A ‘tricky’ league opener awaits

Thursday, 2 February 2017

A ‘tricky’ league opener awaits thumbnailArmagh's Oisin MacIomhair is one of a number of options they have in the forward line as they start their National League campaign this weekend.

NEXT Sunday, February 5, Armagh make their longest journey, for this season, way out west where they will engage Sligo (Markievcz Park, throw-in 2pm) in their opening game of the 2017 Allianz National League, Division Three.

Armagh will be aiming for a 'bounce back' promotion to Division Two but this opening game will be more tricky than easy.

Sligo are not regarded as a top flight team but they are never a push-over and certainly in the past have given Armagh lots of bother, eg, the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2002 in which a late Sligo volley hit the 'side net' rather than the 'net' and had a goal gone in then, Armagh's first All-Ireland title would have been 'killed off' that year.

Sligo were very competitive last season even if they were not successful.

Their final position of fifth place left them in limbo but they did finish above Tipperary (who reached the All-Ireland semi-final later), Westmeath (who were relegated yet reached the Leinster Championship final later on) and Limerick (also relegated).

They had only one relatively 'heavy' beating against Clare but the other six games were close, tight games as they ended their campaign with three wins, one draw and three defeats.

They were able to post high scores in most of their league games but, unfortunately, they leaked relatively high scores in return.

The results of their seven league games were as follows:

- Clare 1-11 v Sligo 0-7
- Sligo 1-11 v Limerick 1-10
- Offaly 1-13 v Sligo 0-14
- Sligo 2-9 v Longford 1-16
- Kildare 2-14 v Sligo 2-15
- Sligo 3-10 v Limerick 1-12
- Sligo 0-18 v Tipperary -3-9


Their championship run was uninspiring and short even though they did post high scores but as in the league they were still leaking heavily.

Their championship results were:

- Connacht Championship semi-final: Roscommon 4-16 v Sligo 2-13
- Round 2A Qualifier: Sligo 2-15 v Leitrim 0-10
- Round 3A Qualifier: Sligo 1-13 v Clare 2-17

This season manager Niall Carew, who worked with Kieran McGeeney in Kildare, is quietly confident about the strength of his 2017 squad.

Stephen Coen has been the outstanding newcomer of those 'new' to the panel who impressed, even though he was in the squad last season for a time.

First choice players Niall Murphy (their top points scorer last season), Kevin McDonnell and Cian Breheny should be back for the league opener against Armagh.

In the FBD, they lost out to Galway before beating GMIT and Leitrim. Aidan Devaney is an excellent 'keeper pushed hard by his understudy, Fintan Ruddy.

The spine of their defence is strong with full-back, Eoin McHugh and centre-half back, Neil Ewing solid, at times impassable and great readers of the game.

Sligo have two wing back Cian Breheny and Keelan Cawley who are fast, know when to go forward and certainly can score.

Their midfield is a relatively strong and creative sector and in Ross Donovan and Adrian McIntyre their most consistent pairing.

Sligo have a raft of forwards capable of exploiting and hurting any defence that has more weaknesses than strengths and this perhaps is a timely caveat for Armagh to deal with, Niall Murphy is perhaps their 'marquee' forward and highest scorer from frees and open play.

Other forwards to be wary of are Paddy O'Connor, Adrian Marren (who together with Murphy make for a potent full forward line), Brian Egan, Stephen Coen, Mark Breheny (a clever and creative free scoring centre half forward), John Kelly and Kyle Cawley.

Victory over Sligo would be both an encouraging and uplifting start to this year's league campaign. It was Armagh's three opening defeats to Meath, Laois, and Cavan in the league that precipitated Armagh's ultimate disastrous outcome in both league and championship.

They can't afford to let the same situation to occur again this season in their three opening games against Sligo (away), Laois (home) and Longford (away).

Three wins is a must here.

We all know of the demise of Armagh last season in that after a sluggish league they went four games unbeaten only to be relegated on score difference from a clutch of four teams all on six points. Depression followed them into the Championship which brought three defeats to Cavan and Laois (twice).

In the second half of the second Laois game they played some great football and that great football to varying degrees has been displayed in their pre-season O'Fiaich and McKennas.

When Armagh won the All-Ireland in 2002 it was the culmination of a process of many young players becoming excellent seniors. In the early 90s Paul McGrane and Diarmuid Marsden were joined by Oisin McConville.

A few years later the McEntees, John Toal and the McNultys were unearthed.

Then came Paddy McKeever and Stevie McDonnell in the late 90s and a great team was born.

In 2002-04 along came Aaron and Tony Kernan, Ronan Clarke followed by Ciaran McKeever, Andy Mallon, Paul Duffy and later Kevin Dyas.

The young talent then seemed to dry up for a while until Stefan Campbell and Jamie Clarke and now Oisin O'Neill came along.

In 2002, Armagh had six forwards who could score and it's beginning to look as if Kieran McGeeney's team could be developing along similar lines.

I'm heartened that for the Sligo game the following forwards could be available - Ben Crealey, Conor White, Aidan Forker, Rory Grugan, Stefan Campbell, Ethan Rafferty, Anto Duffy, Jamie Clarke and Oisin Maciomhair.

Armagh's areas of concern are in defence and midfield and the defence in particular has suffered most from injuries, etc.

For the Sligo game, it's likely with early returnees that Armagh's rearguard could be Paddy Morrison or Matthew McNeice, John Magill, Charlie Vernon, Paul Hughes, Mark Shields, James Morgan, and Ciaran Higgins with Joe McElroy and possibly Brendan Donaghy also in contention.

Armagh's midfield has never replaced the pairing of Paul McGrane and John Toal but currently Ben Crealey, Stephen Sheridan, Niall Grimley and Aaron Findon are showing promise.

By March the squad could be further boosted by the expected return of Ciaran McKeever, Andy Mallon and Kevin Dyas.

Whatever Armagh team graces the field in Sligo, I feel they will journey home with an opening win under their belt. After that Armagh's league programme consists of four home games and two away games.

Good luck, Armagh.


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