Gavin McParland: Orchard to the core

DURING Sky’s broadcast of the 2017 round four Qualifier between Armagh and Kildare, commentator Mike Finnerty referred to Gavin McParland as a ‘classy footballer, very much a street player.’

The Ballymacnab man was in the middle of his best campaign in the orange and white as Kieran McGeeney’s men marched to the last eight of the All-Ireland series.

Just 12 months later, McParland would play his final game for Armagh, this time in a round four Qualifier loss to Roscommon. He enjoyed an eight-year long career with the Orchard county, working under three managers and making 58 appearances.

A talented swimmer during his younger days, picking up third place in the All-Irelands on three occasions along with a few Ulster medals, McParland also showcased his sporting skills on the soccer pitch.

He enjoyed trials at Portsmouth and Stoke City and experienced playing in the Milk Cup for Armagh City with clubmate Rory Grugan, against the likes of Jack Rodwell and Federico Macheda, who’s best known for his equalising goal against Aston Villa while playing for Manchester United.

“I was at Portsmouth twice and Stoke once, I was 15 or 16. It was very tough. Soccer’s a world game, you’re competing against the world basically. At Portsmouth, there were 40 other boys there and I was asking them where they were from and it was Australia to places in Africa, America, France, everywhere.

“It’s a thing where your confidence has to be high and you need to be up to standard. At Portsmouth, the academy manager at the second trial said he’d be in contact with me, I’d have liked to know either way and I heard nothing.

“But when we played England the next year, I was playing for Northern Ireland, he was actually in with them. He told me he got sacked and that’s why there was no word. That doesn’t mean that he was going to sign me but he seemed genuine, he said he’d let me know what the story was, but that was why (he didn’t), he was actually sacked.”

During his teenage years, McParland quit his first love of Gaelic football to pursue his soccer dream, but when given an ultimatum by Armagh minor boss Paul McShane, the decision was an “easy” one to make.

“I quit Gaelic for two years. I remember we won the Herald Cup in fifth year in school (St Patrick’s, Keady), I quit Gaelic that year. I came back for the semi-final, I remember telling the manager I’d only come back if the boys were happy.

“I didn’t want to come back into the squad if the boys had been training all year and I wasn’t there, but they were happy enough. I came on in the semi-final and final and we won the Herald Cup. I quit Gaelic for two years though and it was actually the year we won the minors (2009) I came back in; I missed half the league that year.

“I remember before the Ulster minor final; I got the letter through the post from the NIFA to say the trials for the u-19 national squad were in England because the majority of the boys were signed and living in England. My flight was organised to go out and I asked the county managers could I go and they said ‘no, we’ve an Ulster final next week.’

“It was an easy decision for me at that stage. I wasn’t really getting on for Northern Ireland and I thought I was a bit late. I was 18 then and I wasn’t going to make it in England so I didn’t go and that was the end of the soccer for Northern Ireland.”

It all worked out perfectly in the end as McParland and Armagh experienced a summer to remember. It started with a successful Ulster campaign, with wins over Tyrone, Monaghan and finally Down before landing the ultimate prize of All-Ireland glory. A six-point win over Kildare set up a dream scenario, a chance to take on Kerry in Croke Park.

Armagh proved too strong and won 2-10 to 0-10, on a day when Ballymacnab pair McParland and Grugan outscored the Kingdom with 2-6 between them.

“I got 2-0 and Rory got 0-6. It was brilliant, especially Kerry. Growing up, Kerry had won all the All-Irelands, the green and gold jersey, it was brilliant. But when you play at that level and at senior level you get to learn it’s just another team and anyone’s beatable on the day.”

Next up was a shot at ending a 60-year wait for an All-Ireland minor title against a Mayo team that included Cillian O’Connor. “It wasn’t a great game but anyone would be happy to get over the line with a win. It was unbelievable, still to this day when you think of it, it was amazing.

“I think at the time, at that age, you don’t realise what an achievement it was, it kind of goes over your head. I remember after that I was thinking this was going to be the norm. You were going to be winning Ulsters and All-Irelands and I won nothing since that!”

McParland did go on to pick up two Division Three titles with the Armagh senior team and made several crucial contributions throughout the years. He was first called into the squad by Paddy O’Rourke in 2010, but would have to wait to 2011 for his first appearance. He made his debut against Antrim in the McKenna Cup, scoring a point, but game time remained limited.

“The first couple of years was very slow, you were just trying to get in. Nobody goes to play county to sit on the bench but you do have to accept for the first two years maybe that’s just what you have to do. It went on longer than I expected, but my mentality was that I was good enough. I was kind of fighting with myself, saying I’m good enough to start and that’s what kept me there for so long.”

Having not played a single minute of the league, O’Rourke turned to the 20-year-old when the pressure was on. Armagh were minutes away from being knocked out of the championship by Mick O’Dwyer’s Wicklow, with time running out to salvage their season.

The Armagh manager sent in the Ballymacnab sharpshooter for his championship debut and McParland nailed the final score to bring the game to extra time. An Aaron Kernan point was needed to rescue a draw before the Orchard county eventually made it through with a win in Aughrim.

