Ready for the next chapter

THE reel of the story is well-worn now, but Aidan O’Rourke’s face still lights up when reminded of the message left at each bedroom door of the Armagh team on the morning of the All-Ireland final.

There, in black and white, Muhammad Ali was wishing his Armagh brothers good luck in their impending battle with Kerry. It was Joe Kernan’s final gambit to ensure the focus and intent of minds never wavered. Lodged somewhere in the back of their heads was the notion the Louisville Lip was rooting for them.

“Absolutely amazed,” O’Rourke reflects now. Like so many athletes, the wing-back counted the Greatest as his hero but for years, only knew him through the occasional fight on video and the pages of books. And there were a lot of pages and a lot of books. Few subjects have claimed more forest than Ali.

“I couldn’t believe it. I have read every scrap of paper that was ever written about Ali. Everything. My favourite is probably (Thomas) Hauser’s book because he gives you both sides in a dispassionate way. There was a dark side to Ali which people tend not to dwell on, but it came across in that book. So, to get that message was amazing.”

Few would fail to be inspired by a message from Ali, but it was extra special for O’Rourke. He has spent his Armagh career looking for, and discovering, inspiration in other sports. These days, his eyes look towards Lance Armstrong and, surprisingly, the English rugby team as examples of how far people can push themselves in the pursuit of excellence.

Back in 1999, when the cement was only setting on the current Armagh force, O’Rourke watched Meath dismantle Orchard pretensions in the All-Ireland semi-final and recalled a passage from ‘El Tel’s’ autobiography. It was a quote from the American president, Theodore Roosevelt, and supplements the obsessive drive of this Armagh team in the past three years: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, if he wins, knows the thrills of high achievement and if he fails, at least fails daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

He copied the verse out, sent it to Kieran McGeeney. It now sits in his captain’s Sports Council office. The week before the All-Ireland hurling final, O’Rourke was at it again. This time another friend was the recipient. Cork keeper Donal Óg Cusack was getting concise Latin phrases by text message.

“Well, it is nothing much. It is just something I take an interest in, if I read something that might help people, I write it down.

“People look for help in different sources. This is just my source. I think it is important thing for any athlete to do. Just to see how other sport stars deal with big events.”

It is hardly the love of the parish stuff, but O’Rourke is in the right place to try something different. Armagh have spent the last couple of seasons changing how teams approach All-Ireland ambitions. Some of the tricks have become open secrets, the Al Pacino speech, the wrist-bracelets, the refusal to swap shirts. Others are kept closed within Orchard walls. “If you are serious about your sport, you always look around or look ahead of you for any little edge you can get,” O’Rourke feels.

“As far as we are concerned, it is harder and harder because everything we are being done is being copied. We have used so many of these tricks, that maybe the well will run dry some day.”

Of course, you need 30 players willing to push the boundaries along with the management. “Yeah, we have a very intelligent bunch of players and none of them are of the opinion that they know it all. The day you know everything is the day you know nothing.”

O’Rourke realises it wasn’t too long ago that things weren’t working in Armagh. Having joined the Orchard panel in 1996 as a raw 20-year-old, he was on the bench for the initial break-through of an Ulster title in 1999. Within a year, however, O’Rourke was firmly installed as a regular in the Armagh half-back line. By the time the county sated its magnificent obsession last September, O’Rourke was one of the indispensable few. Like the Kilkenny hurlers, the platform for Armagh success is constructed in their half-back line. When a chink appeared in that armour last May in Clones, things went awry for Armagh. Wishful thinkers in other counties thought Paul Finlay’s scoring spree exposed limitations in Armagh that would only grow as the season grew. How wrong they were. O’Rourke casts his mind back to Clones and knew the path to a second successive All-Ireland would be re-tracked.

“We played badly that day, but not badly enough for people to question our heart and desire. That was rubbish. Monaghan found a weakness that day and exploited it, fair play to them. They played very well.

“That can be qualified by saying we were missing four key players, Kieran, Oisín, Ronan and Enda. If we were missing any one of those guys on Sunday, we would be in difficulty. In saying that, we had enough chances to win the game that day. Ball bounced the wrong way for us, things went wrong, a couple of wrong decisions. There was no question of desire.”

