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Not as easy as you think

Allianz NFL Division 3

Following on from their latest performance a 3-10 to 1-8 home defeat in the semi-final of the McKenna Cup by Tyrone, the odds –on 8/13 price for Armagh to win Division Three of the upcoming Allianz National Football League looks way off the mark.

Of course the price quoted has to do with what happened in the 2014 championship qualifiers that saw Armagh reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals where they suffered a one point defeat 1-12 to 1-11 to Donegal. Following their Ulster Championship exit after a replay with Monaghan 1-18 to 1-13 the Orchard County, knocked out Tyrone 0-13 to 0-10, Roscommon 1-17 to 1-12 and Meath 0-18 to 0-13 before coming within minutes of a place in the All-Ireland semi-final. Given those results and a new manager Kieran McGeeney at the helm expectancy is that relegated Armagh will stroll back up to Division Two.

The January McKenna Cup campaign produced 2 wins over Antrim and St Mary’s and 2 defeats to Tyrone with McGeeney using some 30 different players in the process. The opening round defeat against Tyrone was as intense as a Championship encounter the semi-final meeting was a total damp squib. Once Tyrone forged into an early 4 point lead the writing was on the wall with Armagh never getting close to bridging that opening lead in what turned out to be no more than a mere challenge game. My take on that game was simply that Armagh, who had secured their last four spot as surprise best losers, had plans already in place for the “weekend off” before the League commenced to get themselves prepared and a McKenna Cup final was only going to be a disruption and distraction hence such a flat performance.

Armagh, after using 30 players, will also have their college players back, so the preparations for getting the best 15 in place for the home League opener with Division Four champions Tipperary on Sunday 2pm @ the Athletic Grounds would be at a premium. The Armagh 2015 campaign begins in earnest next Sunday what has transpired result wise in the McKenna Cup is irrelevant. The January Pre-League competition which Armagh last won in 1990 has supporters already questioning management, tactics, team selections but basically its purpose is to blood new players. To that end for Orchard supporters it proved worthwhile as the outings for Miceal McKenna, Niall McConville, Sean Connell, Gavin McParland, James Donnelly, Stephen Sheridan and Ciaran O’Hanlon to mention but a few proved very fruitful.

Armagh selection for Sunday will be very interesting to say the least especially if everyone is available and fighting fit. While the game of football has seen huge changes down the years the same “auld tactic” the big man at number 14 seems to be the order of the day for the recent All-Ireland winners, Donaghy, Murphy, O’Gara. Given the physical stature of the majority of the Armagh forwards this might be the right time for Armagh to find a regular presence on the edge of the square. The finding of Ronan Clarke for that position in 2002 helped deliver the main prize.  In the two games with Tyrone it was their new number 14 Sean Kavanagh who was the main difference between the teams.

Tipperary and Clare are up from Division Four and have shown in their recent Munster Championship campaign that their graph is on the up. Tipperary, on their last visit to Armagh at Crossmaglen, Tipp clawed back an 11 point deficit to just one before Armagh rallied to secure the win. Second up for Armagh after the Tipp game is a visit to Wexford. The Yellowbellies are not the force they used to be but on home turf will be hard to handle. Former Championship opponents Limerick is the next port of call for Armagh. Again a re-building Shannonsiders pose a threat. An Ulster derby with Fermanagh in round four at the Athletic grounds takes us back to familiar territory. It’s a long long, way from Armagh to Clare who will have a few hurlers on board this year for the entire football season. Of late ‘bogey neighbours’ Louth visit Armagh in the penultimate round before an away trip with Sligo ends the campaign.

You can make cases for each individual game but it will be how things are going in the lead up to these games that will have the biggest influence on matters. For now all eyes are focused on “hot favourites” Armagh whose League ambitions, like all other teams wanting success, will have to have a solid home base that will produce 3 home victories.

The old adage “Tosach Maith, leath na hoibre” is a weight on the shoulders of any new manager with things a lot rosier in the Orchard gardens once Tipperary have been beaten. Armagh have shown through 2014 that they have plenty to offer in the way of talent and have now come under everyone’s radar. The manager’s first priority is to guide his team back to Division Two. Given the fixtures layout there will be many a rocky road travelled before heading to Markievicz for a promotion winning encounter with Sligo. I do believe that Armagh will make it out of Division Three but it will not be as easy as the bookies (seldom wrong) think at those odds-on price.