Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Winning start vital for Armagh

A winning start on home soil against Cavan is vital for Armagh as they commence their Allianz National Football League Division Two campaign. With only 3 of their 7 league games at the Athletic Grounds it is imperative for their league prospects that full points are taken from the 3 home matches which will all be played on a Saturday night.

Indeed, Kieran McGeeney’s charges will be playing their opening 3 league fixtures on a Saturday night as the second fixture on Feb 1 is away to Laois with a 6pm start at MW Hire O’ Moore Park, Portlaois with Kildare visiting Armagh the following week Feb 8 @ 7pm.

Last years beaten Ulster finalists Cavan who beat Armagh after a replay to reach the final have already had a warm up match against each other, as Armagh recorded a 2-17 to 0-13 BOI McKenna Cup victory at Kingspan Breffni Park. Cavan manager Mickey Graham is more likely to make more changes to his McKenna Cup starting 15 than his Armagh counterpart. Despite taking his side to the Provincial final in his first year in charge the Breffni boss goes into 2020 counting the loss of a few experienced players who have retired or are unavailable. Killian Clarke has ruled out any involvement with the Breffni men in 2020, while Dara McVeety and Conor Moynagh will be unavailable to manager Mickey Graham until the summer at least as they go travelling. On top of that Cian Mackey announced his retirement from inter-county football having played 131 games for the Breffnimen, scoring seven goals and 126 points since making his debut in 2005.

Graham’s new youthful Cavan teams lost both of their McKenna Cup games as Tyrone beat them in Omagh 1-16 to 0-13 with the Red Hands knocking out Armagh before beating Monaghan 0-11 to 1-5 with Tyrone manager Mickey Harte making it a round dozen titles on his watch. Having been relegated from Division One last year a much changed Cavan will be looking to consolidate their Division Two position and are ranked fourth in the betting for both to be promoted and to avoid relegation. According to the bookies a much-depleted Clare are odds-on favourites for relegation followed by Laois, Fermanagh and Westmeath.

Armagh begin their league campaign as joint favourites with Kildare to gain promotion with both teams along with Roscommon all quoted as 14/1 chances to be relegated. In this most important league campaign since the competition began as the two relegated teams (unless you reach your Provincial Final) will not be eligible to play for the Sam Maguire Cup in 2021. 

Selection poser for Armagh Manager

Since his appointment as Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney has endured a lot of injury heartache prior to and during the National League, but with injuries at a minimum and the panel chomping at the bit for starting berths he will face a tough task in naming his starting 15 to take on Cavan on Saturday night. 

Reports suggest that both Jamie Clarke and Andrew Murnin have got a bit of game time under their belts and are ready for action on Saturday. The duo added another dimension to an attack that has produced 5-32 in their last two outings. Conor Turbitt has notched 2-6, Aidan Nugent 0-4, Jason Duffy 0-2 following impressive performances. Oisin O’Neill fully recovered from injury has weighed in with 0-5 from midfield with brother Rian helping himself to 1-9. Rory Grugan came off the bench against Tyrone to add 1-3 to the scoreboard with Stefan Campbell notching 1-2 in his two outings.

How times have changed from old as Armagh who were always very solid defensively have been too porous at the back which has seen them drop vital league points at the death and also squander championship progress. A mixture of badly timed injuries has been a huge deterrent to Armagh being able to give a settled sextet of defenders a prolonged run of games. 

While acknowledging that run of bad luck there should still be a solid defensive shape in place but time after time teams constantly expose the center of the Armagh rearguard leading to match winning scores. Armagh are getting plenty of man back in defense to cover the space but forwards lack that defensive instinct and are more easily attracted to the ball than marking men. 

Back in the day down home decades ago I still remember the words of our coach-the ball will never score a goal. If a forward is tracking back to defend his role must be very specific, if it is the role of a space filler then fill the space and don’t leave it.

The successful teams have runners all over the field, many of them making runs, knowing that they are never going to get the ball (Tyrone in the Athletic Grounds in their last two matches were a perfect example as they exposed both Armagh and Monaghan defensively) by creating the distraction to move any ill -disciplined space filler. 

Armagh have plenty of top-class defenders at their disposal who fill the corner or half back roles but have struggled over the past number of years from the lack of having a dominant number 3 or 6. Numerous players have been tried but no one has been able to stamp their authority on either of those two pivotal positions. From a management point, through no fault of theirs, it will continue to be a trial and error process until someone with the qualities to dominate these positions is unearthed. Back in 2002 at either end of the field Armagh found a 3 and a 14 and look what that led to.

Winning start the Verdict

Armagh began their return to Division Two last year with a 1-11 to 0-14 draw away to Kildare in a match that should have been won. This time around I believe that Armagh are ahead of Cavan in terms of development and squad players which will make the difference at the final whistle. The Orchard boys have the psychological boost of that McKenna Cup win and can put a lot more experience and quality into their team than that which is available to their visitors. The starting Armagh 15 will be eagerly awaited but there are at least another 6 league games in which to get the blend right between youth and experience. Hopefully there will be no major injury crisis to contend with because Armagh have a very exciting, talented and fully committed squad of players hungry for success. All the ingredients are there to get Armagh back into the mix both as league and championship title contenders.

As everyone knows it is home league form which will determine if a team is going to be promotion or relegation contenders and come Saturday night Armagh will be the team that has the Tosach Maith leath na hoibre.