Portlaoise a tough fortress

March 2, 2010

NFL Division Two – Laois v Armagh in Portlaoise 7.30 on Saturday 6th March

Laois may be coming back off a 3-11 to 0-5 defeat at Donegal but Armagh have always found them a very tough nut to crack in Portlaoise. Armagh’s last visit was to O’Moore Park was on March 31 in 2007 with Laois winning 1-13 to 0-08.

The Armagh team on duty that day C McKinney; T McClelland, E McNulty, F Moriarty; B Donaghy, K McGeeney, P McCreesh; P McGrane 0-1, C Toner; P McKeever 0-2, P Loughran, J Lavery; S McDonnell 0-3, D Marsden 0-1, C Vernon. Subs: P Duffy for P McCreesh, M O’Rourke 0-1 for Loughran, S Forker for McKeever shows a lot of changes from the one which accounted for Westmeath in their last league outing which resulted in a 2-19 to 0-8 win for Armagh P McEvoy, A Mallon, B Donaghy, P Duffy, A Kernan (0-2), C McKeever, F Moriarty (1-0), B Shannon. K Toner, J Feeney (0-1), C Vernon (0-1), G Swift (0-2), R Henderson (0-1), S McDonnell (1-9), T Kernan (0-2) Subs- M McNamee for Henderson, J O Neill for Feeney, P Kernan for Moriarty, C Watters (0-1) for A. Kernan, K Dyas for Duffy.

Laois began their current league campaign with a 1-13 to 1-11 home win over Tipperary before seccumbing to that heavy defeat in Donegal. The O’Moore county manager Sean Dempsey who managed the county to minor All-Ireland success in 2003 will be boosted by the return of a quartet of suspended players and the availability of a sextet of players from County champions Portlaoise. Dennis Booth, Kevin Meaney, Peter O’Leary and Billy Sheehan have served suspensions imposed from their O’Byrne Cup clash with Kildare. The shock All-Ireland club championship defeat for Portlaoise at the hands of Clare and Munster champions Kilmurray-Ibrickane leaves panel members Mick Nolan, Aidan Fennelly, Craig Rogers, Brian McCormick, Peter McNulty and Cahir Healy available for selection. Ross Munnelly has made two substitute appearances in the last two league outings and will be an expected inclusion from the start against Armagh. Incidentially Ross and Darren Rooney are now the only surviving members of the Laois team which won the Leinster title seven years ago now that talisman Padraig Clancy has taken a break from inter-county duty for the present. Laois have won the division two league title on two occassions 1926 and 1986. In the league semi-final of 2003 Laois beat Armagh 1-14 to 1-11.

Armagh new manager Paddy O’Rourke, saw his charges go down by the minimum at Pairc Tailteann against Meath 2-8 to 0-13 on his league bow before registering a facile win in Crossmaglen against Westmeath . James Lavery and Malachy Mackin were late withdrawals against the Lake County being replaced by Barry Shannon and Gareth Swift. O’Rourke followed those personell changes by making some significant positional changes not least the moving of Aaron Kernan to centre-forward. The one man show from Stevie McDonnell 1-9 all from play tells it’s own story leaving it hard to gauge just how effective those positional moves by O’Rourke really were. They obviously worked on the day against a poor Westmeath outfit and it will be interesting to see if they will be followed up in Portlaoise. Ronan Clarke has sat out the two league openers and along with Lavery and Mackin will be seeking inclusion on Saturday night. Stefan Forker and David McKenna are now free from Jordanstown duty and one waits to see if they will be added to the squad allthough David may still be on the injured list.

With Armagh, Kildare, Laois and Meath all on the two point mark chasing table toppers Donegal and Down both on 4 points defeat for either team on Saturday will leave them in the relegation rather than the promotion battle. It is the first time in a while that Armagh have been able to call on such a strong band of players this early in the league campaign. On their last away trip in the league Armagh were very unlucky to come away empty handed following a very good showing. There will be a lot of interest in the first name pinned on the Armagh teamsheet to see if there is a rotation system in place amongst the goalkeepers Paul Hearty and Philip McEvoy. Hearty was at fault against Meath for a goal with McEvoy dealing confidently with the only goal chance created by Westmeath. If the rotation system is right it is Paul who will be between the sticks at O’Moore Park. Paul Duffy played better at half back the last day out than in the corner at Navan.

Charlie Vernon was very good in Cross with midfield partner Kieran Toner in and out of the game. In attack, with the exception of McDonnell and Aaron Kernan, the rest struggled. Tony Kernan, Gareth Swift, Joe Feeney and Ryan Henderson thus far have failed to stamp their authority or stake a claim for permanent inclusion. At times during the course of the opening two league games we have fleetingly seen the abilities of the fringe Orchard County forwards but nothing lasting. They have all shown that they know where the posts are when given the ball but it is in winning those 60/40 or 50/50 balls that has been the let down. It is early days and the development of the delivery of the right ball to take these players more into the game is undoubtably being worked upon. The service given to Stevie for his 1-9 was excellent.

A lot of the heavy early season training is now out of the way and teams who were struggling before the fortnight break will be a different breed of animal after it. As already mentioned Laois at home is never easy but like their Armagh counterparts they are having to deal with the loss of a lot of their physicality due to retirements. Armagh in their first two outings have looked sharp and positive in their approach to the game playing some pretty expansive football. I know that it is early days but the work of new trainer Mike McGurn already looks like it is paying dividends as the team look in superb physical shape eventhough it is only the beginning of March. More importantly Armagh seem to be playing with a refreshing willingness and tremendous workrate. All those attributes and a little rub of the green which deserted them on their travels the last day will be needed to come away with victory. A second successive league win will set Armaghup rightly for the Down, Donegal, Kildare and Tipperary challenges that are still on the horizon.