Yellowbelles have already proved their mettle

January 27, 2009

The long journey to Wexford for the opening match of the 2009 Allianz National Football League Div two leaves Armagh management, players and supporters plenty of time to reflect on the last meeting between the teams. Wexford had won Division Three of the National Football League, had lost the Leinster final to Dublin but recovered to contest an All-Ireland quarter final with Ulster champions Armagh as young new manager Jason Ryan rekindled past glories for the Slaneysiders footballers.

With 58 minutes on the clock on that Aug 9 Saturday in Croke Park, Armagh led 0-11 to 0-9 and looked destined to book their place in the semi-final but an uncustomary last 10 minutes collapse as Wexford, powered by a Mattie Forde goal, tagged on 1-5 to a solitary point from Armagh. The Model men, bar for the Leinster final collapse, had been just that all year, a model of consistency as they caused one of the biggest championship upsets for years when beating Armagh.

Sunday’s league opener will be a totally different kettle of fish than their last meeting with both sides short a number of players from that championship encounter. Armagh will be minus their Crossmaglen contingent who will be hoping to extend their league 

Also thrown into the mix is that Armagh’s only National League title in 2005 was at Wexford’s expense as Armagh won in Croke Park 1-21 to 1-14

The fact that Wexford set their stall out last year with an emphasis on the league and enjoyed such an unbelievable year leads one to think that manager Ryan will be all out to repeat that feat even though operating at a higher division. Wexford, on last year’s performances showed that they can match the best. Their new Division Two surroundings will not hold any fears for them. Fellow Leinster sides Meath, Kildare and Laois are regular acquaintances. Fermanagh came up from Division Three with them. The remaining two teams Cork and Monaghan will bring something new to the table for them. A good start is half the battle, will be foremost in both teams minds as it can shape whether you will be promotion or relegation material even after one match.On the road last year in the league Armagh had a dreadful campaign picking up no points from 3 away games at Meath, Monaghan and Westmeath. It was home form at Crossmaglen that kept Armagh in the division with wins over Cavan, Roscommon and Dublin and a draw with Cork. It is worth noting that Cavan and Roscommon were both relegated.

With four away fixtures this time round Peter McDonnell will see it as imperative to their divisional survival that they pick up some points from their travels. The line up of matches in order for Armagh are Wexford (A), Laois (H), Monaghan (H), Fermanagh (A), Kildare (A), Meath (H) and Cork (A).

Wexford had a very short O Byrne Cup campaign which is the Leinster pipe opener to the season and is straight knock-out. Kildare beat Wexford 1-12 to 0-9 and Wexford were then eliminated in the Shield equivalent of the same competition by Westmeath 2-13 to 2-11 after extra-time. Armagh on the other hand had a more successful than usual Dr McKenna Cup campaign reaching the semi-final. Group wins over Antrim and Queens were recorded before a loss to Cavan. By virtue of the best runner-up Armagh reach the semi-final against Donegal. Like the Cavan game it was a night for the brave hearted as terrible weather spoiled the game which Donegal won 1-14 to 2-9.

A feature of the four McKenna Cup games that Armagh played was that despite using a lot of new faces the Orchard County improved with every outing and were unfortunate to lose to Donegal. The whole idea of the competition is to blood new faces to see if they can be retained for the forthcoming league and championship. The fact that Peter McDonnell had to use so many new faces might give him a few headaches as he puts together his league panel. With the old brigade of Paul McGrane, Stevie McDonnell, Aidan O Rourke, Paddy McKeever, Enda McNulty back in the fold for the league a few will have to be squeezed out to let them in.

In the absence of last year’s first choice goalkeeper Paul Hearty both Philip McAvoy and Paudi Rodgers will be give the opportunity to see who will get the nod for the championship. In defence the return of both Brendan Donaghy and Tony McClelland is a big boost. Donaghy looked very solid at full back and his absence over the last couple of McKenna Cup matches was to prove very costly. Barry Shannon and Neil O Rourke did their defensive prospects no harm at all in the outings they were given.

