Oisín McConville: Down swagger may not get around Armagh

Armagh are an enigma wrapped up in a conundrum, writes Oisín McConville.

At 11 years old having just finished primary school, I jumped onto a bus to travel 30 minutes to Newry where I would begin life in grammar school. An exciting time for every young man but one filled with trepidation, and my fear was borne of the fact that I knew I was going to struggle academically.

Throw me in any PE class, football field or gym or basketball court and I would be extremely comfortable and I knew I would hold my own with whomever I crossed swords.

Unfortunately for me, PE was only an hour a week and there was no dispensation for my academics regardless of how many times I kicked the ball over the bar.

This was also the time of my first introduction to the Down lads. We all liked to mess about, we loved to kick ball at every opportunity but we were inherently different. The lads from south Armagh, of which there were plenty, spoke differently and we were known as The Culchies. The Down lads were very confident. Any mention of local rivalries would end with them giving a three-finger salute signifying their number of All-Irelands compared to ours – zilch.

But I enjoyed playing with these guys. They could play ball. Shane Mulholland could. I played alongside him for those five years. Together we won everything that could be won at schools’ level. He could make the ball talk. He was not the quickest or the biggest but a footballer of pure quality. A real man to put a ball into a wee corner forward like myself, he would go on to play for Down. He just came around in the wrong era and probably didn’t get the proper opportunity to showcase his undoubted talent.

It was also my first time to encounter the Down swagger, thought of in many places as a myth but believe me, it exists. It was very evident in the 90s. It is certainly on the wane but it rears its head even in the darkest of times. This year during the league while on the most horrible of runs they needed to produce something special. They did just that, recording an incredible win against Meath, made all the more miraculous by the fact that there was no sign of any form and plenty of talk about player discontent and a growing injury list in the lead up to that match.

In adversity, they had previously been found wanting but it took this display to turn their season around and with a little bit of good fortune subsequently they maintained their Division 2 status.

Their backs are still firmly to the wall. Eamon Burns is a manager who isn’t blamed by Down people but pitied. Players making themselves unavailable, injuries and lack of financial backing and news of a mutiny behind the scenes are just some of the things he has had to contend with. As a former player and proud Down man, I am pretty sure getting a bit of stick sat better with him then getting sympathy. When supporters start feeling sorry for you, you are well and truly in the shit.

To be fair to Burns and his players, they followed up with a win over Derry, a game in which they went 1-10 to no score up. They then went to Cork in the last game of the league to get a draw and stay up. It seemed like a big result at the time, although in light of Cork’s display against Waterford last Saturday it’s not a result to be hanging your hat on.

Burns’ biggest problem is that he has inherited a defensive system that is hindering the team. He doesn’t seem that comfortable with himself and at times the strategy has created more problems than solutions. They don’t break fast enough or often enough and are the champions of the lateral slow and ponderous approach. It’s that indecision that is causing them huge problems. They get turned over in the middle of the field more than any team I have seen this season. They lack physically in this area also.

If Tyrone, Monaghan or Donegal were the opposition then Down would be on the end of a serious drubbing. But they find themselves up against Armagh, currently, an enigma wrapped up in a conundrum. Armagh were the highest scorers in all four divisions and amazingly had 21 different scorers. None of these traits are easily aligned to the management of Kieran McGeeney. Well, they’re not if you believe lazy, uninformed analysts. Yes, McGeeney’s teams are bulked up in some respect but his Kildare and Armagh teams have played attractive attacking football. Sometimes they can be naive but they all play with the right intentions.

Armagh press high and have left gaps at the back at times. I think, in this respect, the league was a big eye-opener for Armagh. From three winning positions, they lost five league points against Sligo, Laois and Tipperary.

Your league position is your league position and not getting out of Division 3 was a major dent to confidence levels all round.

It has also left Geezer in a precarious position in terms of his future. However, a good Ulster championship run will sort that out.

My optimism for Armagh’s season may be based on a league campaign that failed to end in promotion but they showed me enough to suggest there is much more to come. That too will have its ceiling but there is plenty to be positive about. My nephew Oisín O’Neill takes to the field for his first championship start. We are very proud of him and his involvement has brought on an added importance for the family this weekend. He and the other four Armagh debutants should be very comfortable in these surroundings, though.

This is a derby for the ages, plenty of bragging rights up for grabs but more importantly few reputations and the possibility of bigger and better days ahead for two teams at a crossroads.

For me, the Down swagger may not be enough to sidestep the strong athletic Armagh outfit with scores aplenty in them. Armagh by six – and the trips to Newry to be more palatable for the next 12 months.


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