IF anything, the desire sharpened on the short bus journey home. In his career, Aidan had played on enough schools and colleges team who lost their desire after capturing a big prize to notice something special in this current bunch of players. “Well, we could have easily said ‘f*ck it, we won the All-Ireland last year, these things happen’. We could have patted ourselves on the back and said we had a good run. That has happened to a lot of All-Ireland champions, and I have been on teams like that before, who could have gone further but were satisfied with a little bit of success. I knew this team would never be satisfied with one All-Ireland.

“Some of the boys have said this before, but we want to win this second title for ourselves. The first All-Ireland is always going to be remembered by our supporters and the great scenes in the county, the break-through win. Last year, we were carrying the county on our backs, it was total mania, even for the semi-final. It is not as manic this year, so this second title is for the players, to cement our place in history.”

It hasn’t been the smoothest road so far, though. Indeed, if Armagh do go back-to-back on Sunday, the moment that changed the season might be a perceived image of Big Joe bellowing in the dressing-room at half-time against Dublin. “After Monaghan, the teams we played weren’t top-drawer. And we weren’t pushing ourselves. Before the Dublin game, we were ambling along in a haze. We knew we were All-Ireland champions, but we were unsure of whether we could produce that kind of form again. And even in the first-half against Dublin, we were still in that haze.

“We threw down the gauntlet to ourselves really. Because we were in trouble and we knew it was now or never. The boys were able to produce the best football, possibly the best football of the last two years, when it counted. And that might be the difference between this team and so many others.

“I think the key point of this team is that there is always one or two boys who are willing to stand up when others aren’t having the greatest game. Down in Limerick, it was Steven, against Dublin, it was John Mac. Paddy made the penalty against Donegal. Boys do stand up to the plate and that doesn’t happen by accident. It is something that has been drilled into us. As a team, we realise that when things aren’t working in one sector, then other boys have to make a conscious decision to raise their game. And if that happens in our next game, we won’t be far away.”

So, the conversation comes round to Sunday. The perception is that never before has such a bitter rivalry met in an All-Ireland final, but O’Rourke finds himself separated from all the rancour between the counties. He’s from the other side of Armagh, a few hundred yards from the south, straddling the Down border in Dromintee.

The village has nourished an O’Rourke dynasty. Aidan’s older brother Cathal retired last year, swiftly replaced by his younger brother Martin. And Aidan smiles, there is Micheal, still a teenager, who played with the county minors this summer. Growing up, it was always those aristocrats of the northern games the O’Rourke family had as rivals. As Armagh people going to school in Newry, all they ever heard was talk of five Sams. Tyrone, well Aidan always kinda liked them.

And nothing in the past few years has changed that. He won Sigerson medals with Collie Holmes, Enda McGinley, played alongside Seán Cavanagh and Cormac McAnallen in college. He reckons it’s great two Ulster teams have made it this far. “Tyrone have improved vastly from last year. It was said last year they had no man-markers, this year, they have six great man-markers in their team and sometimes eight or nine. I think the two best teams in Ireland have got this far.”

But what of the sweepers, the suffocaters? “The game goes through phases. In the early 1990s, the running game was a tactic and people were wondering if that was the future and then Meath came along with their long ball game. Last year, we used the long ball when we had to. Tactics come and go in football, and coaches try to be one step ahead all the time. If you can get one step ahead of the posse, you can be very successful.

“Sweepers are a bit of a fad at the minute, and it has been successful for both teams. People think it is a defensive mechanism, but it can also be used as a very potent offensive weapon and I think both teams have shown that during the championship.

“Having a sweeper can create over-laps, so the person who starts the over-lap can be in a position in the other end of the field to pick the ball up and score.”

The explanation of the attacking force of sweepers is a perfect description of his beautiful, right-footed point against Laois in the quarter-final. It came at a vital time in the game, when Laois were burrowing a tunnel into the Orchard rear-guard.

The key to this Armagh team. Players stepping up to their plate, doing the right thing at the right time. It is the basic tenet of all the athletic achievements Aidan O’Rourke has read about and it might just be what ensures his new Sporting Visions business in Newry sells many pictures of this Armagh team, the first footballers to win back-to-back All-Irelands in 13 years.

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