Middletown have been the dominant force in Armagh Hurling over the last number of years and picked up their 16th county title last season.
Over the last ten years, the Eoghan Rua club has secured seven Armagh titles, two Ulster Intermediate triumphs and reached the Intermediate All-Ireland final in 2012.
They’ve also backboned the Armagh side that continues to fight for Nicky Rackard Cup glory, reaching four finals since last capturing the title in 2012.
Ryan Gaffney has been a solid member of most of those teams and has enjoyed the glory years in the black and white of Middletown.
“We’ve been lucky to have a group of players, we’ve won a right few championships. The success wasn’t always there, and the sad thing is it mightn’t stay forever, so you have to do your best to keep winning when you get the opportunity”.
In 2015, Middletown were crowned county champions for the first time in three years while also denying their rivals Keady two in a row.
“We definitely wanted to win that, after going two or three years without a championship. In hurling terms between Middletown and Keady, it’s a long time to be waiting. I suppose that was maybe the start of a couple of good years for us”.
The emergence of underage talent as well as a new management team signalled the start of something great in Middletown and helped form a side that has won five of the last six county championships.
“We were lucky that we did have Odhran (Curry) and Dean (Gaffney), Tiarnan (Nevin) and Shaun Toal, boys that have been training hard ever since and they never miss a session”.
“They’re the backbone of the team really. We were lucky enough we got a good management team in Arthur Hughes and a good coach in Mickey McCullagh as well which was a real bonus”.
“The whole thing maybe needed a bit of energy about it and I thought them men brought that”.
In 2016, only three teams contested the Senior Championship. Middletown drew the short straw, facing Keady in the semi-final, with Cuchulainn’s gained automatic entry into the final.
Middletown edged out the Lamh Dhearg side by a goal before seeing out an impressive eleven-point win in the decider to secure the clubs third ever ‘two in a row’.
“We played Cuchulainn’s then in the final, I suppose it was something we never got to do, we didn’t do many back-to-back championships. It was something we wanted to do as a club”.
Middletown attempted to retain their title the year after and in doing so would claim a historic ‘three in a row’, something their club had never achieved before.
They faced Cuchulainn’s in the semi-final, and the Armagh side were able to close that eleven-point gap from twelve months previous.
This time around, Middletown scrapped through by the minimum of margins to set up another showdown with Keady.
“Going for the three in a row, we just about got over the line against Cuchulainn’s and it definitely wasn’t a case of taking the foot off the pedal or underestimating Cuchulainn’s”.
“We were trying new things within our play and it was just teething problems, we were trying new systems because you have to do that or else you’re not going to progress and win the big games”.
They braved another tough encounter in the decider and were once again county champions with a 0-17 to 1-12 victory.
Middletown eventually lost their grip on the Armagh title in 2018, although they didn’t let go down without a fight.
Gaffney and his team forced the county final was to a replay but it was Keady who captured the title.
“I think we were lucky enough to score the equalising point at the end, I remember that day, there was more times you thought it was slipping away from us. I’m not sure, it might have been Davy Carvill got the equalising point at the end”.
“Unfortunately, the next day out in the replay, we ran out of steam. We had given it everything for the last few years before that. Keady were on the rise with a few young boys coming through and I think that wee bit of energy in the team definitely helped them and we maybe just needed a wee bit of freshness at that stage”.
It didn’t take long for Middletown to get back on track as they were once again the championship winners by the end of the following season.
Derrynoose gave a battling display and struck three second half goals to give the eventual winners a real scare in the last four.
“If you concede three goals in any half, you’re going to have a fight on your hands. I remember playing Derrynoose at the start of the year in the league, it might have been a draw, it was a good tight game”.
Middletown did secure their spot in the final, with Keady once again providing the opposition. This time around, there was only going to be one winner.
“Getting beat the year before, it was hard to take. I suppose boys had a bit of time off after three or four years of training during the winter. It was just a way to recharge the batteries and try to refresh things again”.
“Getting the victory over Derrynoose maybe helped us, getting a tough game in the semi-final and then into an even tougher game in the final.”
2020 would mark a much different season, but also one of the best championship campaigns as Gaffney explains, with five teams competing in the senior division.
“Last year, the championship was probably one of the best ones that I’ve ever played in. We had three tough games to win it, getting passed Keady was a bonus, getting to play Derrynoose, Derrynoose have been coming the last few years so we knew we were going to be up against it”.
Middletown and Keady had competed in four of the previous five finals, but in 2020, one of the big hitters were going to fall at the first hurdle.
The sides were paired off in the Preliminary Round of the competition, with the winner claiming the favourites tag for the remainder of the campaign.
Middletown were victorious, and although Gaffney’s side have had the upper hand over their foes in recent years, the rivalry hasn’t just been experienced by the current generation.
“In terms of Armagh hurling, the rivalry goes back years, long before we were playing and it’s still there today. It’s definitely a healthy rivalry and a lot of the boys all went to the same high schools, so we all know each other, we played on the same school teams”.
“Whenever it comes to the championship, it’s every team for themselves, but it always seems to be a good game between us.”
With Keady defeated, it was now Derrynoose who stood in Middletown’s way of making a sixth championship final in as many seasons.
And this time, it was Middletown who required a second half comeback. “It was definitely a good game. They came out and got two goals, they went six points up in the second half”.
“We managed to just steady the ship and basically try to get the ball down the other end of the field and make them puck the ball out. We just kept the scoreboard ticking and got the goals to get over the line”.
Cuchulainns proved to be the final obstacle in their way and once again Middletown rose to the challenge to claim back-to-back titles.
“To have them two games under your belt going in to play Cuchulainn’s in the final, it definitely wasn’t a game that anybody overlooked”.
“I had my wedding that weekend and the amount of boys there that were sipping water and away home early, most of the team done that. We gave them (Cuchulainn’s) the respect they deserved.”
Leading into the new year, Middletown will target another three in a row, but Gaffney and his teammates know that 2021 could throw up all kinds of problems.
“We definitely wouldn’t see ourselves as favourites at all, although most teams would say that. At the end of the day, it’s a new year and last year was different but this year, it looks like it could be very similar if not less game time, so nobody knows what’s happening”.
“It’s probably a good way of levelling things out, so in my eyes there wouldn’t really be a favourite this year, because nobody knows what way the games are going to be played or how they’re going to be played, who can commit to them”
“I’d say there’ll be a few teams out there gunning for us, but I’d like to think we’d be willing to step up to the plate and give it our best shot too”.