The biggest problems Armagh had in the four matches to date were at midfield. A host of pairings were tried with none proving too successful. At varying stages different players excelled but failed to show consistency. It is not that Armagh are short of options in this sector with James Lavery, Kieran Toner, Shane O Neill, Malachy Mackin, Vincie Martin all getting opportunities to stake a claim. With the assumption that Armagh are looking for a partner for Paul McGrane in this sector it will not be until they arte given outings along with the team captain that it will be seen if it can work.

The bonus for the Armagh manager has been the display of his two players playing for Queens in the competition. At midfield Charlie Vernon was one of the stand out players of the competition, getting through a tremendous amount of work in fielding carrying and fetching. Tried as a forward last year by Armagh which did not suit his style of play Charlie was a disappointment. His Queen’s midfield partner Paul Courtney also did well but a couple of yellow cards deprived us of seeing a lot more of the Ballyhegan man.

  Reality for Armagh is simple in that there are an abundance of good defenders and enough about to form a formidable midfield. This last few years it‘s the search for scoring forwards that has disappointed. Nobody has come along to replace Diarmuid Marsden, John McEntee or Oisin McConville to help out two of the best in the business in McDonnell and Clarke.

For a couple of games this year Ryan Henderson showed he knew where the posts were. Kevin O Rourke, Peadar Toal, Joe Feeney are another trio to catch the eye and are worth giving a go in the league.

With Martin O Rourke picking up a second yellow against Donegal resulting in suspension there will be room for experiment against Wexford on Sunday. You will hear people say that it’s a pity that Armagh cannot get more like Clarke and McDonnell. Forwards of that quality are a rarity and to have two of them in your team is a huge bonus. To me Armagh’s problem over the last number of years is that they have failed to adapt a system to get the best out of what they have. Tyrone have evolved their style of play, changed their system, moved their players since their first All-Ireland win and has had more success. Armagh supporters continually watch two of their best forwards left in isolation. To me it is not the lack of players that is wrong but the style of play. Opponents Wexford have a gem in their forward line in Mattie Forde, they play the game to suit his needs that is why over the years he has single handed been able to churn out match winning performances for his county when needed most.

Armagh’s demise is premature as they still have the quality of players on hand to deliver success. Peter McDonnell led Armagh to an Ulster title in his first year in charge. He knows, supporters know that it was far from vintage Armagh and that there is a lot more there to produce. Had Armagh beaten Wexford last year would you have expected them to go on to then beat Dublin. The answer is –yes. When Tyrone were beaten by Down they looked down and out but regrouped changed their tactics and won the All-Ireland.

 For me this year’s National League for Armagh should not just be about finding out if a few new players can make the grade, it should be about incorporating a system that will get the best out of what is there. 1 to 15 Armagh have remained too static over the last few years. It is time to shape a few square pegs for round holes to reach the holy grail once more. National league, Ulster titles are a thing of the past there is only one thing that counts. On May 31 Armagh will be given the first opportunity to show their credentials against the champions Tyrone, ask supporters if that counts.

  League one, two or three is basically irrelevant, it is championship that counts. Championship celebration or league relegation what would be your choice. Armagh gave very poor away performances for their travelling loyal supporters last year. In truth an Ulster championship was a bolt out of the blue and hid over the cracks that were eventually exposed by Wexford.

  Naturally we all want to go to Wexford to see Armagh win. To me how they win or lose would be more important that the result. To be fair to the manager Crossmaglen Rangers success if you are trying to change a system can be a hindrance. Obviously some of the Rangers players will be on the County team but they will probably not be available until after March 17. It is only two months till the championship begins and Armagh will have played four of the National league matches. Lat year it was claimed that Armagh were at the crossroads, they still have not moved from that position. Armagh is still highly ranked and feared. Armagh like Clare years ago raised the bar to a certain height but has not gone beyond it since. Those now ranked above them have found means to raise things in fractions. Everyone is putting in the same work. It has been the tactical awareness of Mickey Harte that has raised the bar.

 For the Orchard County and other counties there are three wrong roads and only one right road to take.  Half way though last year Tyrone was on the wrong road and detoured out of necessity. Who would want to be a football manager with those odds stacked against you?