The Kieran Shannon Interview: Stevie McDonnell: 'I was lucky, to be part of the greatest ever era in Armagh football'

Steven McDonnell says Armagh will get the better of Tyrone today. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach

Armagh. And Tyrone. “Tyrone wouldn’t have achieved what they did without us pushing them, and we wouldn’t have had done what we did without them,” says Stevie McDonnell, a standout scorer in any era. Such was the rivalry between the Ulster neighbours in the noughties that 20,000 watched a McKenna Cup game between them. There’ll be four times that and plenty more at stake in Croke Park today, writes Kieran Shannon.

Midweek in Dublin and a bit like Armagh football, Steven McDonnell is increasingly spending more time back there, taking in and enlivened by the buzz and energy of the big city.

We meet in a diner off Stephen’s Green, just after he’s recorded the latest podcast of sportsjoe.ie’s The GAA Hour with resident host, Colm Parkinson. The show routinely makes terrific listening: informed, irreverent and insightful, with McDonnell, in particular, taking us onto the training ground and into the dressing room, making it the footballers’ football show.

What helps is that he’s still at the coalface. Eight of the current Armagh team, he managed at U21 level. The other night he was coaching the Burren senior footballers, including Kevin McKernan, his first night back after that loss and that goal miss for Down against Monaghan in Croke Park. While someone else might have opted not to mention the war, McDonnell, the highest goalscorer his province has ever known, saw it as the ideal coachable moment. What would you do differently, Kevin? What will you the next time you find yourself again in that position?

That’s it: either square it off for a teammate or if you’re going to take it on yourself, head down and drive that ball as hard as you can.

He’s full of little nuggets like that, to the point that he writes a fortnightly blog on his website, just to help the curious player, club or county, male or female, that’s looking for ways to improve their game. Like how to react to being left off the starting 15, like he was when Armagh won an Ulster U21 championship nearly 20 years ago. Or how to win the breaking ball. Or, as he’d recently talk about on the podcast, how players should view an attempted point as a pass over the bar.

“Often players panic when they’re in front of goals,” he expands in a chat over lunch, “but if you move those guys maybe 20 or 30 yards further out the pitch and ask them to kick the ball into the goalmouth where there’s a teammate standing there, almost each and every one of them could do that. They don’t have the strain of ‘Oh God, if I miss this here, it could cost us.’ It’s just trying to get players to think differently about what a point is – it’s a pass over the bar to a much bigger target than any teammate.

“Quite often what I’d do was this thing I took from Jonny Wilkinson’s book after he won the World Cup. I’d go the endline, target just the one post and try to hit it or get within a metre of it.

“I would keep it nice and close at the start before gradually moving out. It’s the same with shooting practice in general. A lot of players, young players particularly, start shooting from 40 yards out and expect the ball to go over the bar. No. You start in closer.

“With that Jonny Wilkinson drill, I would have maybe two cones, done a little shimmy around them and then gone for a shot 15 yards out. I saw the post as my black spot, basically. So when it came to a game, my target suddenly became much bigger.”

What’s instructive there is that the same month Wilkinson won the World Cup, McDonnell was honoured as the Player of the Year. He was the best in the country but wanted to be better.

“Even though we won the All Ireland in 2002 and I won Footballer of the Year in 2003, I felt my best years with Armagh were in 2005 and 2006. I was always looking for ways to improve myself. Because my goal – my job – for the team was simple: get scores. Regardless of how that happened, I had to make it happen.”

The term deliberate practice wasn’t en vogue back then but unknown to himself he was abiding by virtually all of its principles. First of all, he regularly practised by himself; while these days players can feel they have too much collective training and S&C sessions to get in any actual individual practice, McDonnell would make sure to make time to get down to the club field in Killeavy.

“Back then we trained Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that left Monday, Wednesday and Friday free for some shooting. The way I looked at it was that I and the team were getting more benefit from me being down there than the gym.”

His visits to the local pitch were frequent but short, snappy. Forty attempts would be about the most he’d take, the same number off either foot. “Sometimes players overload themselves, taking too many shots and put strain on their body. Go down, warm up, take the shots and go home again.” And it wasn’t just about how often he practised: like Kobe Bryant, for him, it was about how present his mind was when he practised.

“I might take players one-on-one to improve their shooting and can actually tell before they even do it if they’re going to be on form or not. Just by how they walk or approach the ball or their body language in general. You might get them to practise frees and maybe they’ll kick two over the bar and kick two wide. Then when you ask them about why it was different, they would actually turn round and shrug, ‘Nothing.’ When in fact there’s a huge difference.

“With one they might have had the valve pointing towards them and then with the next it wouldn’t. Or with the one that went over the bar they kept their head down and struck through the ball while with the wide they lifted their head.”

