Rory Grugan glad to have distraction of football after family tragedy

Sport is not life or death, but there are times when it can be a joyous distraction or stabilising influence when all seems lost.

Armagh footballer Rory Grugan has found that out these past few months.

When his father, John, was tragically killed in a balcony fall while on holiday in France at the end of February, it was the 24-year-old's footballing family who helped him find a way through the grief.

“Football has given a bit of structure for me," he says.

“I'd be the type of person who is glad to have that kind of focus in my life. It's a nice distraction.

“County football in itself is such a big part of your week and your life anyway, and I find having that routine and structure of going to training and maybe going away at the weekend and having different things to focus on, is a welcome distraction for me.

“The people around me have been very good supporting me since then, so I certainly have been glad for that camaraderie from my team-mates and the management who have helped me so much over the last few months.

“I'm certainly a lot better off having the football as not, given what's happened.”

News of the tragedy filtered through hours before he was due to start against Fermanagh in a Division Two Allianz League match at the Athletic Grounds.

Numbed, he sat at home with his family in Ballymacnab and watched on TV as Armagh kicked a last gasp winner at the end of a match that had included a tribute to his father, organised by the county board which he says “really meant a lot to us”.

Grugan was the star of Armagh's All-Ireland minor-winning side of 2009 but like so many of that team, subsequently flitted in and out of the senior squad without making a lasting impact.

After studying in France in 2013, he was a regular substitute in 2014 and kicked the late point to force a replay against Monaghan in the Ulster championship.

“I hadn't played much championship football before that, so it was a big moment to score a last minute equaliser.

“I sort of announced myself at that stage and got a few more games on the way to the All-quarter-final.

“After being away last year (he was in Liverpool completing a PGCE), I was targeting trying to get a start come championship, to kick on and be a starting part of the team rather than a cameo sub.”

That ambition propelled him back to county training just a few weeks after losing his father. Football was providing a path forward.

“I'd lost my place because I'd missed the games against Fermanagh and Cavan but I was able work my way back in and got a start against Galway, and it went on from there.

“I suppose if you're looking at the league as a whole, purely in terms of performance, our last three games against Galway, Tyrone and Derry were a whole lot better. We were playing against the so-called stronger teams in the division and holding our own.

“I got into a bit of form in those games so I was happy to finish off the league quite strong with my own form.

“You don't want to be relegated but right away we thought 'we'll worry about Division Three next year, let's get ready for Cavan'”.

Cavan's curious 3-18 to 0-10 league win at Kingspan Breffni Park left Armagh with a scoring average which ultimately led to relegation.

Safe to assume tomorrow's Ulster SFC first round clash at the same venue between the same teams, will anything but the same.

“It was one you look back on and wonder what sort of happened, but we won't get caught out like that again, I certainly hope not, anyway,” said Grugan who starts for Armagh tomorrow at right half-forward.

“I'm sure the way Cavan are preparing there's a lot of talk about guarding against complacency after giving us a beating like that. But I don't think they'd be that naïve to think we'd be coming the same team as we were that night.”

Victory would thrust Armagh into an Ulster semi-final against Tyrone, which would be a bittersweet occasion for Grugan and his family.

His late father was a Tyrone man who played for Killyclogher in his youth before moving into enemy territory.

“There was always a bit of a stick flying but since I've been getting on Armagh squads, he'd have followed Armagh teams more than Tyrone.

“When we played Tyrone in the All-Ireland qualifiers two years ago, mum said he was supporting Tyrone in the first half and she was cracking up at him, but when I came on in the second half, she says it was like a switch. He wanted me to do well for Armagh.

“He always said to me 'if you're playing against Tyrone, I'd like you to score six or seven points but Tyrone to win'.”

Whatever comes, Grugan will try to take it in his stride.

“Two years ago we got relegated and the whole thing was a bit down and we ended up going on a bit of a run and getting to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

“So you never know what might happen. We can only take it as it comes.”

A good philosophy in life, and football.


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