Only three teams have crawled from underneath the powerful Crossmaglen shadow that hangs victoriously over Armagh club football in the past 20 plus years. Pearse Ogs, Maghery and Armagh Harps.
Joe McElroy was part of the group that hauled the Harps over the line in 2017, bridging a 26 year gap from the last Harps team to capture the Gerry Fegan trophy.
McElroy and his teammates got used to underage success and eventually formed a Senior side that was fit to challenge for major honours.
“The likes of Decky McKenna’s Minor team, they won two in a row Minors, and you’d our Minor team two years after, so we won three Minor (Championships) in four years”.
“You had the likes of Charlie Vernon’s Minor team, they won the Ulster with Charlie, Nippy Swift, Peadar Toal, so the talent was there and it was just about putting everything together”.
Success doesn’t come instantly or easily. Battles with the county’s top teams in Crossmaglen, Maghery, Ballymacnab and Cullyhanna, formed a team strong and confident enough to lift the county title.
“The games we’ve had against the Nab, they’re always tight. The last few years, they’ve got the better of us, while back in 2014/15, we’d have been confident of beating them”.
“We’ve had loads of Championship games against Cullyhanna; we’ve always had really good battles. I think those tough games really stood to us”.
Back to back county final appearances are an achievement in itself, but crushing defeats to Crossmaglen in successive years taught the Harps some tough lessons.
The city side conquered neighbours Pearse Ogs before seeing off Granemore, Shane O’Neill’s and Maghery to reach the 2014 showpiece, their first appearance in the decider since 2009.
They faced the might of Crossmaglen, who were aiming for their fifth title in a row. “I think we beat them in the league, the last game, but they’re a different animal come Championship”.
Belief wasn’t a problem heading into the match, but two Jamie Clarke goals put the game well out of reach, “I suppose when you’re 18, you’re quite naive, and I just thought we’d beat them”.
“We went out all guns blazing at the start, with no sweeper, no protection at the back, and I think they might have been eight or nine points up at half time. You’re trying to claw it back against a team that dominated Armagh for so many years”.
They bounced back in 2015 to defeat Wolfe Tones, Cullyhanna, Killeavy and Ballymacnab to once again set up a final showdown against the Armagh kingpins.
“I actually had more belief this time because Jamie Clarke wasn’t playing and I think Aaron Kernan was injured as well”.
“We’d have been thinking this was the time to beat them. I think they actually beat us by an extra point (than the year before) so that was a kick in the teeth”.
Fortunately for the Harps the back door system had been introduced to the Championship, and they remained in the competition despite losing out to Ballymacnab in 2016’s opening round.
Wins over Grange and Sarsfields, in what McElroy describes as “one of the most enjoyable games I played in”, secured a quarter final spot.
The Rangers once again lay waiting, but a change of approach would leave the Harps in touching distance of the Champions.
“We came up with a different game plan in 2016. Ryan Daly came in and we decided to set up a bit more defensively”.
“There was two points in it. We had a goal chance and Paul Hearty pushed it over the bar. They went up and I think Aaron Kernan scored a goal for them, so that was a five point swing”.
“We thought we had them. We were with them the whole way. We took a lot from that year; there were a lot of positives”.
Close, but not close enough. The Harps once again fell at the feet of Crossmaglen, for the fifth time in six seasons.
2017 would be well worth the wait however.
“Everyone was just coming of age. The likes of Charlie Vernon’s (minor) team, you’d Decky McKenna and all that age group, then you’d the likes of Me, Mini McShane, we were 20 or 21”.
“I would have been away with Armagh and I would come back and the boys would be flying fit. They were in the gym maybe at six o’clock in the morning, five times a week”.
“There was a big drive. The boys realised, we were a nearly team. We all won Minor Championships, we won Under 21 Championships, we needed to start producing something at Senior”.
Wins over Annaghmore, Cullyhanna (in Round Two and the Quarter Finals) and Ballymacnab in the Semi Final led the Harps to their third County Final appearance in three years.
This time, Crossmaglen would not stand in their way.
Maghery defeated the Rangers in their last four decider and the then Champions looked to capture their second title in as many years.
“We were probably underdogs in the bookies, but we beat Maghery in the semi final a couple years before that (2014). We were coming in under the radar and we knew it was pretty 50/50”.
“They went into a 7-2 lead at half time, we were missing crucial chances and they were taking theirs”.
The game soon flipped on its head. Second half goals from Ryan McShane and Ultan Lennon fired the Harps into the driving seat and they never looked back.
“With ten minutes to go, we were three points up and I think they were just shocked by the two goals in five minutes. It probably just knocked the stuffing out of them”.
Maghery remained in touch however and Harps net-minder Paddy Morrison was called upon to produce a heroic save that clinched the title.
“We didn’t win the Championship just based on that year; it was based on the years of hard work”.
“I think we were knocking on the door for so long, we were always top two or three in the league, we’d always come close”.
“Those two county finals against Crossmaglen, it wasn’t easy, but we eventually got over the line and we definitely enjoyed it”.
McElroy and his teammates finally secured their much sought after county medals, but did it mean as much without beating Crossmaglen along the way?
“I know a lot of people were saying if you didn’t beat Cross, you didn’t win the Championship, but at the end of the day we could only beat what was put in front of us. I was just delighted; it didn’t make our county medal any less”.
The years that have followed haven’t been as successful for the 2017 County Champions, who, as their manager put it, have suffered from “Success Disease”.
Injuries to midfield pairing Josh Loughran and Lorcan Oliver dented the Harps physical presence around the centre of the field and defeats to Maghery and Cross saw them removed from the 2018 Championship at the quarter final stages.
2019 saw the city side take a further step back, with losses coming against Granemore and Silverbridge (in the groups) while Ballymacnab overcame the Harps with a point to spare in the play offs.
Last season was the first year since 2013 that the Harps didn’t feature in the Quarter Finals of the Armagh Championship.
Still, there’s a lot of optimism in the club. New developments around Abbey Park, along with Damian Jordan’s appointment as manager leave the Harps hungry for 2020 action.
“Damian Jordan has come in. He won the Junior Championship with Collegeland last year, and he was with Maghery when they won the Championship, so there are positive signs for the future”.
“Obviously you have to be optimistic and believe in yourself, we’ve got the talent, we’ve got the players, and it’s just getting everyone back together”.