Good League start most important

January 30, 2017

NFL – Sligo v Armagh at Markievicz park 2.00pm Sunday 5th February

“We would like to get off on the right foot – that will certainly be necessary if we are to get into the frame for promotion.” are the words of Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney as his charges begin their Division Three National Football League with a trick trip to Sligo.

Sunday April 5 in 2015 Armagh went to Sligo in the League and were thumped 1-19 to 1-8 but had secured their place in the League final, prior to this last round League fixtures. This time round they will meet a Sligo team that will be unveiling their new eye-catching jersey which continues to feature the AbbVie logo on the front and associated sponsor branding from IT Sligo on the back but includes several new design flourishes. The jersey now sports red detail on the sleeves, dark Grey shadow hoops and a Sligo crest on the lower back alongside the title of the WB Yeats play The Land of Heart’s Desire. No doubt that the Yeats men will want to christen their “new jersey” with a brace of League points.

Sligo lost to Galway 0-13 to 0-10 in their opening FBD League match but recorded 2 wins thereafter 5-25 to 0-1 over GMIT and 2-13 to 0-16 over Leitrim but did not qualify for the final. Whilst Armagh were suffering relegation on scoring difference from Division Two last year despite notching 2 wins and 2 draws from their 7 starts Sligo just lost on promotion by a point following 3 wins and a draw from their 7 League starts. Former Kildare stalwart Niall Carew will be delighted with how things have gone in his first year in charge but will be annoyed at their high scoring 4-16 to 2-13 championship loss to Roscommon before recording a 2-15 to 0-10 qualifier win over Leitrim before exiting the championship at the hands of Clare 2-17 to 1-13. It is clear to see from those championship figures that Carew needs to work on his defence as scoring 5-41 in 3 championship games is a great return from his forwards.. Sligo’s longest serving inter-county player Mark Breheny leads the attack at number 11, Adrian Marren (0-8 the last time the teams met), Patrick O’Connor, Kyle Cawley, Cristeoir Davey are the key players who have been clocking up the scores for Sligo.

In a much changed defence since their last meeting Sligo have introduced Eoin McHugh, Luke Nicholson, Noel Gaughan, James Hynes, Adrian McIntyre, John Kelly, to help out surviving goalkeeper Aidan Devaney and fellow defenders Keelan Cawley, Neil Ewing, Ross Donovan as Carew tries to address his defensive frailties for the upcoming League and Championship campaigns.

Armagh have had a productive December and January with over 30 players getting playing time in both the O Fiaich and McKenna Cups and with a few of the more experienced players due to return after injury Armagh have an abundance of talent at their disposal, provided they stay injury free. Getting the blend right between the new players who have shown great promise and the experienced hands will be a hard and arduous task that may take time to fathom out.

Paddy Morrison looks to have gained the nod for the goalkeeping spot even though a few of his kickouts the last day against Down went astray. Defenders Ciaran Higgins, Niall Rowland, Oisin Lappin and John Magill have shown that they are right in the mix, piling on the pressure on fellow defenders Charlie Vernon, Aidan Forker, Ruari McCaughley, Simon McCoy, Aidan Rushe, Paul Hughes, Shea Heffron , Joe McElroy along with the vastly experienced returning James Morgan, Ciaran McKeever, Andy Mallon, Brendan Donaghy and Mark Shields for a starting place.

Kieran McGeeney, hoping for a winning start to the league.

The emergence of Maghery’s very promising midfielder Ben Crealey is a huge boost to an area which has caused problems in the past. The fast improving impressive Stephen Sheridan is another midfielder who gives options alongside Aaron Findon and Ethan Rafferty. It will be interesting to see which combination will be chosen for the Sligo game.

Too defensive minded has been the label that Armagh have carried since McGeeney has taken charge, particularly in his second year. When one looks back on last year Armagh was a decimated team, given the serious amount of injuries they endured for the season and was probably a big contributor to the tactics employed. There are not too many counties out there that would have coped with Armagh’s situation and were it not for bad luck they would have had no luck at all.

The 5 games played over the last two months have shown Armagh in a different light offensively as a return of 9-76 in 5 matches would suggest. The playing panel has been extended. There is a buzz and vibrancy about the squad ,aided by a management re-jig of the training schedule and real competition for places. Forward talisman Jamie Clarke has returned to the fold but is not a definitive starter, Rory Grugan has donned the role of play-maker, Anto Duffy, Conor White, Niall Grimley and Oisin Mac Iomhair have shown terrific form. Throw-in Stefan Campbell, Ciaron O Hanlon, Gavin McParland and Kevin Dyas along with Crossmaglen brothers Oisin and Rian O Neill there is every reason to be optimistic that Armagh will regain promotion to Division Two as their first priority for 2017.

The second priority for the Orchard County will be to be crowned Division Three league champions for the second time in three years. This time round though the 2017 league campaign will be a lot tougher than the corresponding one two years ago. A tough opener away to Sligo will be followed by a home game with Laois who beat them twice in last year’s championship. An away trip to Longford is never easy before the Faithful (Offaly) arrive at the Athletic Grounds. On March 19 there is a trip to Drogheda to take on neighbors Louth before facing Antrim at home a week later. The crucial game might be reserved till last as Tipperary so impressive on their last visit to the Athletic Grounds will be looking to build on their terrific championship showing of reaching the All-Ireland semi-final. People tend to forget that Armagh were narrowly defeated in the All-Ireland quarter final the last time they played in Division Three.

There is sure to be a big crowd of travelling Armagh support in Sligo with the majority of them like myself eagery awaiting to see the starting 15 for what will arguably be the most important game of the league. As the old Irish saying goes “Tosach maith, leath na hoibre”

Jamie Clarke should have an input at some stage.