McDonnell a symbol of true Armagh spirit
By Kieran Shannon
And then there was just one — if Ronan Clarke gets back at all.
When Stevie McDonnell tweeted his retirement, more than the career of one of the first great forwards of the 21st century came to an end, but one of the last remaining links with a special football team.
McDonnell was the only Armagh player to play in both last year’s championship and the All-Ireland breakthrough campaign of 10 years ago. Even in recent seasons, when the team was endlessly flirting with mediocrity and flitting between Division 1 and 2, McDonnell was always good to win a dirty ball, swivel and thump it over the bar, and suddenly everyone would get a reminder that this was still Armagh playing and how awesome they were in their pomp. Now with McDonnell gone, that sense is gone.
Over the years how that old Armagh team should be regarded has fluctuated. After Tyrone won their third All-Ireland in 2008 and Paul Galvin won his fourth in 2009, it was easy and indeed fashionable to scoff at those earnest Armagh boys with their measly one Sam.
Some commentators tried to downplay their achievements, going so far as to say Joe Kernan’s side represented the hubris of the Celtic Tiger and all that kind of old nonsense.
The reality is Armagh represented one of the oldest and most admirable themes of sport itself — the idea of becoming and doing your best. Armagh and Tyrone were no more nouveau riche than the hurlers of Clare and Wexford were in the supposedly more innocent and glorious Revolution Years.
Kerry, Cork and Dublin have done their share of chest-thumping after winning recent All-Irelands and with those three traditional powers at the top of the tree and hurling’s traditional Big Three having gobbled up the past 13 Liam MacCarthys between them, it highlights all the more just how wondrous the early ’00s in football were.
In successive years the All-Ireland was won by two counties who had never won it before, something we’ll hardly see again. Looking back, those were football’s Revolution Years and Armagh instigated that revolution.
Of course Armagh didn’t invent the game and of course not everything about them was savoury. They took their lead from Sean Boylan’s Meath side, including their cutthroat nature and the mastery of the grey arts. In Declan Bogue’s This Is Our Year, Kevin Cassidy reckons that Donegal lost at least one player a game to a dirty tackle facing Armagh in those years.
“They were known for falling on you with their knees and everything,” he’d say. “They were rugby tackling and getting away with it.”
Yet for all their destructive and defensive tendencies, Armagh played some wonderful, attacking football too, which McDonnell personified.
What probably best sums up him and his team is the point that won them that 2002 All-Ireland. With the sides level, a ball dropped into Benny Tierney. The previous year, the affable goalkeeper had watched the championship from the bench. He had retired, only Joe Kernan persuaded him to give it one more year.
A few months after Tierney acceded to that request, Kernan approached him again. Why was it he always looked to lay it off to his full backs, Enda or Justin McNulty? Tierney thought it was self-explanatory. They were clubmates of his; he’d been doing it for 20 years.
“Aye, I know,” said Kernan, “but it’s just you’re putting them under fierce pressure when you could be hitting a halfback out here with a foot pass of your own.
“But sure look, Benny, if you don’t do it in the first game, don’t worry about it. And if you don’t do in the second game, don’t worry about it either. And if you don’t do in the third game, it should be the least of your worries because we’ll get in somebody who will.”
Tierney made sure it didn’t come to that and with 14 minutes to go in that All Ireland, the then 33-year-old picked out a wing back, Aidan O’Rourke, with a foot pass he could never have given only months before.
Aidan O’Rourke’s brother was Cathal O’Rourke, a wing forward. Earlier that 2002 season, Cathal had challenged Stevie McDonnell. McDonnell had scored nine goals in that league campaign that had just finished but only 11 points, and O’Rourke pointed out to McDonnell that he needed to be able to kick a lot more, especially with his left foot. All through that summer O’Rourke would stay on with McDonnell after training, goading and guiding him into becoming one of the best two-footed point-takers the game has known.
Seconds after collecting that outlet footpass from Tierney, Aidan O’Rourke played a diagonal ball into McDonnell. McDonnell duly kicked it over the bar, with his so-called weaker left foot. In all the tributes that were paid to McDonnell in recent days, we didn’t see any describing him as the man who kicked the winning score of the 2002 All-Ireland final. It was fitting. Just like the team he graced, we’ll remember him for how he won more than just what he won.
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