By Shaun Casey
IT doesn’t get much more daunting than making your Armagh debut at midfield, in Croke Park, against Dublin. Sure, Ciaran Mackin had lined out in a few McKenna Cup games in the previous weeks, but this was a huge step up.
Mackin showed his class that evening as Armagh claimed a famous win and for the rest of the league, the athletic Shane O’Neill’s midfielder continued to shine in the orange and white.
It was the breakthrough season most youngsters can only dream about.
“Getting the start, when I heard my name called out for the starting team against Dublin, I was so proud of the hard work that was put in,” recalled Mackin.
“I was delighted, especially playing with the likes of Connaire (Mackin) and Greg (McCabe), clubmen. To go out and play with your brother and play for your county and pull on that orange jersey and represent my club, that means a lot.
“It was my first time ever playing in Croke Park. I remember walking in under the tunnel and I was just loving life, I knew this is where I wanted to be, where I wanted to play, I wanted to put on the orange jersey and represent my county.
“It couldn’t get any bigger, playing against Dublin, five-in-a-row All-Ireland winners. Going up against the likes of Brian Fenton and those boys, boys that I idolise, that I always look up to, boys that I would have watched when I was younger and said I wanted to be like them some day.
“Nerves, I didn’t really pass any remarks on the nerves, it was more excitement. I was just buzzing to get out there and do all the things as a team we’d talked about. How can I help the team, help other players and get on the ball? That’s the main thing for me, as long as the team wins then that’s all that matters.”
But disaster soon struck for the youngster living the dream. A freak accident in training left Mackin with a broken eye socket and his championship debut was put on hold. Mackin wasn’t the only one that spent most of the summer on the sidelines, although he did make it back for Armagh’s dramatic quarter-final defeat to Galway, a second outing in Croke Park.
Like Mackin, a freak training accident left Niall Grimley with a broken neck while Tiernan Kelly developed a blood clot issue which forced him to miss most of the championship.
“Going through the year, it was a brilliant year all round until I got that injury. That knocked me out then for a couple of months and it’s just something that you have to take on the chin.
“You can’t let it get to you, you just have to motor on, and you have to get back to the basics. When I broke my eye socket, it was just back to doing light things.
“Even walk-jogs just to get myself back up so I could get back running. Those are the things that you just have to do to get you back to your best and to get back playing on the field again. It’s a contact sport, you get these things, if you get hit, you just have to keep going. Freak accidents happen, the likes of Niall Grimley, me and TK (Kelly), those things you’re just unlucky with them.
“But when you’re not playing, you still have to do what it takes to help the team. Even at training, the injured boys were still trying to help the team out as much as we could even when we weren’t playing.
“You have to bring that. There’s no point staying on the line and doing nothing, you have to help the team at all times and try to get them prepared for their next game. The likes of the games against Tyrone, Donegal and even Galway, you have to get them prepared for that.”
It won’t be long until the league rolls around again and the county season gets back in full swing. Armagh are back battling against the big boys in Division One, for a third year in a row, and they intend to stay there.
“It’s very important, you want to stay in Division One for as long as you can, you want to play with the best and you want to play against the best,” added Mackin.
“You have the best in your team, the likes of Rian O’Neill, Rory Grugan, ‘Soupy’ (Stefan Campbell), everyone in the team are great players and that’s what makes a good team.
“You’re playing with the best and you’re playing against the best so it can’t get much better than that. You want to be there in the top flight at all times.
“It’s just about keeping that level in training and working hard in training and progressing and being a better team and a better unit together. Once you have everyone in the frame of mind of staying in Division One, you’ll stay in Division One.”
It’s onwards and upwards for 2023. Mackin, who picked up an Armagh club All-Star award this year for his part in helping Shane O’Neill’s capture Intermediate Championship glory, is looking forward to getting back at it.
“It (2022) was unbelievable, the boys dug deep, even in pre-season, the boys put the work in. They always work hard and that’s the best thing about this Armagh team, we’re not far away and we know we’re not far away.
“Us boys in Armagh, we keep believing and hopefully going into this year we’ll get another good league campaign, progress and we’ll take each game as it comes, one step at a time.
“Last year maybe wasn’t our best day out in Ballybofey (in the first round of the Ulster Championship) but we always have to get better in Armagh. We’re a good team, we work hard, we pull the best out of each other, going into this year we’ll look to get the best out of each other again and hopefully give it a good rattle.”