By John Harrington
The impact that Jarly Óg Burns and Rian O’Neill have in their debut championship season for Armagh has been nothing short of sensational.
You might think the Orchard County are fortunate that two such talented players have arrived on the scene together, but it would be wrong to put their emergence down to just luck.
Both have come through the Orchard Academy, the coaching and development squad structure first put in place by Paul McGrane and Denis Hollywood back in 2012.
The Orchard Academy’s mission statement is “to broaden participation levels while teaching the skills of the game in formative years and establishing holistic best practice around players in the ‘Learn to Compete’ phase of their development.”
McGrane and Hollywood recruited the best and brightest coaches in the county, many of them All-Ireland winners in 2002, including Diarmaid Marsden, Benny Tierney, Oisin McConville, John Toal, John McEntee, Paddy McKeever, Philly McEvoy, Cathal O Rourke, Stevie McDonnell and Aidan O Rourke to work with the players.
Burns and O’Neill are two of the first graduates to come right through the system and there are many more promising young footballers snapping at their heels which bodes well for the future of Armagh football.
Even more encouragingly if you’re an Armagh supporter, the Orchard Academy is being constantly refined and is in a much stronger place now than it was when it was established seven years ago.
A sponsor has recently come on board, Aidan Strain Electrical Engineering (ASEE), and last summer Armagh senior team manaer Kieran McGeeney initiated a review of the coaching pathway in the county.
On the back of that, Aidan O’Rourke was appointed the Orchard Academy’s new Manager this year, and is currently implementing a range of initiatives designed to make the county’s underage coaching structures even more productive.
“We basically reviewed everything that was going on in the county right from primary schools, clubs, our own development squads, et cetera, and we came back with recommendations to county management in February,” O’Rourke told GAA.ie
“They created a new working group for the Orchard Academy group and we rolled out a new programme of Primary School coaching and a revised approach to the development squads and how we bring players through.
“From a performance pathway perspective we’ve moved away from the traditional model of trials and club nominations, et cetera.
“We have a unique environment in so far as we are a small county, but, for whatever reason, our secondary school system is very strong. We would have six schools carrying Armagh players who would compete at the highest level in Ulster, the MacRory Cup.
“And, obviously in the other schools they would compete at all of the other levels as well so we are trying to build relationships with those key schools and support coaching there.
“And then in the weaker schools we’re trying to increase the quality of teams and player development within those schools so ultimately more Armagh players will benefit from increased exposure to quality coaching and competition.”
Development squads have gotten an increasingly bad rap in recent years because they’re deemed to be too elitist, but the Orchard Academy tries to cater for as large a number of players as possible.
“For us, it’s about keeping the base as wide as you can and keeping as many involved as we can,” said O’Rourke.
“Obviously we’re a small county with limited resources so that is difficult challenge and you’re always looking at different angles to keep kids involved and not simply identify 30 or 40 kids at 13 or 14 years of age and say you’re going to be the best players in this county at 17 and organise all your development opportunities around them.
“It’s well proven that that’s very much a hit and miss approach, more of a miss approach. You try to educate as many people as you can, put these opportunities around them, and that’s what our work-shops are for, they’re fairly broad ones.
“We had U-14 and U-15 coaching development work-shop on Saturday and there was 120 players at it across the two age-groups.
“We want to take that batch of players at both age-groups moving forward and give them enough information and understanding about how to improve.
“Because, ultimately, there’s only so much we can do with them. The majority of their interaction is through their club and school.
“We have very small windows with them so we have to try to inject small notions and ideas that can benefit them going forward in terms of educating them in terms of what they can bring back to their club and school.”
Kieran McGeeney’s record as Armagh manager, particularly in the Ulster Championship, has shipped some criticism over the course of the last five years.
But what many may not appreciate is that in that time he’s also put a lot of work into Armagh football at all levels away from the limelight and the benefits of that foresight and application are now becoming apparent.
“Kieran has always said from the outset that he wanted to leave Armagh in a more sustainable and better place and that probably the next man in would get the full benefit of the work he wanted to do, he said that from Day One,” said O’Rourke.
“Things are starting to come to fruition now and hopefully Kieran can continue to push that on himself.
“We’d like to think there’s a fair bit of work done in the background that will sustain the senior team challenging in the top tier at Division 1 level over a long period of time.”
“The senior team doing well now helps everything below it because young people are going around the county wearing orange jersies and want to go to matches.
“I think we’re in an environment now where there’s a lot of choice. The best 13 or 14 gaelic footballers are also the best rugby players and soccer players.
“There’s an element of competition and I’m sure it’s the same everywhere. When I was coming through you just wanted to play for your club and your county and nothing else, but things have changed.”
When you look at the relatively youthful age profile of the current Armagh team and the swashbuckling brand of football they play, you’d have to say their short to medium term future looks bright.
The likes of Jarly Óg Burns and Rian O’Neill may well just be the vanguard of a generation of talented footballers who have had their natural ability hot-housed in the well-run Orchard Academy.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the senior team currently and I’d be optimistic about what I’d see coming through at the younger age-groups at the minute,” said O’Rourke.
“But there’s always a warning sticker with all of that. There’s just no legislating for a kid’s development. Could I identify the best 10 U-14s in Armagh at the minute? Absolutely.
“Is there a guarantee that any of those 10 will be in the top 10 U-17s in three years time? There’s no guarantee.
“I would hope the players who are outside that group currently would prove that wrong anyway. It’s not an exact science by any means.
“What we’re trying to do is do as many things right and well as we can with the limited resources we have to try and uplift the quality of coaching in our development squads first of all.
“We also want to uplift the quality of coaching in our clubs and schools to raise the level of competition at underage and above within the county.
“You’d like to think it will have an overall impact on the senior team in the long run.”