Armagh get their 2023 Ulster Championship campaign underway on Saturday as they welcome Antrim to the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds.
Following their relegation to Division Two with a final day defeat to old rivals Tyrone, Armagh will hope to bounce back.
They’ll have to do so with Rian O’Neill and Andrew Murnin. The pair have been left out of the squad for the game.
Bit one mans loss is another mans gain and Kieran McGeeney will hope others will step up in their absence.
Shane McPartlan earns his first start since making his debut against Antrim in the opening round of the McKenna Cup.
James Morgan and Ben Crealey, who missed the entire league campaign through injury, have also returned.
They’ll add some strength and experience to the team as they take on an Antrim side that are perhaps under the radar slightly.
Andy McEntee’s men finished third from bottom in Division Three, but their campaign was much more positive than their position suggests.
While their it was nothing to write home about, Antrim did enough to ensure that Armagh can’t let their guard down.
Most notably, their win over Division Three champions Cavan, who await the winners of Saturday’s showdown, that ended the Breffni sides unbeaten run of five on the bounce.
Antrim should also have beaten Down and Fermanagh. But the concession of late goals didn’t help their cause.
Conceding goals has been an issue for the Antrim defence this year. In seven games, their goal has been penetrated 15 times, with only Tipperary failing net.
In the Armagh camp, it’s been quite the opposite. They conceded three goals, but it’s been at the other end of the field which has sparked much debate.
There’s no such thing as a bad goal, but Armagh’s two three-pointers haven’t exactly come from free-flowing football.
Goals made all the difference when Armagh and Antrim met in the 2021 championship, at the same venue.
Rory Grugan, Rian O’Neill, Tiernan Kelly and Conor Turbitt all hitting the net for Kieran McGeeney’s side.
But the attacking unit hasn’t been firing properly this year. Armagh seem to have reverted to a counter-attacking approach that has taken some of the flare out of their forward line.
The wrestle for possession around the centre of the field will be crucial for both sides. Armagh are still trying to mould a midfield partnership together, while Antrim will feel they have the physical edge in that section.
It’s not just in the middle where Antrim are physically imposing. Up front, Ruairi McCann is a target man who has a keen eye for goal when provided with enough ammunition.
Odhran Eastwood and Pat Shivers are other attacking threats, with Ryan Murray and Dominic McEnhill making up the support cast.
But Armagh defensive screen has been a success. It’s a rear-guard that has kept David Clifford and Shane Walsh scoreless from play, with Barry McCambridge stepping up as their number one man-marker.
It’ll be no walk in the park for the hosts, but Armagh should have enough to see this out, even without the influence of O’Neill and Murnin.
The exposure to Division One football will stand to them, and if they can get their forward line ticking, they’ll proceed to the last eight with a bit to spare.