“I was very frustrated and I thought I was going well in training and I thought I should have been getting some minutes. I rang Paddy, there was maybe 30 or 40 boys or whatever it was (in the panel), I had worked it out that I was the only one who hadn’t played for a minute in the league. I wasn’t happy and I thought I’d be the last man he’d turn to in the middle of the championship.

“At county level things can change at any second, you need to be prepared. Somebody can get injured or when you think you won’t get on and you do, you soon learn. We were meant to be big favourites but it certainly wasn’t like that on the field. We went down to Wicklow and we were on the ropes, I came on and I scored a point and we won (the replay). At the end of the day that’s the main thing, we made hard work of it.”

Tyrone brought their season to an end, while Armagh were relegated from Division One the following season. Focus shifted to promotion in 2013 but things weren’t going to plan for new manager Paul Grimley. The season began with a seven-point defeat to Laois before Wexford came to the Athletic Grounds and built up an 11-point first half lead.

Like 2011, an SOS call was sent for McParland to spring from the bench and produce the goods and once again he duly obliged. By the end of the game, Armagh had somehow earned a draw, and McParland had rattled home a hat-trick of goals.

“I scored three goals but mind you I didn’t score three again! We were actually getting destroyed by Wexford that night, we were getting beat by 11 points and came back to draw it.”

It was an important draw for Armagh as they avoided relegation by just one point, and McParland finished the campaign as the side’s third top scorer with 3-7. That wasn’t enough to earn a starting berth for their championship loss to Cavan however, so McParland, along with teammates Declan McKenna and Peter Carragher, headed to the States for the summer.

They played for Leitrim in New York and made the championship decider, falling at the final hurdle.

“We were beat in the championship final. I’m competitive, I was fuming, I wanted to win it. It was a good experience, I’m glad I did it.”

The trio were dropped from the panel for the following season by Grimley and missed out on Armagh’s run to the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final, where Donegal edged through by one point.

“There’s no good time to go anywhere, any young player would tell you that and I didn’t take it lightly quitting Armagh to go. But I’m over the moon I did it because if I didn’t do it then I was never going to do it.

“There were no hard feelings or nothing but I wasn’t asked back for 2014. I wanted to go but I wasn’t asked so I decided to have a good year with the club and hopefully be asked back in 2015. I enjoyed playing with the club for the full year because the previous couple of years when I was in with Armagh, I’d have missed the odd league game but I enjoyed that year.”

His club form saw McParland recalled to the panel by new Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney, “I was delighted to be asked back, I was hoping to be asked back to the county set up. It was all I knew, to play for Armagh and try and do my best and win.”

Armagh, having been relegated in 2014, bounced straight back up to Division Two at their first attempt and secured the league title in doing so, beating Fermanagh in the final.

“Coming from Division One in my first year, you just want to get back up there again and I never did. As I said, back on the minor team you thought you’d go on and win stuff and you didn’t. When you’re there you need to take it, grab it with both hands because you never know the next time you’re going to get back to it.”

League success didn’t result in championship joy however and Donegal hammered Armagh in the Ulster opener. Cavan did likewise in 2016 and another run through the backdoor was the best the Orchard men could hope for. Laois won their first round Qualifier meeting by three points, but had used an additional sub in the process, meaning the game would have to be replayed.

McParland was on a plane to France when word filtered through a replay would take place.

“I went to see Ireland and Italy in the Euros. I remember boarding the plane and Geezer texting me ‘this game’s back on’. I was literally walking onto the plane and I got the message. There was talk it was back on but I though it can’t be, this had never happened before. I went to France for two or three days and then back into training.”

McParland saw no game time in the replay as Armagh closed the gap, but still ended up on the wrong side of the result. More heartache followed in 2017 with Armagh missing out on promotion in the final round of the league. Having only lost once throughout the entire campaign, a draw at home to Tipperary was all that was needed. A last-minute Michael Quinlivan goal spoiled the party however and the Munster side earned the remaining promotion place by the skin of their teeth, winning 3-8 to 0-16.

McParland described the emotion and heartbreak felt in the Armagh changing room after suffering such a devastating defeat.

“That was heart-breaking. It was in our hands on the last day, we were winning well and then Tipperary got that last goal. I’ll never forget it; it was from a kick-out and in two seconds the ball was in the back of the net and the game was over.

“You don’t want to talk to anybody. Everybody cares, you don’t just go for the craic, you want to win. All the training you do in preseason, you set out to win something, you don’t just go to play football. That could have been one of the worst changing rooms, it was brutal.”

Armagh would taste revenge however in the Qualifiers as McParland became a crucial member of the first team. He earned a starting jersey in all the backdoor games that summer, having only came on in the Ulster Championship defeat to Down. His three points from play against Westmeath helped McGeeney’s men edge past a possible stumbling block, and as fate would have it, the Orchard men were drawn against Tipperary in the next round.

McParland got on the scoresheet again with a brace of points but more importantly, played the final pass for Jamie Clarke’s game-winning goal. While Armagh were delighted with the win, knowing they were now one game away from an All-Ireland quarter-final, a Division Three campaign the following winter was still in the back of McParland’s mind.