When McDonnell scored or missed in practice, he invariably asked and knew why. Though he didn’t know it, he was practising what experts term self-regulation; when players essentially coach themselves by observing, strategising and suitably adjusting their own actions. If McDonnell scored his first five shots in practice but missed the sixth, he didn’t just move on to the seventh. “No, I would stop and think about it for about maybe the next 30 seconds to a minute. ‘Right, there was a reason why I missed that shot? What was it?’ And it could be quite simple. You maybe screwed the ball off the outside of your boot or you didn’t follow through. And you’d think about the previous five that you’d scored. ‘What worked well there? Good connection. Head down. Follow through. Let’s do that again.’

It was a continuous process of self-reflection and self-awareness.

McDonnell is confident enough to say he was mentally strong but modest enough to say he wasn’t quick. The challenge was to find ways to compensate for that. Just because he wasn’t quick in a sprint didn’t mean he couldn’t have a quick turn.

“In the 2000 [All Ireland] semi-final I was taken off and Mike McCarthy held me scoreless. Serious player. Seriously fast. That’s when I realised: ‘Straight-line runs don’t f****n’ work here. If it’s just a one-on- one race to get the ball, he’ll win every time. I need to get smarter and jinkier.’ I promised myself that was never going to happen to me again. I always wanted to get the opportunity to get back at Kerry and get back at him so when he marked me in the All Ireland final two years later I was delighted.

“I got a point within the first 20 seconds by coming on the loop, doing a little jink and then getting the shot off.

The last, as well as the first point of that All Ireland final told a story about the journey McDonnell had put in. During the 2002 league, he’d scored a remarkable nine goals in just eight games but also realised that he’d barely kicked that number of points.

For his game to go to the next level something had to change. So he talked to Cathal O’Rourke about it and after collective training, they’d stay on to work on it: O’Rourke about 50 yards out from goal and McDonnell breaking out to receive a pass.

“Cathal had said to me, ‘Right, at this level of football, you don’t get much time on the ball. You have to create a way of winning the ball and getting the shot off before you’re tackled.’ Before, I’d have maybe taken a solo, or made a run that took me outside the scoring zone. So that summer when Cathal would drop balls into me, I’d make sure when I received it I was still in the scoring zone. And then I’d take it first time, turn, left or right, no solo.”

That September, with 10 minutes to go in the All Ireland final, O’Rourke’s brother Aidan would play the same sort of diagonal ball into McDonnell. You know what happened. Broke out in front of McCarthy. Got it, still in the scoring zone. Turned. No solo.

Straight over off his left. Armagh’s first All Ireland.

Steven McDonnell felt he got the better of Kerry’s Mike McCarthy in the 2002 All-Ireland final, having failed miserably in the 2000 semi-final, when he was held scoreless and taken off. Picture: Brian Lawless
Steven McDonnell felt he got the better of Kerry’s Mike McCarthy in the 2002 All-Ireland final, having failed miserably in the 2000 semi-final, when he was held scoreless and taken off. Picture: Brian Lawless

MY NEIGHBOUR, THE ENEMY, MY FRIEND

McDonnell loves this time of year. August, Dublin, the All Ireland series. As a player especially he lived for it. That’s what he measured himself on. No player has played in five All Ireland quarter-finals or more and averaged more from play. For the All Ireland series in general, McDonnell’s average from play was 3.3 points a game; only James O’Donoghue this millennium has a better scoring return from having played at least six games in it.

Big days in the big house, that’s what he lived for.

And yet a week like this triggers its share of near misses and regrets.

Probably Armagh’s best chance to win a second All Ireland was 2004. They were at their best in 2005 but their best chance to win another was 2004.

“If we got over Fermanagh,” says McDonnell, “I’m convinced we’d have won the All Ireland.” Armagh prided themselves in those years for respecting every championship fixture and opponent – “We didn’t see Ulster or All Ireland quarter-finals, semi-finals or finals, we just prepared for that particular opponent and game” – but that 2004 All Ireland quarter-final was the exception; while they’d been rampaging through Ulster, all the way to Croke Park by winning a provincial final up there, off Broadway in the qualifiers a Fermanagh team comprised of rookies and unknowns were quietly running up quite a scalp list. “I remember going up on the bus with the papers being passed around and boys saying, ‘Who the f*** is this Mark Little boy?’”

They’d learn the hard way all about Little.

Their real Ulster nemesis though was Tyrone. In 2002 Tyrone had been the making of them; would Joe Kernan really have brought them off to La Manga if their first-round opponents had been anyone else but the hottest team in the country coming off winning the national league? In 2003 Armagh almost became a caricature of themselves in preparing for another showdown with the Red Hand. Too intense, too po-faced, to the point, says McDonnell, “that it almost drove us f***n’ mad”.

“I’ll always point to the Ulster All Stars that year [held two week out from the All Ireland final]. We were after a training session, put our tuxedos on, went to the Armagh City Hotel where we sat at our own table, went up and collected our awards and left straightaway. But when we were there, we saw the Tyrone lads mingling with everyone. They were far more relaxed when we should have been the ones that were more relaxed. We were the All Ireland champions, we were the ones that had that monkey off our backs, not them. We should have been putting the pressure on Tyrone.”

