by STEVE MALONE
THE managerial merry-go-round is in full swing with four south Armagh clubs bringing in new, yet familiar faces.
Donal Murtagh returns to helm at Crossmaglen Rangers alongside Kieran Donnelly, while Cullyhanna have a new man in charge and in Senior League B Whitecross have appointed Saval man Stephen Kearney as manager. Junior club Lissummon have given Whitecross man Seamus McParland the green light to take charge, where the Junior Championship will be the prime target.
Murtagh is back with Rangers after replacing Gareth O’Neill and having first took charge in 2006, 2007 and 2008, which included three county titles, three Ulsters and an All-Ireland.
He, alongside Paddy O’Rourke, won a Division Two National League title when managing Armagh, and while the Orchard County have ambitions to returning to such glory within the next two to three years, Murtagh’s main aim is to return the County Senior Championship title to Crossmaglen Rangers.
Key to that objective will be bringing the current U21 Championship winning team through to the senior ranks where established stars such as Aaron Kernan, Paul McKeown and Paul Hughes will bring a wealth of experience and quality.
“We have quality and our underage over the past six years at U16, Minor and U21 has been as good as it has ever been, so certainly we have the players coming through and with Kieran Donnelly and Miceal Moley and Francis Fitzpatrick our job is to take them boys up and get them ready for Senior football,” said Murtagh.
Indeed, Rangers had won four Minor titles in a row, up and lost the final earlier this year. Three seasons ago they won the Paul McGirr Tournament (Ulster U16 Championship) and there was an expectancy that with such an influx of talent Rangers would again rule Armagh and return to challenge for Ulster and All-Ireland glory, but Maghery and Armagh Harps took the County titles over the past two seasons.
“There are other factors as well, as some are coming through university and go through stages of qualifying for certain jobs, they may have wives, girlfriends, work and other commitments, so it is not just a matter of turning them into Senior players straight away,” Murtagh said.
“But Cross have always been good at bringing players through. Of course when you are being successful it is probably easier to get players to hold or allow us to bring them into a successful team, while when the club is struggling it is easier for a player to hang up his boots.
“Our record of bringing players through has been exceptional and hopefully that continues.”
Oisin O’Neill and his younger brother Rian are special talents that continue to improve, while Stephen Morris, Caolan Dillion and Shane Farrelly are becoming more established players.
While Rangers will be without Jamie Clarke and James Morgan for some of the season, for the first time in two decades they must plan to go into a campaign without keeper Paul Hearty. Jamie McEvoy has big gloves to fill but he has been exceptional throughout his underage career and is best positioned to make the senior number one jersey his own.
Last season Crossmaglen first and seconds teams trained together where possible and Murtagh hopes that can continue.
“Myself and Kieran Donnelly are joint managers and Miceal Moley and Francis Fitzpatrick have a big part to play, so we are all part of a management team,” Murtagh said.
“Miceal and Francis are shrewd judges of football and Francis has been with most of the young players from U14 the whole way up. He and Kieran have done a massive job.
“We will sit down with the Junior management soon and Colm [Dooley] is keen to stay on and we will be hoping he can bring someone in to give him a hand because there is too much work involved for one man nowadays. And we will be hoping to have the two teams working and playing together as much as possible and try and sort out two strong panels for the start of the League.”
Rangers won the Armagh Senior League this year, and Murtagh wants his side to do likewise in 2018, but with no talk of Ulster or All-Ireland, the Cross boss admits the County title is the main prize for Rangers next season.
“We will go out to win every match, that is the way we always coach matches in Cross,” Murtagh said.
“People say that we don’t care about the League but I can tell you that if there is a ball to be won in an average Sunday League game, sometime in April, we like our players to show conviction and win it. That is a good sign of the individual and tells me a bit about his make-up.
“We used to chop and change teams but we still want to win every game and that includes in the League.
“Obviously an Armagh Championship title is our number one objective and we can’t look any further until we win an Armagh title. For two years we haven’t won it and while the League is great surely, we still need to be winning Championship matches and ultimately win an Armagh Championship back.
“Our main goal is to win every game but pacifically the Championship, as with the players we have at the club and with the players we are producing we need to be right up there.
“We have maybe gone back a wee bit and other teams like Maghery have made strides in recent years, Armagh Harps are not far behind them and Cullyhanna is right up there as well.
“So there are four good teams in the county at present and there is probably only a kick of the ball between us all and that is probably how it will pan out. But it is all to play for.”
Kearney’s aim as Whitecross manager will be to consolidate their place in Senior B, make headway in the Senior Championship and importantly bring youth through to an ageing, yet physically fit and talented squad. Kearney replaces Noel Moran and John Shields, who in their two seasons in charge won the Intermediate Club title. Seamus McParland was part of that management set-up too and will certainly aim to have Lissummon in good shape ahead of their challenge for the Junior Championship next season.