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Clarke's impact, McGeeney's silence, and growing confidence: Armagh's return to the big stage

‘I’d love to see them have a cut at it this weekend and I don’t see any reason why they won’t,’ says former Armagh player Aaron Kernan.

SINCE AARON KERNAN hung up his inter-county boots at the end of Armagh’s 2014 run, his county had won just one championship clash — until this year.

Aaron Kernan Aaron Kernan. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In 2015, they crashed out of Ulster at the hands of Donegal, who had ended their All-Ireland campaign at the quarter-final stage the previous year. They went on to beat Wicklow in their opening qualifier match, but were knocked out by Galway soon after.

Last year, it was Cavan who beat them in the Ulster championship, while Laois ended their season through the back-door.

This year though, things are different.

Although they did face an early exit in Ulster following a loss to Down, they’ve totted up three wins on the bounce in the qualifiers since, and now find themselves back in Croke Park.

They’ve almost come full circle since Kernan’s departure, with a win on Saturday evening securing their place in the quarter-final stages for the first time since that loss to Donegal in 2014.

Confidence is growing, according to Kernan, and 2017 can already be noted as a relatively successful championship compared to the previous two years.

“I think everyone has seen the style of football, the scoring power coming out in their play through the qualifiers,” the Crossmaglen clubman told the media at the CPA’s press conference yesterday.

“The confidence is starting to build within the boys again.

“There’s more of a scoring threat from all over the field. Having Jamie (Clarke) back brings the focal point of having one player more and maybe occupies two defenders to free up space for other boys.

“You need to have them breaking into space and willing to take opportunities to capitalise on two people around Jamie.

Jamie Clarke celebrates scoring a goal Armagh sharpshooter Jamie Clarke after scoring a late goal against Tipperary. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“The boys are doing it, particularly Niall Grimley in the middle of the field. He’s been putting up some big scores in the past few games

“Their foot-passing game has definitely improved, they’ve looked more confident in taking on a pass. Maybe they didn’t have the options to do it last year or just didn’t have the confidence to execute the kick.

“But, definitely, you can see the foot-passing and the scoring ability is well up this year from what it was last year, or the last number of years, actually.”

He pointed out clubmate Jamie Clarke individually among others, and insisted that he’s been central to Armagh’s game plan this year.

Clarke scored a decisive goal in the final minute against Tipperary, one which attracted quite a bit of attention.

His return from hiatus, and scoring exploits since have had a huge say in his side’s form of late.

“I didn’t pass much remarks [of the goal] and that’s only because I know him and you see him doing different things all the time in training,” Kernan continued.

“But I suppose maybe when you have to sit back and look at it, to have the calmness to do it is what sets him apart from a lot of people. He’s a goalscorer more than anything so it was brilliant for him.

“I think he’s fallen in love with the game again and scoring goals is what he really thrives on. There wasn’t much talk about him and he kept his head down prior to that.

“I’ve seen a wee bit more of him in interviews and papers since then, but for me that’s just a bit of the swagger coming back into him. I’d love to see him really cutting loose.

“He thrives on the big day and getting goals in particular and being a threat. I think this weekend it’s setting up nicely for him.”

Kieran McGeeney Silence is golden: McGeeney's approach has been pivotal this year, says Kernan. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Kernan also feels that the fact that Kieran McGeeney has kept his head down over the past few months has played a huge part in the Orchard county’s progression.

The 2002 All-Ireland winner found himself in hot water, and was hit with a 12-week ban for verbally abusing linesman Joe McQuillan during a fiesty league game against Antrim back in March.

Subsequently, McGeeney was absent from the line for his side’s two-point Ulster quarter-final loss to Down, and their opening qualifier win over Fermanagh.

He has since returned from the stand to oversee back-to-back championship wins over Westmeath and Tipperary, but has remained silent as the Ulstermen booked their Croke Park date.

Armagh face McGeeney’s old side Kildare on Saturday [Throw-in 7pm, live on Sky Sports], with an All-Ireland quarter-final spot on the line, and Kernan feels that this ‘no sideshows’ approach has had a big impact on getting there.

“I think that’s massive; because he [McGeeney] probably would have seen it as a distraction or a sideshow, where he just felt it was going to have no impact once the boys the crossed the white line.

“The fact that Kieran has literally said nothing, even in interviews or whatever – he’s kept himself out of the way.

“It means there’s no distractions, no sideshows and he’s letting the boys get at it. Thankfully so far it’s working.”

There’s confidence within the set-up and from the outside looking in, Kernan is also confident.

Aaron Kernan reacts as a free is awarded against him Kernan in action for Armagh in 2014. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

He says he’d love to see his county ‘have a cut’ against the Lilywhites,

“This year you can slowly see the confidence coming back, and why would they not try and be better again than what they were against Tipperary?

“I’d love to see them have a cut at it this weekend and I don’t see any reason why they won’t.

“Definitely, Kildare are favourites. They put up a big score against Dublin and to me, they look like the nearest challengers Dublin will have in Leinster.

“But I still think Armagh, on their day, are capable of getting the win. It’ll be a big ask for them, they’ll need to step up more than they have done all year, but that’s the joy of the qualifiers. It helps bring a team together, the bond and the confidence in themselves and what Kieran [McGeeney] wants of them as a team.

“I think we’ll get a really good game of football. Everything will have to go right for Armagh to win it.”

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Emma Duffy

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