John McEntee: Steady progress is what Armagh are looking for

Can Armagh make the transition from winter team to summer team? Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

REGARDLESS of where you travel in Ireland, you are sure to have a conversation about football.

We took the kids off for a short Easter break to escape the dour weather at home.

When it rains at home, kids are inclined to sit indoors and gorge on iPads or get on each other's nerves yet they are the first to run out into a downpour and find entertainment in the most simple of things when on holidays.

As we approached the quaint town of Westport, with Croagh Patrick as its backdrop, the clouds gave way to wall-to-wall sunshine – well for 36 hours at least –but it was enough for us to take in some of the beauty that this island has to offer, which we as its inhabitants are often blind to.

Anyway, the following morning after breakfast we headed for a splash in the pool.

While sitting in the kids' pool I got chatting to a man who hails from Leitrim, lives in Kildare and is now a member of a small club in Dublin which has around 500 members, as opposed to the 2,500 that the likes of Na Fianna boast.

So much for one life, one club.

As far as poolside conversations go, I enjoyed it.

We spoke at length about all things GAA, except for one topic – my beloved Armagh.

I was guarded on this subject. Perhaps it was because of loyalty as a past player, or maybe it was out of fear of offending people I know.

I could tell that he sensed my hesitation so he moved the conversation onto more neutral ground.

Consequently, I feel obliged to analyse the current Armagh team's chances of success over the upcoming Championship season.

It is widely felt that Armagh's value is on the rise. That is stating the obvious as two years ago a relegation to Division Three was followed by abysmal Championships losses to Cavan and Laois.

Last year saw a rollercoaster campaign in which flashes of brilliance were intertwined with periods of kamikaze football, resulting in a failure to achieve promotion before an extended run in the Championship.

Their inconsistency cost them dearly against Down in their Ulster Championship opener and raised its ugly head again in the defeat to neighbours Tyrone which ended their season. This year we have witnessed a more controlled, maturing Armagh team.

Led by Rory Grugan (right), who is a calming influence, they have shed their thin veil of arrogance and entitlement.

The appointment of Grugan as captain halfway through last season was a bold move by Kieran McGeeney but one which has paid dividends.

Now he has a skipper who displays leadership qualities and a former captain in Aidan Forker who is able to express himself as a footballer within the group rather than leading from the front, which is not his forte.

Meanwhile, the departures of star players have opened the door for others to shine.

If truth be told, Jamie Clarke's participation was more of a distraction than a help.

Yes, he is undoubtedly highly skilled and is the type of player who would slot into a Dublin or Kerry set-up but either he couldn't adapt to the Armagh way of playing or the system of play would not adapt to take account of his genius.

Either way, they are a better team without him.

Stefan Campbell's decision to concentrate on soccer was another big blow at the start of the year.

He is also highly skilful, much like his older brother John, who I had the pleasure of playing with for a couple years, but 2017 was a damp squib for ‘Soupie'.

He gained so much bulk that he lost his yard of pace and the trademark sharp turn which made him so elusive.

Other fringe players such as Ciaran O'Hanlon and Oisin O'Neill chose to leave the panel for personal reasons, which the manager and the supporters ought to be understanding of, but they will return to the county set-up in future years ready to make a positive impact.

McGeeney has also unearthed a couple of versatile players in Patrick Burns and Gregory McCabe who can both defend and attack, play with flair and get down and dirty when needed.

Fresh blood is essential when trying to revive a team. It brings renewed vigour and an increased workrate.

A solid, winning mentality can be built into young minds much easier than trying to paper over the scars of seasoned players, who have been psychologically damaged by brutal beatings over the past six or seven years.

So when assessing Armagh, one must conclude that they are in a decent place, positioned below the top four in Ulster but with the capability to strike a cruel blow to any one of them on any given day.

A first round win against Fermanagh and a decent run through the back door built on good team performances is the yardstick by which they will be measured this year.

Medals are not the measure of their success. The unknown element is whether they can transition from a winter team into a summer team.

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