O'Dwyer promises to play on


We come armed with the kind of bouquets Armagh are beginning to detest. Big Joe Kernan, the most genial man in Gaelic games, stands with his back against the wall as the familiar phrases come at him like bullets: tough; character; experience; second half, slow to get going. He doesn't wince. Keith Duggan reports.

"Well, better late than never," he smiles. "We are a crowd of grafters and I suppose once there is a battle to be fought, these boys will do it."

Perhaps he says this because he believes it's what we want to hear. A feeling has developed within Armagh that a blind eye has been turned on the sweet football they play and a spotlight shone on every orange tackle. Perhaps their annoyance is justified. Yesterday, they appeared mystified at some of the calls against them.

"It is very frustrating," admitted Kernan. "There has been things said about us in the past. And people who know anything about football know we are a hard, honest team. Some decisions are frustrating but I suppose referees have to look at themselves. I know I have a crowd of honest players."

And the players are way too serene to worry about outsider's perception. At half time yesterday, they waited until Mick O'Dwyer impatiently waved his pocket watch before returning from their half-time ablutions.

"There was a lot of work to do, things to get sorted, it was not intentional by any means," protested Joe.

"Boys took in a lot of water, they had to run to the bathroom, we had stats to check but it was not intentional."

Not a ruse to upset the Kerry fox?

"Not at all. Upset Mick? You must be joking."

But Armagh are the masters of half-time breaks. They use them so cleverly it is as if they don white coats and spectacles to dissect their performances on the field.

Consider Aidan O'Rourke, again quietly excellent and still red faced from his exertions on the usefulness of their meeting yesterday.

"Yeah, there is never any feeling of panic," he said. "We were in worse situations than we were in today at half time. We talked about the mistakes we made, looked at the stats, knew we were winning enough possession but just weren't using the ball.

"So we concentrated on that in the second half and thankfully things went well. We didn't play wonderfully well but it was probably our best performance."

Enda McNulty appears in the long corridor, smiling and guarded. "Just delighted to be through it, " he allows. "Don't think it came down to experience. Hopefully we just had a few better players.

"Ach, it's good but at the same time we haven't won anything. We are in a semi-final and we haven't achieved anything yet."

So where are Armagh now?

"Where?" echoes McNulty, unable to resist. "A semi-final. Are we a better team? That remains to be seen."

O'Rourke takes up the point that Armagh have been knocking teams down with stealth and economy.

"I don't think it is a case of doing enough. It is more a case of steady progression but yeah, it is true we are happy with where we are at and happy that we have the capability of producing more."

As for Joe, does he see problems on the horizon?

"No, I don't worry about any team but Armagh. Look, I just feel there is more in us. I have said that all along."

Mick O'Dwyer comes bounding up the corridor, a young man in a hurry. Already, it is as if the game is a forgotten memory to him. Micko can only think in terms of futures. For the record, he sums it up like this.

"There wasn't that much in it. We just seemed to lose it there a bit in the second half. They are a very powerful team, of course, Armagh are a team that have been together for the last four or five years. But we kept fighting. Most pundits around the country didn't give us a chance but I knew we had a chance and at one stage I thought we were going to do it.

"But it is very hard to come through straight and win an All-Ireland title. I might have done it in 1975 by accident. But we fought so well today and we will be back in Croke Park again next year."

There was a point late in the second half when Laois surged forward in chase of an equaliser and Pauric Clancy was penalised for lifting a leg too high.

Mick was right on the scene, bending over the sideline. "That was crucial - at that stage there was a point in it," he recalls.

"But these are the little things. 'Tis not nice to lose anytime. And it's hard to get out of Leinster so that when you do, you like to go on. But this was an education for them. There is no doubt about that. We needed big game practice and we are getting plenty of it."

And with that he trotted off. We called after him, longingly, as if he were Shane moseying out across the prairie on horseback. Just in case he does not find himself in these parts again.

"Oh, I'll be back," he yells. "You needn't worry about that. You're not going to keep me out of this place, I can assure you."

And the closing voice of the evening was the irrepressible sound of Mick O'Dwyer laughing. For a man who loses rarely, he does it in princely fashion.