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Tony McEntee: ‘It was horrific. I was going into work every day and I was getting sick’

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Armagh’s 2002 All-Ireland winner reveals his concussion struggles and backs Orchard County to put it up to Kerry

After splitting the posts, Canning notes that McEntee seems to be “showing no ill effects” from a knock he’d picked up earlier in the game.

The reality, McEntee explains, was much different. That score came in the 17th minute and by then he’d already been treated twice for a bang to the head. In the aftermath, his vision had deserted him. The point was kicked on autopilot, the ball steered over the bar on muscle memory.

Not long after, he accepted that his All-Ireland race had been run and signalled to the bench to make a change. Back then, there was nothing like the awareness of concussion as there is now. McEntee, however, had learned the hard way.

“The first [concussion] in ’97, we were playing Knockmore in the All-Ireland club final and the centre-back got me a good shoulder,” he recalls. “I soloed too high and he caught me with a shoulder. It’s not obvious on the video because I walk off the pitch. But I have no recollection of the game, or the build-up, or of being taken off. I woke up in hospital the following day I didn’t know how I got to hospital.”

That injury bled into his occupational therapy work experience.

“I was actually on placement at university at the time. And it was horrific. I was going into work every day and I was getting sick. Then I went back to training and in the first session I jumped up, mistimed the jump and broke my thumb. It was a blessing because I was probably going to fail the placement, given the experience I was having.

“The broken thumb meant the placement had to be terminated because I couldn’t continue it.”

So when he felt the familiar feeling in Croke Park, there was nothing to be done except leave the field. A lifetime of waiting for football’s biggest day was done in 24 minutes.

“After [the point] I went over to the sideline. I literally couldn’t see what I was doing and I sat up in the stand for the rest of the game.

“I was sitting beside Ger Reid, a great full-back for Armagh for years, and with my vision I couldn’t track the ball from left to right. As the play went up the field, my eyes wouldn’t track it, I couldn’t see what was going on.

“But towards the final whistle I knew we were winning. And I said to Ger, ‘When this game is over please take me on to the pitch, don’t run on without me’. And of course when the final whistle went he jumped up and ran off without me and left me sitting there.”

Armagh made history in 2002, slaying Kerry to secure Sam Maguire for the first time, but it was a win several years in the making. By then Armagh had won Ulster titles, and gone toe-to-toe with most of the top teams of the day. McEntee also recalls being part of a Jordanstown side that played a star-studded IT Tralee side in a Sigerson Cup final. They lost but it was a game that helped build confidence that, when it came to football, they could run with the bulls.

“They had a strong team and we ran them close. And things like that help. There’s an aura to Kerry, the Kingdom, the best footballers in the country, they always have that aura about them which is great. I loved going to see the great Kerry teams but when you played them you realise, ‘We are not that far away here. In many respects we are as good as them and if we had one or two more fellas maybe we could beat these boys’.

“So we knew they were talented and capable but we had enough belief and confidence in ourselves to perform well. Was it 2000 we drew with them? We should have won the first day. But when you are that close we had enough belief that we could compete.”

The year 2002 comes into focus as Armagh and Kerry collide in Croke Park again on Saturday. This Armagh side don’t have the stripes of the class of ’02 but should they torpedo one of the top teams, McEntee reckons it could be the making of them.

“This team needs a big scalp in Croke Park. We went up last year and Monaghan beat us. We’ve won our games but we haven’t beaten any of the top teams, really. I would be cautious about getting ahead of ourselves but there is certainly a lot of talent in the squad and there are times they play really well.

“We have an impact from the bench, which is really important. You need fresh legs, someone who can come on and make a difference and score. We have it in abundance. They are physically big and strong and very fit and they are well coached.

“I just think we need to have the right ingredients together and see what the performance throws up. Kerry, for their part, remain untested. Derry was a tricky game for them and they did what they had to do to win but that performance won’t do the next day,

“If Armagh set up the same way will Kerry break them down? I’m not so sure. The Armagh defence is well set up but I’d like them to be a wee bit more expansive and challenge that Kerry full-back line and try to get goals. The tactics will be interesting and how they approach the game.

“But in terms of raw materials, they have enough.”

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