The 25th of January has been a date circled in most GAA fans calendars throughout Armagh for the past few weeks, as it marks the beginning of the National Football League. While the McKenna Cup was a welcomed return to county action, it’s the league that will show us where this Armagh side are.
While they won’t be up against the best teams in the country, Division Two certainly provides plenty of competitive games, with all the teams contesting at a similar level. Promotion will be at the forefront of Armagh mind, but as they learned last year, they will have to fight for every point they earn.
The league was four games old last season before Kieran McGeeney’s men picked up their first win, with a 1-15 to 0-12 victory against Tipperary, while they dropped points against Kildare and Clare (drawing both) as well as conceding a 6 point defeat away to Meath in their opening three games.
Armagh retained their Division Two status with a memorable win over Fermanagh in round six, squashed between further defeats to Donegal and Cork. Armagh sat 5th in the table at the conclusion of the league, just one point ahead of relegated Cork, but there’s no doubt that they could have pushed on and finished further up the table.
After their latest defeat to Tyrone in the McKenna Cup, assistant manager Jim McCorry spoke of his sides need to see games out, “One of the big things we want to improve on from last year is that when we have teams beaten in games that we don’t give away leads and we don’t give the ball away easily”.
“You want to try and rectify a lot of those things. Like every year, our target is to go through and top Division Two and move up to Division One, where you want to be, playing with the big guys and learning from that experience and trying to improve the squad of players”.
The McKenna Cup campaign may not have lasted as long as the Orchard followers would have hoped, but it did provide some promise for the future. Rian O’Neill continues to progress and demonstrate his potential while Conor Turbitt caught the eye with 2-6 across his first two games in an orange jersey.
Conor O’Neill started against both Cavan and Tyrone, as did corner forward Jason Duffy, while Caolan McConville, Niall Brady, Callum Cumiskey, Mark Toal and Cathair McGeary all saw some action throughout the McKenna Cup, but the squad will be considerably stronger come the start of the league.
At the back, Crossmaglen duo, James Morgan and Paul Hughes, who didn’t see much game time in the pre-season competition, should be back into the starting line up for the league. Ryan Kennedy will also add some strength to the defence, as will Brendan Donaghy, who remains an essential part of Kieran McGeeney’s back six while Paddy Burns is still recovering from injury.
The management are provided with a serious headache when trying to fill the number 8 and 9 jerseys, as there are plenty of options around the middle. Niall Grimley has been a constant starter in midfield for Armagh over the past few years while Jarlath Og Burns really burst on to the scene in 2019 and big things will be expected of the Silverbridge youngster.
Stephen Sheridan’s trial at full back against Tyrone wasn’t a success so he will also attempt to break into one of the midfield spots, while Oisin O’Neill’s club form displayed what talent he has to offer and McGeeney will find a position for him in the starting team, either around the middle or further up the field.
In attack, Rory Grugan showed his quality with his cameo against Tyrone, hitting 1-3 (1-2 from play), his goal a thing of beauty. Jamie Clarke, Ethan Rafferty and Andrew Murnin will add to an improving attack and fight for their place against the two O’Neill’s, Stefan Campbell, Jemar Hall, Aidan Nugent, Jason Duffy and Conor Turbitt.
Away days to Laois, Westmeath, Fermanagh and Clare could pose the biggest problems for the Orchard County, so they’ll want to get off to a good start this weekend against Cavan while also securing home victories against Kildare and Roscommon.
Although Division Two is hugely competitive, there’s no doubt that Armagh are well fit to fight for a promotion place. If, as McCorry suggested, that have learned from 2019 then there’s no reason why Armagh can’t finish in one of the top two positions in the league and contest a Division Two league final this season.