Good start is vital in National League campaign
● NFL Div 2; Meath v Armagh Pairc Tailteann, Navan, 14.00 Sunday 31st January
While it is self-explanatory that a good start to your National Football League campaign in terms that it lays down a marker as to whether you are promotion or relegation material the 2016 Division Two campaign is even more daunting for Armagh because there are 5 Ulster teams in the division’s make-up.
Last year’s Division Three champions Armagh had little difficulty in the end in returning to Division Two but with championship opponents Cavan (already with a McKenna Cup victory over the Orchard under their belts), “auld enemies” Tyrone, new look Derry and fellow promoted side Fermanagh to face, new Connacht FBD champions Galway, always formidable Laois and an opening encounter with Meath in the offing every point will be precious.
Armagh will travel to Páirc Tailteann, Navan next Sunday for a 2pm start against a Meath side that has just claimed their first O’Byrne Cup in a decade following their 1-17 to 1-10 win over Longford in the final.
Armagh have not made an ideal start to 2016 losing to Louth in the O’Fiaich Cup at home then at home to Cavan in the McKenna Cup, but redeemed themselves with a welcome win in Clones over Monaghan which was followed by another disappointing home defeat to UUJ. Granted there were a lot of players missing through injuries and college action yet Armagh used 25 different players in the McKenna Cup without finding out a whole pile selection wise as the League opener beckons.
The Orchard County have gone into League action over the years minus their Crossmaglen contingent as is the case this year but the news that ace marksman Jamie Clarke will not be returning to the squad all year is a huge blow for management and spectators. But one must just take it as it is and get on with it, who would have ever thought that Kerry would have won the All-Ireland the year Colin “Gooch” Cooper was out of action. While one door closes it opens the way for someone else to step into the breech and there are plenty of candidates available but the need is for them to stand up and make the opportunity count on a regular basic now that it is available.
Mick O’Dowd has seen steady improvement in his team since taking charge and dubbed, like Armagh, as one of the teams to watch out for in 2016, this League encounter will be a big test for both. Armagh are at home to Laois (who are home to Galway this Sunday) with Meath going to Fermanagh (who host Derry this Sunday) so the teams who many would have deemed as relegation candidates can make a big statement of intent in their opening two games. The other game in Division Two this Sunday sees League favourites Tyrone entertain Cavan.
O’Dowd has trawled the county for players with 13 different clubs represented in the latest starting 15 he has named. Counterpart Kieran McGeeney has stuck with his tried and trusted “brigade of experienced hands” but in truth nobody on the fringes of the panel have shown consistency at the highest level to replace those players as the right mix between the young pretenders and seasoned campaigners has come close but has not gelled together yet as a unit.
Armagh traditionally are a better outfit coming in under the radar but their loyal and enthusiastic supporters, who were used to dining at the top table for over a decade seem to take it as a given that this should continue, using the Tyrone yardstick unfairly as a means test. Two years ago Armagh contested and lost narrowly in an All-Ireland quarter final so the mindset automatically focused on a semi-final or final berth the following year. Promotion to Division Two as League champions was totally forgotten about, following a poor Championship campaign. The preparation for the Championship starts with the League and with no disrespect to Division Three the quality of sides on faces in the higher division proves far better preparation for what lies ahead in the championship.
Given a fully fit panel to play with is imperative for any team and last year it did not happen for Armagh. This year will be the real test and it does not start any sterner than a tussle with Meath in Navan. Missing key defenders proved very costly in the games to date this year with the leaking of goals a real problem which eventually cost victories. Scoring goals has also been a big problem with one scored in 3 McKenna Cup outings but 36 points in those same three outings is encouraging.
For me the first real achievement for Armagh 2016 is to cement their Division Two status by avoiding relegation. What happens from April on come Championship time is bonus territory. Supporters should back their team from the outset and get behind the team in the “Navan Cauldron” next Sunday by being in attendance in numbers.