HomeFootballEnda McNulty hails Armagh’s grit as they face into ‘mammoth’ challenge against...

Enda McNulty hails Armagh’s grit as they face into ‘mammoth’ challenge against Kerry

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McNulty was a defensive mainstay as his county claimed seven Ulster titles between 1999 and 2008, exactly half of their entire provincial haul.

But they have failed to conquer Ulster since then, having endured penalty shoot-out heartbreak in the last two finals, and this Saturday’s Croke Park showdown with Kerry will be their first All-Ireland semi-final appearance since 2005.

McNulty is cautiously optimistic about what he labels a “mammoth challenge” against Jack O’Connor’s men, calling it a “50-50” game.

It will be Armagh’s first championship date with Kerry since a watershed quarter-final in 2006, when O’Connor was in his first spell as manager and Kieran McGeeney was one of Joe Kernan’s on-field generals. Armagh led by two at half-time, only to be overwhelmed in the second half and lose by eight.

“I think ’06-’07 was obviously the end for that great Armagh team,” says McNulty, a Celtic Cross winner in 2002 and All-Ireland runner-up the following year.

“We never won enough during that time. We’ll go to our graves with that regret. I cannot mince my words with that – I’ll go to my grave with the regret that we didn’t win more All-Irelands. I wouldn’t try and plámás that and put lovely glossy language around that – literally every single day I think about how we never won more All-Irelands.”

Instead of specifying one particular ‘what if?’, he reels off a roll call of years as ones that got away, adding: “We could have a psychological counselling session here!”

However, McNulty is adamant that this should be about the current crop of Armagh players. And for all the traumas they have endured, having lost four penalty shoot-outs over the past three seasons, he prefers to accentuate their “bouncebackability” from setbacks that could have broken another team.

Since losing to Donegal in April 2022, Armagh have only lost one of their next 18 SFC contests in regulation time (against Tyrone in a 2023 group game). Over 70 minutes, they have been virtually unbeatable.

“The fact they haven’t been beaten in normal time over those years obviously will give them more confidence and belief,” says McNulty, whose professional field of expertise is performance coaching.

“This team has clearly built significant resilience and mental toughness and grit. They obviously have an incredibly good mindset in how they bounce back from all of those defeats on penalties.

“However, I think they’re grounded in the reality of the challenge that lies ahead … this is going to be incredibly tough. And I believe that it’s always brilliant to go into a game knowing you’re going to have one of the toughest battles of your football career – because that means you have to be at your best, mentally, emotionally, technically, tactically, leadership-wise, belief-wise, mindset-wise.”

While McGeeney is still chasing silverware in his 10th season as Armagh boss, his former team-mate says that record should be viewed in context. Their 1999 Ulster breakthrough came after a 17-year famine. “Armagh haven’t the luxury of having the bench strength that Dublin have,” he expands. “I was a coach in Dublin for five years. I believe that Dublin GAA could field five very strong county teams that would probably beat 60pc of the teams in the country.

“So have this [Armagh] team overachieved? No, I don’t think they’ve overachieved. I think this team would argue they could and should have won more in the last four or five years. They certainly could have won a few Ulsters, obviously.

“I would say this current group of players and coaches are hungry and maybe disappointed with what they’ve achieved in the last few years – and that’s probably what drives them this year, for this All-Ireland semi-final. They know they’ve done enough work to be as good as anybody else in the country.”

McGeeney has now been working at the inter-county coalface for 35 years straight. McNulty views his motivational stamina as “exceptional”.

“You’re asking me why and how has he not been drained … I think he has an incredible mindset,” he surmises.

“I think this group of players excites and inspires him because of their mentality, their devotion, their commitment and I think he’s got very good people. Look at the backroom staff … if you’ve got good people around you, it’s much easier to stay motivated and inspired and excited.”

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