By 2005 Armagh were back, smarter, wiser, better, in every way. There was nothing between them and Tyrone that year and it showed: one win, one loss, one draw apiece. It just happened in the All Ireland semi-final that Tyrone were the ones ahead when the music stopped.

“Kieran [McGeeney] being taken off was a huge blow, looking back on it. I didn’t think it at the time but it was. Sean Cavanagh came to life after that when he had been quiet up to then.”

There was nothing else to do but go again in 2006. As it turned out, the chance came up a lot earlier in the year than McDonnell had anticipated. That January he’d pencilled in his son Kealan’s christening, safe in the knowledge a McKenna Cup semi-final would hardly take precedence over it. Plans changed.

“I told Joe Kernan, ‘Look, I can’t make it, my boy’s getting christened.’ He said, ‘Cancel it. You’re f****n playing in this game.’ Because it was Tyrone. I just said to Joe, ‘No problem.’ And I was there, along with 20,000 people. For a McKenna Cup game!”

That’s the draw they had. On the public, on each other. Tyrone would win that McKenna Cup but Armagh would go on to win that Ulster title. The next year Tyrone won Ulster. The following year Armagh won Ulster again, only for Tyrone to go on and win the All Ireland. You could say they drove each demented. Only it would be fairer to simply say they drove each other. To heights they and the old game had never seen.

“I would like to think about any guy I played against that I could have a pint with them all. At the height of that rivalry, I would have been cool enough with a boy like Philly Jordan, solely on the back of that incident with Diarmuid [Marsden] in the 2003 All Ireland final, but I’ve met Philly many times since we finished up and got on with him the finest. I think when you retire you become more mature and you have a serious mutual respect for one another. Because Tyrone wouldn’t have achieved what they did without us pushing them, and we wouldn’t have had done what we did without them.”

He feels the same way about his career. The primary sentiment is that of gratitude.

“I came into the Armagh set-up in January 1999. Martin McQuillan and Neil Smyth retired a month before that, having played 16 years for Armagh and the most they’d won was a McKenna Cup. I played in 11 finals for Armagh. I won 10 of them: seven Ulsters, a Division One League, a Division Two and an All Ireland. So I was lucky, to be part of the greatest ever era in Armagh football.”

Tyrone’s Conor Gormley blocks a late shot from McDonnell in the 2003 All-Ireland final. Armagh almost became a caricature of themselves that year and went on to lose the showdown. Picture: Ray McManus
Tyrone’s Conor Gormley blocks a late shot from McDonnell in the 2003 All-Ireland final. Armagh almost became a caricature of themselves that year and went on to lose the showdown. Picture: Ray McManus

‘THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER’

McDonnell’s first championship game was against Tyrone (a first-round win back in 2000) and his last championship game was against them (a six-point qualifier defeat in 2011). He still managed to score eight points that day, two from play, so there was more football in him, but, at 32, he wanted to give the club all his energy for one full good year.

He’s glad he did; Killeavy duly won that intermediate county title. He managed the senior team for a couple of seasons, though that didn’t go quite as smooth. “I feel I instilled a lot of good things to serve the club well, but it can be a bit of a thankless job, managing your own. I cut certain players from the panel and you know yourself, when you do that you became the biggest bastard around the club.”

These days he prefers to take senior teams outside the club, like Burren in Down, and then help out with the underage teams at home. He’s part of a club coaching committee that tries to retain the ethos and wisdom of his old late mentor Thomas Mallon: Left foot, right foot. The same with Kealan and the U12s. Instead of taking defeats home with him and wondering why the players don’t care as much as him, he can just smile and laugh, knowing they’re not supposed to.

He thinks Armagh will take Tyrone today. They beat them in 2014, the last championship clash between the counties, then beat them again in last year’s league with a last-minute Niall Grimley goal. That Kieran McGeeney and the likes of Paul McGrane have the players believing in themselves, just like McGrane would take a rookie McDonnell to the side and tell him that even though he was just a slip of a lad in the midst of all men mountain, he could see the street fighter in him.

McDonnell himself can now see the fighter in Jamie Clarke. McDonnell’s last couple of seasons coincided with the Crossmaglen kid’s first two. The last time Clarke played in an All Ireland quarter-final, he was held scoreless, by Donegal three years ago. McDonnell can tell Clarke is now in that headspace where he himself was going up against Mike McCarthy again in 2002. There might have been a period where Clarke wasn’t sure if football was any longer for him but he now knows there’s nothing else he’d rather be at.

“When you’re in an inter-county set-up, you’re in a bubble and when you’re winning there’s nowhere like that bubble to be. I’ll always remember, coming up Jones’s Road or going up the hill in Clones on the bus and for a moment you’d be looking out and thinking: ‘Look at those lucky bastards, able to have a drink and enjoy it all.’ But the thing we’d always say was: ‘The grass is always greener.’ I’m looking into that bus now and I wish I was in it.”

As well as it’s now motoring, you can take it too, that bus would be more than happy to have Stevie McDonnell on board.


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