HomeFootballAndy Watters: Derry didn’t lose it, Armagh won it

Andy Watters: Derry didn’t lose it, Armagh won it


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YOU don’t become a bad team overnight, they said. But when Armagh beat Derry it turned out that apparently you could.

The Romans had a saying: Victori spolia (to the victor go the spoils). Not when it comes to Armagh, it seems.

There’s been lots of talk about Derry losing on Sunday and a lot less about Armagh winning.

The Glen men are tired, there was a row in the camp, a revolt against Mickey Harte, the manager is stubborn, the tactics were naïve…

Was it all about Derry losing? Was Sunday about them getting it wrong? What about Armagh winning? What about what they did right?

After all, they went into Derry’s backyard without three first-choice players in Ciaran Mackin, Andrew Murnin and Conor O’Neill and still blew their hosts away.

Whatever the issues in the camp, Derry were well and truly up for that game but they would have struggled with Armagh’s physicality in midfield and their pace coming onto the ball even if they had been at their best.

Kieran McGeeney would have been entitled to feel a mixture of satisfaction and vindication on Sunday night as he savoured a memorable win for his team.

When I looked at the possible match-ups, I was leaning towards Derry as winners but the result wasn’t a shock. Armagh haven’t been beaten in play in a knockout Championship game since they lost to Donegal in Ballybofey two years’ ago.

Against Derry in last year’s Ulster final, Armagh were the better side for most of the 90 minutes. Like Donegal in this year’s final, Derry hung in there and got out of jail in the shootout.

McGeeney has lamented on a couple of occasions how, when teams have beaten Armagh in the lottery of penalties the opposition manager is a crowned as a genius and his players are superstars.

Meanwhile, McGeeney’s players are chokers and his tactics get thrown in the bin.

There was a stage when it seemed McGeeney was reluctant to do post-match interviews and only faced the media when the team lost.

This year he has been ever-present and it has been noticeable how he has regularly used the word ‘gobshite’ to describe himself in a half-joking/self-effacing way.

Meanwhile, his opponents in the other dressing room have been speaking of their respect for him. Since the Championship started, Padraic Joyce, Ryan McHugh and Dessie Dolan have remarked on their admiration for the Armagh manager.

Another couple of wins like last Sunday’s will enable McGeeney to prove all his doubters wrong.

Armagh would be in an All-Ireland semi-final by that stage and they’ll have earned their spot, even the hardcore begrudgers could hardly deny that.

At the end of last season there was prolonged debate in Armagh over McGeeney’s future and understandably so. Armagh had been banging away on the door for season after season and maybe it was time for a change or at least have the debate about change.

The debate raged throughout the county but ‘Geezer’ got the backing from the clubs and the county board and Armagh have looked a tighter unit this year – they haven’t been beaten in open play. There can be no doubt that McGeeney’s players are busting a gut for him and not just the tried and trusted veterans.

He has introduced two young speed merchants in corner-back Peter McGrane and forward Oisin Conaty. Conaty took a while to settle but he has been persisted with and is improving with very game.

Armagh have also kept faith with Blaine Hughes who has hardly put a foot wrong in goals and that means Ethan Rafferty – brilliant for the last two seasons – has had to sit on the bench.

McGeeney has been able to keep everyone on the bus and there is a depth of the squad other counties can’t match. Last Sunday Ross McQuillan, a surprise starter, had a superb game.

McQuillan won an All-Ireland Intermediate title with Cullyhanna this year but he doesn’t get that much game-time with Armagh. He could have become frustrated and walked but he hung in there and, when his chance came last Sunday, he took it.

Niall Grimley is another example. There was a time when he was first-choice in midfield for Armagh, but injuries meant he dropped down the pecking order. Like so many others, he has kept at it for season after season and when he was thrown in to start at Celtic Park he responded with a brilliant performance.

The challenge now is to do it again.

Did Derry really become a bad team overnight? Are Armagh now genuine contenders? They have been one major win away from getting to that stage for a few seasons now.

An Armagh man who has seen it all before asked me on Wednesday evening: “What are yous going to write about when they win the Sam Maguire?”

He was smiling because he knows it’s a bit early for that.

Armagh are excellent underdogs and are often at their best when they’re written off. It’s a different story when they’re expected to win, it’s a different story when they get close to the line and they feel the hot breath of the other fellas on the back of their necks.

We’ll know what they’re all about then and, if they come through it, they’ll have earned whatever they get.

Victori Spolia, as the Romans used to say.

Armagh players wore 'Care of Caolan' bibs as they prepared for last Sunday's game in Derry. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Armagh players wore ‘Care of Caolan’ bibs as they prepared for last Sunday’s game in Derry. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

WHEN one of the GAA community hurts we all limp and the Lurgan GAA ‘Auld Firm’ of Clan na Gael and St Peter’s are combining in a ‘spinathon’ at Davitt Park on Saturday (4-7pm) to raise funds for the treatment of Crossmaglen player Caolan Finnegan.

Caolan played for Crossmaglen against Clan na Gael in their 2023 Armagh Senior Championship opener in Davitt Park last August and a few days later he underwent surgery to remove a brain tumour.

The 21-year-old needs further treatment in Germany and a bucket collection will be held as members and supporters of the Lurgan clubs – who resume hostilities when they meet later in a league match (7.30pm) – cover the distance of a return journey from Lurgan to Crossmaglen.

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