlier than everyone else and we’d work on goalkeeping stuff.

“We didn’t really get much of a chance during the training sessions because it was all mostly on systems of play and team-based stuff so we went down half an hour before the rest of the boys.

“We’d have our warm-up and work on a few drills. One on ones, what to do in certain situations like high balls and stuff like that, just to get him up to speed again because it was coming towards the first round of the championship.”

That attitude to learn and constantly improve hasn’t dissolved in the intervening years. As Flynn gets to see first hand on a weekly basis, Hughes still puts in the effort night after night in an attempt to continually evolve.

“Once he’s decided he’d go back into the county squad, he’s been kicking relentlessly,” explains the ‘Cruppen boss. “People don’t see the stuff that he’s at, he’s round here three or four times a week getting balls or keys to the club.

“It could be mid-day when people aren’t about and it’s constant practice all the time. I’ve gone a couple of days with him just to get the ball back to him and he’s just so methodical. It’s X number of kicks to different areas and he seems to be so tuned in.

“I’d be chatting to him regularly, and it’s always in-depth conversations, which you wouldn’t have had with Blaine before now, really. Other years you wouldn’t have heard a lot from him, which is fair enough because county players need to be selfless in that regard.

“But in the last couple of years he seems to be a lot more rounded individual in terms of thinking about what other people are doing and how other people help him on the pitch and things like that.

“He’s really into that whole tactical aspect of kick-outs and defensive shapes and that’s probably developed because he’s now coaching teams. He has the gym, and they’ve branched out into taking teams too.

“In our own club, he’s providing stuff for u-12 teams – a bit of stuff on their warm-ups and how they can contribute to a lot of development. He’s a S&C coach for the club’s senior team, which has helped him.

“The year we won the Intermediate Championship (2021), it was a split season, but even at the very start we said if he does his strength and conditioning, it keeps him linked in with the players, even though he’s away with the county.

“It’s worked out for us over the last couple of years. Look at his influence that year when we won the championship, he got Intermediate Player of the Year as a goalkeeper. It wasn’t because he was all that busy making loads of saves, it was because of his influence on our play.

“Some of our big scores came off him, you could really say that he assisted them. In the quarter-final we got a goal against Wolfe Tones, where it was a kick-out over the top. Eoin Woods was running on to it and hit the net, but it was based on his kick-out.

“That year, he came out and he played sweeper-keeper and helped break lines and beat different teams, depending on how they were pressing us. He had a massive influence that year.

“He’s back with Armagh now and I’ve missed him about the training field, but he’s still fairly connected. Whenever he can be about it, he’s there.”

Carrickcruppen’s loss has most certainly been Armagh’s gain this year. Hughes has been exceptional throughout 2024 and on Sunday, he could play a massive part in Armagh landing their first Ulster title since 2008 when they lock horns with Donegal.


TEAMMATE…Paddy Morrison was part of the Armagh squad when Hughes made his county debut

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