O'Gara a 'top' player
Armagh boss O'Rourke says Dubs full-forward has shown himself to be among country's finest
PADDY O'ROURKE has faced Eoghan O'Gara once before, but the Armagh boss is expecting an entirely different man to stand on the edge of his team's square on Sunday when they travel to Croke Park to take on the Dubs.
The match was in July 2010 when his fledgling Orchard County side came to the same venue for an All-Ireland SFC Qualifier Round 2 clash against a Dublin team still seeing green and yellow stars from their Meath pummeling of a couple of weeks previous.
And the bulwark O'Gara played the entire 70 minutes without really setting off too many alarm bells, a week shy of his two-goal blitz on Louth and a fortnight prior to THAT goal against Tyrone which, until Saturday's one-man destruction of Laois, ranked singularly as his finest moment in blue.
"He was a very raw young player when we seen him then," O'Rourke recalled in conversation with the Herald. "He was a good ball-winner but a lot of options he took were poor and his shooting was poor.
"But he seems to have really refined that and has worked hard on that end of the game and his confidence is high now. He now believes he is a top inter-county footballer -- which he is -- and he's playing like one."
O'Rourke says the first signs he himself spotted of a more rounded O'Gara came in the Sigerson Cup weekend when the Templeogue/Synge Street man kicked 0-4 from play in DCU's destruction of NUI Maynooth and he commends Pat Gilroy for persevering with his work-in-progress.
"You do find - and I've seen it down the years - that some fellas don't fully develop until they around 25 or 26," O'Rourke notes. "In his case, he seems to be one of these players."
That match in 2010 still ranks as one of O'Rourke's most acute sources of regret in his two-and-a-half years at the helm in Armagh.
Dublin, unsure of their best 15 and not yet displaying the confidence which so nearly put them into that September's All-Ireland final, lacked the sort of cohesion which has become an intrinsic part of their armoury of late.
And trailing by just a point in a tense, fraught match, not exactly overflowing with quality with eight minutes to go, Armagh could very nearly have bagged a goal when Brian Mallon's shot beat Stephen Cluxton before the covering Philip McMahon scrambled back to clear the ball away from the goal-line.
"If the ball had gone into the net, I think we would have won the game," the Down native insists.
"And we probably would have kicked on from that. But that's football. Dublin probably had a stronger panel of players and were able to move on, while at that stage we had a lot of very young players on the panel who are only starting to come through now.
"Probably, it was a wee bit early for us. But if the ball had gone into the net, it would have done the team an awful lot of good."
In one sense though, Armagh are coming to Croke Park with a strong pedigree against recent All-Ireland winners. They drew with Cork in round one of the league and beat Kerry in Tralee just a week after Jack O'Connor's men had stuffed the Dubs in Croke Park, but defeat to Mayo on Saturday night has killed at least some of their momentum.
"It was very disappointing," he concedes. "We thought we were going to get something out of it. We gave Mayo far too much of a start and left ourselves with too much to do. The first 10 minutes was a disaster for us. It left us with too much of an uphill climb."
As for Dublin -- and in the absence of his galaxy of Crossmaglen club-tied talent -- O'Rourke can only admire Gilroy's depth of options after the St Vincent's man fielded just four of his starting All-Ireland final 15 last Saturday that concluded in a pretty comfortable win over Laois.
"I think he knows what he has in the two Brogans -- two superb players," he notes of the absence of the two most recent Footballers of the Year from the Dublin spring team sheet.
"But while the other boys are doing the business for him, it means when the two Brogans come back into the team, instead of two or three very good forwards, he now has seven or eight very good forwards to juggle with.
"They look like they've found a few more players," O'Rourke - who has captain Ciarán McKeever back from suspension for Sunday's match - continues.
"And it looks like the confidence of winning an All-Ireland has helped some of the fringe players on the team.
"The likes of O'Gara was superb there at the weekend and has been in the Sigerson Cup so winning an All-Ireland medal seems to have done him the power of good."