WHAT does the future hold for Armagh?
Supporters of Armagh county teams, who face a summer of discontent before they contemplate what the early part of the 2013 season will bring, can, for the moment, look back on a season in which the county’s Minor, Under 21 and Senior teams all lost their opening Ulster championship matches. During the successful period from the Ulster final win in 1999 until 2006 when the Senior side began to face decline, the facilities at the Athletic Grounds struggled to be seen as a top county ground. Ironically, in a modern era when the Armagh city venue can hold its own with most stadia around the country, the sides struggle to gain a foothold.
Although ground development and the development of competent teams do not always go hand in hand, the Armagh County Board may have to implement a charm offensive to off set the growing apathy amongst supporters who have witnessed what may have been once seen as a powerful dynasty crumble before their eyes. Supporters, the Board and, indeed, the players will all have a role to play if the Orchard County are again to compete at the top level.
So what would a new start entail, and can Armagh rise again from their low rankings? This writer believes that a new start could begin with traditionalism and conservatism being replaced by a new slick and modern vision for the future; county players should be more accommodating to the fans which would require a lot more than attending an annual open night staged before the beginning of the inter-county championship season.
Many supporters are of the opinion that development squads have stifled individual flair and that county players, particularly from Armagh, have become boring and predictable with some being seen as pedestrian and laboured. So what can be done to address the balance? This week the ‘MAIL’ details some ideas which may help address the downturn.
Don’t take supporters for granted - In most other sports, players and managers continuously praise the fans, who in the past have been called “patrons” by high ranking GAA officials. Gaelic managers and indeed players are not always in touch with supporters’ issues and rarely mention fans who, for example, travel to away matches during the National League. It has been proven that supporters who like a manager will want to give him them the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong.
Appoint a Public Relations Officer - The Armagh county board should appoint a part-time Public Relations Officer who should work closely with a competent company to evaluate the need for slicker marketing in the county.
Schools - A new generation of Armagh fans could be won over, by introducing a free junior Armagh supporter’s membership card to all primary school children, who could be entered into frequent draws and promotions etc. or by creating a fun atmosphere at home county matches which focuses on the younger supporters. Armagh could benefit by introducing a mascot or gimmick which children can relate to.
Athletic Grounds - The Athletic Grounds should become more modern in its approach to games by introducing a free supporters draw at each home game, creating a more fan friendly atmosphere by introducing topical music before games and at half-time.
The introduction of a more enthusiastic form of announcing team line outs, with extra emphasis always being applied to the home team, similar to Premier League matches, could help, as could encouraging players to acknowledge the fans more; even a minimum amount of celebration would suffice after a goal is scored.
Some of the above may or may not contribute to a more successful county team, but as with other sports, fans attend games to be entertained.
As the battle for the hearts and minds of GAA fans continue, a new era could emerge if county boards become less conservative and realise that it will never be enough in a modern era to implement policies just because they may have worked in the past.