Tough start for Armagh in Dr McKenna Cup.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Tough start for Armagh in Dr McKenna Cup. thumbnail Kieran McGeeney will have a new-look Armagh side this year.

Armagh's 2018 season starts literally in days with the opening rounds of the Dr McKenna Cup, Section C group. Inside the first week of the New Year, Armagh will have a difficult opening few days as they take on Down, in Pairc Esler, Newry on Wednesday, January 3 (8pm) followed by home tie with Derry in the Athletic Grounds on Sunday, January 7 (2pm) in those Dr McKenna Cup opening rounds.


DOWN v ARMAGH: Both team managers, Kieran McGeeney and Eamonn Burns have brought in new and experienced coaches. Jim McCorry will team up with Armagh while Gearoid Adams moves from his native Antrim to the Mourne County. Both men are expected to bring new ideas to their new squads in the hope of developing attacking, productive football.

Both Down and Armagh have suffered set-backs pre-season with some high profile players, opting either not to join the squad or take retirement. In Armagh's case, the loss of Jamie Clarke, James Morgan, Stefan Campbell, Kieran McKeever and Ciaron O'Hanlon will be seen as a huge set-back to the progress the Orchard displayed in their Qualifier rounds to the All-Ireland quarter final last season.

Down, for their part, have equally been dealt a devastating blow with long term servants Mark Poland and Aidan Carr announcing their retirement and excellent goalkeeper, Michael Cunningham has departed to America.

Both teams also begin the season with worries over injury doubts with Stephen Sheridan, Rory Grugan and long time injured Kevin Dyas the most doubtful at the moment for Armagh.

For Down, Eamon Burns is sweating over whether half-forward Conail McGovern and the Johnston brothers (prolific forwards who spearhead Down's attack), Ryan (metatarsal injury) and Jerome (travelling) will be back for the National League.

Both teams, I'm sure, will have brought some new blood in to try out in an attempt to fill the 'gaps' left by those missing. Armagh, have yet to make known any new recruits but Ryan Kennedy and Jack Grugan (both Ballymacnab) may be given a chance in the McKenna Cup to stake a claim for the League and Championship campaign later in the year.

Bryansford's 'keeper Marc Reid looks like being the 'new' Down goalkeeper but he will be pushed hard by 'new' recruit 'keepers Shane Harrison (Glassdrumman's Connaire's brother) and Johnny Parr (Rostrevor). Also brought in are Kilcoo brothers Niall and Stevie Kane, Darren McElhinney and Piaras Kane (both Rostrevor).

Down's performances in last season's League and Championship were very akin to Armagh's experiences.

Down's League campaign was unproductive as they lost four games, drew one and won two and it was a last minute draw against Cork in their final game which ensured their survival in Division Two at the expense of Ulster counties, Derry and Fermanagh.

In the Championship, they had a very good run in Ulster, beating Armagh and Monaghan on the way to an Ulster final defeat by Tyrone. Unfortunately, their All-Ireland qualifier journey was short, losing out to Monaghan in their first game.

On Wednesday 4th, given that veterans, Kevin McKernan, Greg McGovern, Darragh O'Hanlon, Caolan Mooney and impressive newcomers from last season, eg, Connaire Harrison, Shay Millar, Niall Donnelly (midfield), Niall McParland and Sean Dornan are still on board and training.

I'd expect Down (with home advantage) to be favourites for the Section C opener. Gearoid Adams in an interview recently said that manager Eamon Burns will be having a good look at the fresh talent which means both managers will probably not be naming an 'established' team for the Dr McKenna Cup as a 'settled' team will be vital for the National League.

In Armagh's case, I hope that Paddy Morrison, Charlie Vernon, Paul Hughes, Brendan Donaghy, Rory Grugan and Stephen Sheridan (if both fit), Ethan Rafferty, Mark Shields, Niall Grimley, Gavin McParland, Kevin Dyas, Aidan Forker all start as Armagh need a 'settled' side going forward if they are to gain the National League 'promotion' they let slip last season.


ARMAGH v DERRY: Derry have the luxury of most of last season's squad opting to come back with the possible extra bonus of enticing a number of players who opted out of last season's squad coming back, eg Niall Holly, Liam and Sean Leo McGoldrick, Dermot McBride, and Kevin Johnston.

Their concern might be how new manager Damian McErlain and his Killian Conlon settle into the 'cut and thrust' of Senior County football for the first time. Most of their previous involvement has been with County Minors or club teams but their success in taking Derry Minors to three Ulster Minor titles, winning two, plus reaching an All-Ireland Minor final this past season means their promotion to senior ranks was a firm vote of confidence from the County Board. Their first task, thus, might be to get used to the more mature ways of the senior players whilst getting to know them.

Indeed, coach Killian Conlan has made no secret of the fact that many of the talented teenagers they have worked with since 2015 will be handed their chance to step up and shine with Danny Tallon being a prime example to date.

Derry will be hampered early in the season by the fact that Slaughtneil players Chrissie and Karl McKaigue and Brendan Rogers (half of Derry's defensive unit) and prolific forward, Shane McGuigan will be absent until late March or mid February at the earliest. They'll be needed as Damien McErlain's teams are noted for getting the ball forward quickly which will be in stark contrast to the defensive minded set-up under Damien Barton.

Other seasoned players, apart from the Slaughtneil and other returners will offer a solid base for a good run in the Dr McKenna Cup, eg, Mark Lynch, maybe used as an impact sub, James Kielt and Enda Lynn are forwards always hard to handle. Youngster and corner back, Niall Keenan may cause a bigger stir this year with his debut season marked by solid defending and penetrative runs deep into opponent's half. Also there will be their outstanding goalkeeper, Ben McKinless while up front Niall Loughlin is a potent free-taker.

Compared to Armagh, Derry's performances in last season's League and Championship and appear more 'worse' than Armagh. In the League they won just two games and one draw out of seven. Survival was imminently possibly in their last two game but they made a mess of both. Leading Cork, in their penultimate game, by six points in the second half they were beaten by four, 2-10 to 0-20. Come the last game, a win away to Fermanagh would have secured Division Two survival. They 'let' the Ernemen equalize in the dying moments of the game, allowing Down to stay up on score difference (after their late draw with Cork) and this resulted in both Derry and Fermanagh being relegated.

It is only during both these games that we can spot 'new' faces in the Armagh squad. I'd imagine that all three counties will worry more about assembling a squad and attempting to broker a 'settled' team than actually winning the McKenna Cup.

Tyrone will still probably be the only Ulster team that will declare they are going for another Dr McKenna Cup title.

Predicting a winner for either game would be an idle guess so all I can hope for is that Armagh enter both games with the 'notion' of 'we're here to win' and all I can do is sincerely wish for an Armagh victory in both games.


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