“It was good to get them back but at the same time you’re thinking, you still have to get out of Division Three next year. You’re still thinking about that. At the end of the day you want to get back up, they’re back in Division One now but that was the aim all along.”

Next up came Kildare, in Croke Park, with the prize a place in the last eight for the winner. That 2017 clash remains one of the highlights of Kieran McGeeney’s tenure and a standout moment in Armagh’s recent history. Once more McParland had a big say, finishing the game with 0-3 as Armagh won by just three points to set up a quarter-final against old rivals Tyrone.

“That was the furthest I ever got in the championship. Any time you play in Croke Park, that’s what you dream of. A championship game where a quarter-final’s up for grabs, it’s amazing. You talk about a changing room, after that it was brilliant. The only thing about it was you only had a week until you played Tyrone in the quarter-final, you’d have liked another week of training.”

The Ulster champions made little of Armagh’s challenge and a converted Peter Harte penalty eased the Red Hands into a comfortable 1-5 to no score lead after just 15 minutes. Tyrone ended up as huge 3-17 to 0-8 winners.
“It’s not nice. One week you’re winning and everything’s brilliant and a week later you’re terrible.

“You don’t give up. At half time the game could have been over but you still go out and give it your all, you still give some hope, anything’s possible. It was a weird atmosphere that day too. It was a double header but we were the first game. There was no atmosphere at all and Tyrone got the run on us, it was a bad day.”

While the season came to an abrupt ending, McParland admits he enjoyed his best summer in an Armagh jersey. He ended the year as the teams fourth highest championship scorer, chipping in with 0-10, 0-9 coming from play.

“I got myself into good shape. Probably over the other years I didn’t train individually as much. I pushed myself to the maximum and earned a few starts and kept my place. It was no doubt my best year.”

If 2017 felt like a breakthrough season for Armagh, 2018 seemed like two steps back. Having secured another Division Three league title, defeating Fermanagh once again in the decider, they headed to Brewster Park for the opening round of the Ulster Championship. Armagh were big favourites despite missing a host of household names, including Jamie Clarke and Stefan Campbell, while Rory Grugan’s involvement was limited to a second-half substitute appearance.

It proved to be an ambush and the Erne men won in the end with five points to spare. McParland was one of only four Orchard players to raise a white flag but once again Armagh fell short in the Ulster Championship, a running theme throughout McParland’s career.

“I broke my cheekbone at the end of 2017 in the club championship. I missed preseason, I missed a lot of football that year and wasn’t in the shape I should have been after the 2017 year, which was disappointing. I came on in the league final and started against Fermanagh in the championship.

“This is a bad stat but I don’t think I won an Ulster Championship game in my time with Armagh. In 2011 we beat Down and then Derry beat us in the semi-final and I didn’t get on, but bar that I didn’t win a championship game in Ulster, it was always through the back door.

“After ‘17 when we got to the All-Ireland quarter final and went on a bit of a run in the championship, beating Kildare who were just promoted to Division One at the time and to lose again in the Ulster quarter-final, it was heart breaking.”

Another run through the Qualifiers in 2018 led to a round four tie against Roscommon in a sunny and hot Portlaoise. The match proved to be a strong contender for ‘Game of the Season’, but morale victories mean little as Armagh lost out 2-22 to 1-19. McParland’s involvement was as a second half sub and just as he did all those years before, he split the posts after coming in, but this time it wasn’t enough for his team to get something out of the game.

That was McParland’s last appearance in the orange and white as he decided to step away from the inter-county scene.

“It was very hard; I didn’t know anything else. Two years at minors and my whole life I was basically playing for Armagh. It definitely was not easy leaving.

“I met Geezer and he wanted me to take more time but I thought long and hard about it and nothing was going to convince me to stay. I just felt I’d let myself down, I wanted to be playing more, I wasn’t happy sitting on the bench. That was nothing to do with them team or it’s not me saying I should have been starting.

“When you play county, it’s more mentally than anything, people don’t understand that. I was busy with work as well at the time and it wasn’t easy leaving because I loved competing with the best and trying to be the best I could. When I was with Armagh, I was 120 per cent there, committed in every way but I just couldn’t do that any more.”

It’s no coincidence that McParland’s departure from Armagh sparked a successful few seasons for his club. Ballymacnab won the Division One league title for the first time in their history in 2018 and reached back to back Senior Championship finals in ‘18 and ‘19. On both occasions however, Crossmaglen proved too strong.

McParland picked up a nasty hamstring tear in this year’s club championship as Ballymacnab made the last four, but the 30-year-old targets a return for the 2022 league campaign.

“I was going well with my rehab when we were still in the championship, I was pushing hard but realistically I don’t think I’d have made the county final if we’d have got there.”

“I’m back running again and taking it week by week but there’s no point forcing it at this stage. I don’t want to go back and something go again, I just want to make sure it’s 110 per cent right for the league.”

2022 is a fresh year for the ‘Nab as they once again go in search of a historic championship run. With a classy footballer like McParland in their ranks, they’ll always have a chance.

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