Last year was a hurtful one for the Armagh hurlers. They reached the Division 3A league final but came up short against Roscommon while Connaught opposition also ruined their hopes of finally claiming the Nicky Rackard Cup, as Sligo defeated the Orchard County on the final day of the season.
Throughout 2019, Simon Doherty stood strong between the sticks and although the team missed out on silverware, last year is one that the Armagh goalkeeper will look back on fondly. He earned himself a ‘Champion 15 All-Star’ award, but the trophy doesn’t replace the regret Doherty and his team mates share.
“It was a great honour for me and for my family to be awarded the All-Star; it’s a very, very proud moment. While it’s nice to get an individual award, the goal of winning the Nicky Rackard is still the team goal. We came up short last year and I think we definitely have all the ingredients this year to give it a good go and we’re looking forward to the challenge”.
“That starts this Sunday in the first National League game, the panel is definitely in a healthy place, there’s a lot of competition for places and a good mixture in terms of some younger guys being brought in this year and a few of the older, more experienced players that have returned as well”.
“There’s a nice blend within the squad and that will aid in our overall target of winning the Nicky Rackard Cup and getting back to Croke Park because we feel as a group that we left it behind us so there’s definitely some unfinished business”.
Doherty was just coming off the training pitch when he agreed to do the ‘League Preview’ interview, although in a much different capacity. He had been coaching the Ulster University hurling side, a role he has enjoyed, for a few years now. This of course throws up its own challenges, but Doherty enjoys finding the correct balance.
“It’s an interesting challenge, I feel that communication pathways are important between myself and the Armagh management team, because there are times throughout the year that there have been clashes and it’s important to get a good balance in terms of my own role in Ulster University and my role within the team”.
“I think as the Ulster University competitions come towards a close then I will certainly be more available for regular training with Armagh. I think that it’s important to gain a wider perspective of different coaching environments and different playing styles”.
“I’m coaching young guys from all over Ulster and I’m learning about those guys but I’m learning about myself in terms of my personal coaching journey too. I’m enjoying the role and I think that’s definitely important and I’m enjoying the challenge of balancing playing and managing a team too”.
Looking back to last season Armagh made their way to the league final, winning three of their five outings but just fell short in the showpiece. Doherty insists that this will once again be the target for Armagh as they look to get back to the league final.
“The overall intention for the league would be definitely to be in a league final, to be back there competing in the Division 3A final with the intention of winning to go up. We’re under no illusion how competitive the league is going to be, there are several teams who are in the Nicky Rackard Cup and Donegal have dropped down from the Christy Ring Cup and from Division 2B last year so they will be very strong.”
Three of their five games this campaign will be played in the familiar surroundings of the Athletic Grounds and the Armagh number one hopes that his side can continue their good form when they are the hosts. “We love playing in the Athletic Grounds, we feel like we’ve made it a fortress over the last number of years”.
“Even when the likes of Kildare and Antrim came to us when we were competing in Division 2A a number of years ago, they were very, very competitive games and regardless of who we’re playing in the Athletic Grounds, it’s never an easy game for the opposition”.
“We definitely raise our game in front of our own supporters and the young people that come to watch the games. I think if we get off to a good start I think it (three home games) will definitely have its advantages”.
“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been in the Athletic Grounds once or twice this year in terms of our on training and we’re starting to get used to the grounds again, especially for some of the younger guys”.
“The likes of Fintan Donnelly from Keady, he is a young guy that came in off the Celtic Challenge team two years ago, he’d be 18 or 19 years of age and he’s really excelled so far. For the likes of the younger guys to be training in the Athletic Grounds, they’ll get more accustomed to the environment they’re going to be playing in”.
This Sunday Armagh will travel to Letterkenny to open their league account against Donegal, who pose a difficult obstacle. Having been relegated from Division 2B last season, Donegal look to bounce straight back and gain promotion while Armagh are also targeting a strong start to 2020.
“One of their coaches, Gabriel O’Kane was involved in our management team a number of years ago and he will know our players inside out, we will know his coaching style as well so it’ll be a very interesting game this weekend”.
“It’s a good challenge to be playing one of the strongest teams in the league at the start because the preparation has been very positive. I personally returned recently, I’ve been out with a shoulder injury over the last number of months and I’m only back to action the last three weeks”.
“The preparation has been on going over the last number of months and the guys have competed very well in the McGurk Cup and prepared very well in challenge games so things are looking good”.