Newry will be hopping on Sunday as Páirc Esler plays host to Down versus Armagh in the Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final.
It’s a venue that is as familiar to many of the Armagh squad as it is to Down’s. The 25,000 capacity stadium is built mostly in the Armagh half of the city with Kieran McGeeney’s men using it as their home venue against Clare this season.
For Blaine Hughes, it is a case of returning to the scene of the crime. The Armagh goalkeeper was a championship debutant in 2017 when the two sides crossed paths at the Newry venue and he’s looking forward to running it back with their old rivals this Sunday.
“If you think about it, with the South Armagh contingent in the panel, many of them are only a stone’s throw away from Newry so it’s a brilliant rivalry and a great game to look forward to, we’re very excited,” Hughes told Pundit Arena.
“It was my first championship game for Armagh back in 2017 and I was pretty nervous at the start but once I got a few kick-outs away I settled down and got into my stride.
“I didn’t expect the atmosphere to be as electric as it was, the pre-match parade in front of 25,000 people was surreal but after that you don’t really pay much attention to it. Once the referee blows the whistle you’re focused on the game.”
On that day it was the Mournemen who came away with a first championship victory in 25 years over their fiercest rivals.
According to Hughes, the ghosts of two seasons ago won’t be on the players’ minds this week because they know where they went wrong in their last encounter. Armagh bought into the pre-match hype and got caught out for it.
“Our game plan seemed to go out the window in that game. We had it all down to a tee, we were in great shape going into it but we basically got ahead of ourselves.
“We didn’t expect Down to come out fighting as much as they did and we got a bit complacent listening to the hype instead of actually focusing on the job at hand.
“We’re knwon for being a high-scoring team and I think everyone thought we were going to bring that into the first round of the championship but the way that Down set-up, it wasn’t the case.”
Despite the loss, Armagh would go on to have a very successful campaign defeating Fermanagh, Westmeath, Tipperary and Kildare en route to an All-Ireland quarter-final.
Hughes played a pivotal role in their run that season with his marquee performance coming in Armagh’s upset victory over Kildare in Croke Park.
It was a performance that had the purists purring and made Hughes a recognisable face after Joe Brolly and Pat Spillane singled him out for praise on The Sunday Game.
“Yeah, it was weird.
“Before I got called up, I was watching The Sunday Game, Joe Brolly, Pat Spillane, the Gooch, Sean Cavanagh and then all of a sudden they are talking about me on it.
“Before the Kildare game, no-one really had a clue who I was and then I happened to play well and people started to recognise me which was a good thing but it can also be a bad thing because the opposition is able to study elements of my game then.”
The year could have gone very differently for the young goalkeeper who had been planning on a move to Australia. However, a phone call from McGeeney midway through the league gave him the chance to fulfil his childhood dream.
It didn’t take long for him to cement his place as Armagh’s number one. He was named in the starting XV after one week with the squad and has played in almost every game since.
“I had planned to go out to Australia. I was saving up and planning to go in September but I got called up around February for the Longford game. Once I got in, after a month or two, I nearly got addicted to it because it was a dream come true, all I ever wanted was to play for Armagh.
“It was a massive shock, to be honest. It was the third league game and we didn’t have any points at that stage. I think we got beat by Laois the week before and I got called in to a meeting with Geezer (McGeeney) and he said that they would like to make me a panel member.
“I went to my first training on Tuesday night, I was a bit nervous because it was the first time I had done nets in probably a year and a half. Then on Thursday night when he announced the team I was starting so he must have seen something in me.”
“Now it’s just about working hard and not letting the standards slip. You have to constantly be practising otherwise someone will come in and take your spot.”
Hughes is an accomplished outfield player in his own right having played in the forwards for his club, Carrickcruppen, and is known to be very accurate from dead balls.
With more and more goalkeepers taking on the role of fly-keeper, Hughes is happy enough to stick to his primary role as the last line of defence.
However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t up for the challenge if called upon.
“It is something we’ve talked about. I haven’t really done as much of it as others but if called upon I am definitely confident enough to take on the role of fly-keeper.
“Sometimes though, if you happen to play that role it’s nearly a domino effect. It can take away the focus from other aspects of your game. I just try to focus on being consistent with kick outs and other goalkeeping areas because sometimes you run the risk of letting your standards slip.
“If you play as a fly-keeper you’re sort of thinking more as an outfielder than you are about your primary role as a goalkeeper.
“I’m still practising my free-kicks but there is four or five players putting their hands up. Niall Grimley and Rian O’Neill are extremely accurate. I’ll let them two fire away but if I’m called upon, I’ll definitely go up there no problem (laughs).”
For now, his focus is totally on Down and picking up a first Ulster Championship win since 2014.
It’s a hoodoo that has been hanging over McGeeney since his appointment as Armagh boss. His qualifier record is great but he’s yet to pick up a win in Ulster.
It’s something that the players want to put right in 2019 as they feel they’ve let their manager down one too many times.
“You see a lot of paper talk about the last four years but in terms of Geezer, those results have not been down to him, they’ve not been his fault.
“It’s the performances of the players that hasn’t been good enough. All he can do is give us a plan on how we set-up but once the whistle goes it’s down to the players on the pitch.
“As players, we need to put things right because we have let him down. We 100 per cent back him and I can guarantee you that everyone on that team would do anything in an Armagh jersey for Kieran McGeeney. He’s definitely not the problem anyway.”