Quiet man still quite the talent


Diarmuid Marsden interview: Keith Duggan talks to the talismanic Armagh forward who is injury free and happy he is no longer the main focus of attention

Diarmuid Marsden is doing things differently this year. For a start, his waking hours are not dictated by numbing sessions on the physiotherapist's plinth. His availability and fitness no longer requires sleuthing and guesswork from press and public alike. No agonising withdrawals and no second-half cameos. Life has been normal for him.

On the field, things have been quiet too. A few short years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine Armagh's ascension to an All-Ireland final without an accompanying array of memorable Marsden moments. But there has been no killer goal and none of those angled passes to Oisín McConville that so often caused defences to simply evaporate. Few of his thunderous points from way outfield. And just glimpses of his blustering runs into opposition territory, light-footed and perfectly balanced despite the muscular frame.

Marsden has been quiet and content with it, just grafting and holding on to his place. The Armagh forward line has redefined itself over the past 12 months and Marsden has modified his game to cope with the demands. With the emergence of Paddy McKeever, Stephen McDonnell and full forward Ronan Clarke, Marsden is not the automatic focus of attention any more and it is suiting him fine.

"I'm happy enough with my form. The fact I am injury free is probably a big factor. It's been a long year since November but having no injury to complain about is probably an unusual thing for me."

In 1999, Armagh's breakthrough year in Ulster, it was a groin that persisted in compromising Marsden but he still destroyed teams on his own and was recognised with an All Star. A year later, he ruptured ankle ligaments against Fermanagh but hung around and gave an accomplished performance in the memorable All-Ireland semi-final series against Kerry.

"Players can talk about going through the pain barrier and all that but, ah, I don't see it like that. If I hadn't been right for Kerry, I wouldn't have played. It didn't help the ankle, probably but it didn't hinder it either."

The reason Marsden's travails generated so much attention is the player had long been identified as the source of all possibilities by the Armagh proletariat. McConville, the other jewel in their forward ranks, was cherished as ascoring machine, a class act, but in Marsden they saw more ephemeral gifts.

For a start, they identified with him as one of the luckless minors of 1992 who sank to their knees on All-Ireland final day when a last-second goal from Meath deprived them of a title. Marsden was the bullet-headed star of the team but the dramatic and heartbreaking circumstances of that defeat attached a slight element of vulnerability to the player that has never fully gone away.

"As you can see from the crowds we get in Armagh, that final would have created a lot of excitement," he recalls now. "At 17 years of age, it was a big thing to be associated with. We didn't perform but I will always value the occasion. My only regret is the result. But that whole day, everything passed me by. Someone told me Manus Boyle got man of the match in the senior game and I couldn't remember him scoring any of his nine points. I was dumbstruck by the whole occasion, but I enjoyed it nonetheless."

Minor fortunes are fickle; a year later, the adventure died in first voice against Fermanagh and Marsden was rushed to the senior ranks with fellow minor Des Mackin. He made his championship debut against Tyrone and has been there since.He has conjured up a distinguished inventory in the meantime and even when Armagh posted indifferent championship results from 1993-99, Marsden was generally acknowledged as one of the best attackers in the game.

Expressive as he was on the field, he was reserved away from it and shied away from attention. Debate was constant in the county about what position best suited Marsden's speed, range of vision and accuracy. In the first two years of Armagh's current cycle, he was the forward playmaker. Enforced contributions from the bench led to some opinions that maybe that sort of role would suit him best. Everyone had an opinion about Marsden because so often they had watched him make things happen.

Seasoned observers of his game say it is the artisan qualities they like best. His selflessness, his phenomenal work-rate, his incredible tackling. That is what Joe Kernan has recognised this year, prosaic in comparison to Marsden's previously celebrated feats.

It is typical of the strangeness of sport that a team should make its most glorious march the year its bugle player falls quiet. But here he is a decade later, the crew-cut minor, older and shrewder and back in an All-Ireland final.

"You can't hide yourself away in a week like this," he says quietly comfortable at last in the public eye. "In Armagh, there is no getting away from it. You just enjoy it and keep focused on what it is we are here to do."

Back when Armagh couldn't buy a win, they used to say Diarmuid Marsden was born for days like Sunday, that his gifts deserved the grandest stage. They have reason to believe he is keeping the best until last.