Hearty glad Armagh are coming in under radar

IT wasn’t so long ago that Joe Kernan and Benny Tierney were disagreeing about what, if any, benefits winning Ulster had for Armagh in the grand scheme of an All-Ireland championship.

Back in 2006, Tierney, then Kernan’s goalkeeping coach and statistician, argued it mightn’t be such a bad thing to lose an Ulster final. That the rigours of the campaign were catching up on them later in the championship.

Kernan, of course, would hear nothing of their provincial success damaging their knock-out chances, even though they won three Anglo-Celt Cups in the four years after 2002 and never followed it up with the ultimate prize.

These days, there is no such luxurious bluster. Armagh might have won an Ulster title just three years ago, they may also currently host the All-Ireland Club champions in Crossmaglen, but they’re fifth favourites with the bookmakers to be northern kingpins.

How they might have fallen, you might say, but they remain in Division 1 and possess one of the most potent partnerships in Steven McDonnell and Jamie Clarke.

Still, Down are the team on everyone’s lip about breaking Armagh and Tyrone’s eight-year domination of the province. After finishing second in the country last year and retaining their Division 1 status, they are expected to step up again.

Goalkeeper Paul Hearty doesn’t mind that people are forgetting about Armagh. The more of it, the better, he says.

“Everybody is talking up Down but that don’t really bother us,” said Armagh’s first choice No1 since the end of 2002.

“It’s probably all the better because we don’t mind being underdogs coming into the game.

“You can understand why Down are favourites. We have nothing to lose whereas they did so well last year and pushed Cork to the pin of their collars in the All-Ireland final last year.

“We’re coming under the radar and nobody is expecting much of Armagh this year but hopefully we can upset the applecart and get people talking about us after Saturday night.”

Hearty knows his collection of six Ulster medals is the envy of a lot of players, plenty in the likes of Donegal and Down who have retired without ever winning a single one.

But it’s clear, irrespective of Armagh’s struggles in recent times, that he still views winning the province as the quickest — maybe not the easiest — route to Croke Park.

“An Ulster title is not to be sniffed at. It’s a great title to win, it’s such an achievement.

“I’m proud of every one I have and a lot of people outside Armagh and Tyrone would cut off their right hand to get one.

“If we can beat Down and keep going through the front door we’ll sure take it because you don’t want the scenic route of going around the country and playing four games before you even get to the quarter-finals.

“Whereas in winning Ulster, you only have a few so it’s probably easier on the players.

“People say the backdoor you can get momentum but you can only get momentum if you’re winning games and the qualifiers is too full of risks to start thinking like that.”

After picking up a fourth All-Ireland title with Crossmaglen in March, Hearty believes he and his six other club-mates in the Armagh panel have passed on some of the confidence and self-belief they attained from the triumph.

Not that they need any inspiration this week. With the Athletic Grounds hosting Armagh’s first Ulster SFC game since the early Nineties, there’s added incentive aside from playing neighbours Down. But Hearty insists the significance of the game at the redeveloped venue won’t put an extra onus on his team-mates.

“That won’t be an issue. It’s a local derby and we’ll be going out with all guns blazing.

“We want to win the first championship game in Armagh in 14 odd years but it doesn’t put pressure on us.

“At the end of the day, it’s a performance and a victory that we want.

“The history attached to the game doesn’t impact on us.”

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