Darragh Ó Sé: McGeeney and Donaghy at the heart of why Armagh are playing with freedom

People have the wrong idea of the Armagh manager - he’s not an ogre, he’s the exact opposite

On Sunday, Armagh played the sort of football we all love. Everybody who watches the game dreams of seeing a goal like the one they scored from the throw-in.

The interesting thing about it is that they’ve been trying to play this way for a good few years but are only seeing the benefits of it now. I suppose it’s a lesson in sticking to your guns and doing what you believe in.

Back around 2017 and 2018 when loads of Ulster teams were still obsessed with defending in huge numbers and handpassing everything that moved, Armagh were trying to kick the ball and doing their best to keep a few forwards up the field. The fact that they kept running into roadblocks in Ulster – and sometimes ones they should have been able to swerve around – meant that they got no credit for it.

And look, you have to win to get credit. That’s obvious. But I’d say it’s obvious too at this stage that if there had been qualifiers in 2020 or 2021, Armagh would have been well worth avoiding in them. The fact that there weren’t and that they didn’t even make an Ulster final meant it was hard for them to convince people they were the real deal.

Even last week, all the talk was about how bad Tyrone’s year had been. I wrote about them here and didn’t mention Armagh once. The upshot was that Armagh haven’t got a fair shake when it comes to the perception of who they are and what they’re capable of. Until now.

The thing that really stood out to me last week was their ability to carry out the skills of the game quickly and under pressure. I’m talking about ball-handling, handpassing off both hands, catching above the head and long kicking. These sound like very small things to get excited about, the basics of the game. But you only need to look at teams who aren’t going well to appreciate them.

Take Mayo’s first half against Kildare on Saturday as an example. I can’t remember the last time they dropped so many simple balls. Or played handpasses that were a half-yard or more behind the player they were aimed at, causing him to have to slow down to collect it.

When a team plays badly, everybody tends to focus on the scoring chances they missed. But actually, if you really want to pick out the signs of a team that isn’t flowing, it’s all those little silly mistakes that really tell the tale.

Three or four times in that first half alone, different Mayo players played soccer passes to get out of tight situations but left the ball short each time, putting their teammate in even more trouble than they were in themselves. There’s a knock-on effect every time.

The best players in the game make everything easier for the next guy. Some of them more or less do it out of spite. I played with fellas who would nearly insult you with how good a pass they gave you. They’d play it so perfectly into your stride as you were running along, it was as if they were saying, ‘I’m not giving this lad any excuse to make a balls of this’.

At times on Sunday, Armagh were in that mode. Every ball made the next man’s mind up for him. Take Rian O’Neill’s ball into Rory Grugan from the kick-off. I would never have had Grugan down as a fella who was great over his head but when that ball is played into you on the edge of the square with no sweeper in front of you, there’s no choice in the matter. This is what we’re here for, boys. Get up and catch it and finish it.

Armagh didn’t suddenly find to a new way of playing after losing to Donegal in Ulster. This has been coming. You don’t just flick a switch. Kieran McGeeney has been trying to mould them into this style of a team for a few years. The key to it is courage – and anyone who has come across McGeeney down the years knows he’s not lacking in that.

The game has become obsessed with possession over the past few years and it takes courage to decide you are going to take risks with the ball. That comes from the manager down. The Armagh players have to know that they’re not going to get a bollocking every time a long kick pass doesn’t work out. They have to know that they’re not going to be stood up in front of the class on Tuesday night at training and be absolutely decorated for their possession stats.

So much of football now is teams coming like fellas up on horseback taking a look around the battlefield and turning around when they don’t like the look of what they see. Every team does it at one stage or another. Kerry do it, Dublin do it, everyone does it at some stage. But the teams that win things are the ones who eventually take the risks.

Possession stats don’t get you up the steps of the Hogan Stand. McGeeney knows that to make the breakthrough you have to get your players to break that chain. At some stage you have to kick the horse into a gallop and charge into the valley. You have to take a risk. The way Armagh are playing now, they’re not afraid of the consequences of giving away the ball.

People have always had the wrong impression of McGeeney. They think he’s this big ogre or that he rules by fear. But that’s not who he is at all. If he was, do you honestly think he could get a team playing football where the players aren’t afraid to make mistakes? I’d be full sure that the Armagh camp is the exact opposite to that.

I got to know him a bit down the years with the International Rules and All Stars and all the rest of it. The thing people don’t realise about him is that he’s very funny and that he makes himself the butt of the joke a lot of the time. He knows what his reputation is so he plays off it.

He’s very self-deprecating – I saw a picture of him before Christmas last year in a Santa hat wearing a geansaí that said ‘GRUMPY’ on it. It was to publicise a fund-raiser and he would have known that by him doing that, it would reach a wider audience. Whoever asked him to do it probably thought twice about even suggesting it but that kind of thing would be right up his street.

So it’s no surprise all those young Armagh players have bought in and are coming to the boil now. They would have all grown up with one impression of McGeeney and over time in the squad, they’d have realised who he actually is.

He isn’t the monster who is going to make their lives a misery every time they give the ball away. He is someone with high standards who wants them to take risks and play with freedom.

The other factor they have in their dressing room is Kieran Donaghy. I ran into him in the local shop in Tralee last weekend the night before the game. He was buzzing, he was himself. He couldn’t wait to get up the road the next day. He’d been to see Top Gun Maverick and he was in flying form.

“I’ll take on the world after seeing that,” he was saying.

Donaghy has a brilliant talent for connecting with people. Was he always the best player in any team? No. But he somehow nearly always managed to make himself central to the result and had a great gift for bringing people with him.

He played a county semi-final for the Stacks last year and he might have touched the ball once in the whole first half. But he scored the winning penalty and it was all, ‘Star Saves The Stacks’. When it really mattered, they wouldn’t have wanted anyone else in the middle of it.

I would think he’s very effective in the environment of that Armagh dressing room. That’s McGeeney’s emotional maturity on show right there – he knows those players have been listening to him for a long while so who better to bring in for an injection of something different than Kieran Donaghy?

Go back a generation and McGeeney was maybe 20 yards away when Donaghy was screaming in the face of Francie Bellew. What better way to teach players about thinking outside the box and not being afraid to take risks?

This fella has won his All-Irelands, he has a young family and yet he’s going to come the length of the country to try and help the dressing room of an old rival. You’d go through a wall for that kind of thing.

Add it all up and I think Armagh have a right chance of finding their way to the All-Ireland final now. They’re definitely on the right side of the draw anyway. I would rate them and Galway as the two big guns on that side and only one of Dublin or Kerry (or Mayo) can come out the other side. If I had to call it, my sense is still that Galway have that bit more about them – and they’ve generally been well able for northern teams down the years.

But I don’t think there’s a lot in it. Armagh have momentum now and they’re playing a fantastic brand of football. The possibilities are endless.