CAOLAN RAFFERTY was going nowhere dangerous when he collected possession near the corner of Austin Stack Park the other week. With the endline looming in front of him and a posse of Kerry defenders looming behind, the Armagh corner-forward had two options; a wild shot, or turning into trouble in an attempt to recycle.
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But great football can always find a third way. From the side of his eye he saw Brian Mallon’s dangerous run at the edge of the D, maybe 30 yards from where Rafferty had a second or two to make up his mind. One Trevor Giles impression later, and Mallon was collecting Rafferty’s perfect, looping kick, that took the entire Kerry defence out of the equation.
That he didn’t have to alter his stride gave Mallon the second that he needed to apply the precise control to take the ball back across the goal and leave Brendan Kealy powerless. Two superb kicks had taken the leather from out near the corner flag to the corner of the Kerry net. Beautiful football.
It was an assist and goal even better than Owen Mulligan’s combination with Peter Harte for Tyrone against Kildare, but between payments to managers, transfers, player burnout, AFL trials and melees that are nothing more than players throwing shapes at each other, the football itself rarely makes the headlines these days.
So it was in Tralee. That early burst was enough to take you back to the 1999-2006 era, when Armagh produced such gorgeous goals as a matter of course, but the team often drew little more than opprobium from sections of the media in the south. There was niggle in Tralee, too, but traces of the bias remain.
Tomas ó Sé was sent off late on for flicking his knee to Ciaran McKeever’s groin. In the RTÉ studio the following night, Colm O’Rourke gave the opinion that McKeever “goes around acting the hard man” (reasonably accurate) and that he should have stayed on his feet rather than dropping to his knees. Kevin McStay weighed in with agreement, suggesting McKeever had gone down to make sure Ó Sé would be seeing red moments after he, well, saw red.
Maybe they were right and maybe they were wrong, but that’s the point; they had no way of knowing how severe the contact was. There is a tendency to assume that because a player is from a county like Armagh, he must be up to skullduggery. Ó Sé did not raise his knee particularly viciously, but may we be so bold as to suggest that any sort of a knee to the solar plexus from a scion of the Ó Sé family on the charge out of defence might cause any reasonable man enough of a ‘winding’ to necessitate a short spell off his feet.
May we further venture the opinion that had the roles been reversed, the reaction would have been different. Oh, Bridget! Those dastardly nordies are back again, and this time they’re aiming for the balls! A different breed, that’s right. They really will stop at nothing. Talk to Joe, fine them five grand and ban them from playing outside their county for five years this instant. There are children in the stands!
O’Rourke and McStay are a million miles from the worst offenders when it comes to this bias, and in fairness, O’Rourke is one of the few living men who could take a knee to the privates from Ó Sé and brush it off. Still though, little things like that, in the wake to the over-reaction to the Derrytresk case, could leave you believing that just because our friends in the north are paranoid, does not mean that some of their enemies in the south, and particularly the south-west, are not out to get them.
For that reason among others, Armagh will have enjoyed their victory in Tralee as much as Crossmaglen enjoyed their victory in Portlaoise the following Saturday. The real question for the rest of us is whether Armagh’s blistering start to the league means anything for the summer.
We will know more after their clash with Mayo on March 3, even if they will have to do battle there without McKeever and Malachy Mackin, casualties of another non-melee against Cork, which earned the now standard five-grand fine (ridiculously for an amateur organisation, big fines are all the rage at Corporate Park these days).
Even on the evidence to date, it is tempting to conclude that Armagh 2012 could be the same thing as Donegal 2011 or Down 2010. It is about time the Orchard showed some summer form after three disastrous championships running. The All-Ireland U21-winning class of 2004 still provides most of today’s key Armagh players, and they are long overdue more silverware.
That trophy would probably need to be the Ulster title they have not held since 2008. For all their appetite in Tralee, Armagh are a long way off mixing it with Kerry in August or September, but we neutrals still have plenty to get excited about.
There is one clash in early summer that is already leaping out larger than any other; it will come on June 10, at the Morgan Athletic Grounds; Armagh versus Tyrone. If neither are at their zenith, that game could still be as riveting as the 2005 clash in its own way. Such days are the reason we all got hooked on this game in the first place; in the midst of all the column inch-filling noise, we do well not to forget it.