Subscriber OnlyGaelic Games

Darragh Ó Sé: Armagh’s leaders need a better grasp of game situations or killer defeats will persist

Winning is an art and the players are the ones holding the brushes – looking to the sideline for guidance is no way to see out an Ulster final

When you lose, it can be very easy to focus on the wrong thing. A lot of the talk since Sunday’s Ulster final has been about Armagh losing another penalty shootout. Four in a row is a bad look, true enough – you’d think the law of averages would go their way at least once.

But the penalties were a sideshow, really. The real reason Armagh will be cross with themselves is for letting the game get to a shootout in the first place. And more to the point, they’ll be annoyed at themselves because this kind of thing keeps happening.

In all four games, they led in the second half of extra time. In three of them, they led by two. To not close out any of them tells you they must have a bit of a kink in the hose somewhere stopping them getting it done. On Sunday, they were four points up in the second half and two points up in the second half in extra-time – you have no business letting a game go to penalties in those kind of scenarios.

Any team can lose a lead. That’s not the issue here. Good teams aren’t going to lie down for anyone and these are big games against good teams. But it’s the fact that it has happened so often that must be worrying for them.


Because the problem now is that not only are good teams not going to lie down, they’re actually going to find it easier to convince themselves they’re still in any game. Put yourself in the position of the Donegal players on Sunday – it’s easier to keep going when you have it in your head that these fellas aren’t going to kill you off. Keep pushing and they’ll crack eventually.

The first job for Kieran McGeeney and his players from here on out is to change that name they’ve got for themselves. They’re going to be going into big games for the rest of the year needing to prove that they have it in them. Proving to themselves as much as anyone. It will be interesting to see how they go about it.

They need to be asking themselves tough questions. What did you not do when you were on top? What stopped you doing it? What do we need to change so that you will do it the next time?

Start with the four-point lead. What did Armagh not do from there? A four-point lead in an Ulster final is hard-earned – you can’t just say they should have made it five or six. It doesn’t work like that.

But what they definitely should have done better was realise the state of the game. After Stefan Campbell scored his point to put them 0-15 to 0-11 ahead, that had to be a lightbulb moment for Armagh. Come hell or high water, they had to make sure that Donegal got no sniff of hope for the next few minutes.

Armagh didn’t have to be delicate about it either. Maybe it would take a couple of fouls up the field or a late tackle or somebody starting a row. This was no time to be having a conscience about the whole thing. Get in there, stop Donegal getting any sort of flow going, go and win the game.

Instead, Donegal scored the next point within a minute without any Armagh player laying a finger on them. They were able to handpass the ball around the middle of the pitch as easy as you like before Niall O’Donnell steadied himself to kick a point from the sideline. When the camera cut back to him after the ball went over the bar, himself and the Armagh midfielder Ben Crealey were having a joke and a laugh together.

When Armagh are going looking for reasons that this kind of thing keeps happening to them, that’s the sort of thing that would be a red flag for me. You can’t afford to get caught up in the flow of the game – you have to be doing everything you can to dictate it. Within the Armagh ranks, nobody took charge after Campbell’s point.

Even after O’Donnell’s point, they still didn’t take hold of the thing. Blaine Hughes went long with his kick-out and even though they won it and Ciarán Mackin went on a run into the Donegal half, you’d still have to question that decision. O’Donnell’s point had made it five scores in five minutes, the atmosphere was electric. But what use was any of that to Armagh?

Your job when you have a three-point lead in that scenario is to make the next five minutes as boring as possible. If that means turning the game into an eyesore, then so be it. Somebody in the Armagh team needed to be alive and aware of where everything stood. This doesn’t need to be a classic, lads. We don’t owe anybody a good time. Let’s hold possession for a while and keep this game where we can see it.

But they started doubting themselves. It only took Donegal four minutes to reduce the lead down to one. Armagh started turning down shots and finding the wrong players in the wrong places. When Jarly Óg Burns took his mark, his first instinct was to look to the sideline to ask whether he should shoot or pass. That’s no way to win a final.

There’s an art to winning and it’s the players that hold all the brushes. The men on the sideline are irrelevant at that point. You need your leaders on the pitch to recognise what’s happening and fix it in real time.

Until they do that, these killer defeats will keep making their lives a misery.