County Focus: Armagh and Kieran McGeeney have plenty to prove after difficult year
YOU'D have to do some amount of sifting to uncover the positives in Armagh’s season. But we’ll try here.
In fairness, there were a few bright periods in 2016. Their never-say-die attitude in scrambling a draw against Tyrone in their battle to remain in Division Two was encouraging.
The style with which they dismissed Derry in the last day of their League campaign was hugely impressive and the freedom of expression they showed in the second half of the second Championship game against Laois might be instructive as to how they approach 2017.
Still, even Armagh’s best moments were tinged with disappointment. Grabbing a late goal to tie the game with Tyrone and their sparkling performance against Derry were all in vain. They still got relegated.
Likewise, when they threw the shackles off against Laois to produce their best football they still exited the Championship. Ultimately what cost Armagh their Division Two status was the poor start to their campaign.
They didn’t perform well against Meath and Laois and even though they edged out Fermanagh they struggled to find any rhythm in their game. It was only when the wheels came off against Cavan in March that Armagh actually improved.
The general consensus was that Armagh needed to bank a few early League points as they faced some of the bigger hitters in the latter stages of the campaign. And yet, they produced better performances against Galway, Tyrone and Derry – taking four points out of a possible six.
The manner of their win over Derry at the Athletic Grounds meant that Armagh could shelve the disappointment of relegation quite quickly and go into their Ulster Championship opener with a fair degree of optimism.
Although the scoreline at certain stages of the game at Kingspan Breffni Park would argue the point, Armagh were a distant second against a better drilled Cavan side that entered the Championship stage with a spring in their step having gained promotion.
Armagh’s transition from defence to attack was far too laboured to really trouble a Cavan side that were much further down the track than their visitors.
Kieran McGeeney’s men managed to stay in touch thanks largely to the leadership and skill of Stefan Campbell, even though he had a second half penalty saved by the excellent Raymond Galligan.
The Armagh boss may have lamented his side’s poor conversion rate but they didn’t really attack well enough or carve Cavan open at any stage.
Drawing Laois was as favourable a draw as Armagh could have hoped for in the Qualifiers, but absenteeism, goalkeeping issues, an unconvincing attacking strategy and a general lack of confidence guarded against the prospect of the Ulstermen embarking on a run through the back door.
Even though they were given a second chance after Laois fielded an extra substitute in the first game, nobody in Armagh was jumping for joy about returning to O’Moore Park.
To be fair to the Armagh management, they were without close to a dozen first-choice players for the second Laois clash. Laois raced into an early lead and it was only in the second half and with nothing to lose Armagh cut loose.
Rory Grugan excelled in the second half when posted inside and Campbell edged Armagh to within a point of their hosts. But Laois held on to win by a point. It was a bitterly disappointing season for Armagh.
Injuries killed any hope of them getting on a Championship run. Armagh can’t afford to be without their best players to make headway. They will start 2017 as a Division Three side. And that’s just about where they are right now as McGeeney continues to dig the foundations.
WHAT THEY NEED
SOME scoring forwards to take the load off Stefan Campbell.
Armagh were one-dimensional and predictable at times this year, with Clan na Gael man Campbell all too often feeding off scraps.
The absence of a host of potentially key men was a huge contributory factor. Kieran McGeeney bemoaned the Orchard county’s poor conversion rate throughout the season, pointing to the ability of the likes of Dublin and Kerry to get away from teams with short, deadly spells in front of the posts.
The return of some scoring power would be a welcome boost. It is well-documented that Jamie Clarke’s availability to both Crossmaglen and Armagh is up in the air, though the chances of him returning to county colours next season appear slim.
The 27-year-old looks to be settled in the Big Apple for the time being, and just last week confirmed that he will turn out for New York Shamrocks in the Cosmopolitan Soccer League. The quick, strong Caolan Rafferty has impressed any time he has featured in the Armagh jersey, but work commitments in Hong Kong kept the Granemore clubman out of action this year.
Rafferty, who starred in Armagh’s 2015 promotion charge from Division Three, has been contracted out to the Hong Kong branch of Bank of America Merill Lynch by his Newry-based employer First Derivatives.
‘Geezer’ will be hoping there is some good news to come on Kevin Dyas and Andrew Murnin. Dyas is one of the most talented forwards in the county and his industry and eye for a killer pass have been missed.
He has been in rehab since having knee surgery and while the National League may come too soon, the 2017 Championship could be a possibility. Full-forward Murnin has looked destined for a big future at inter-county level but been beset by a series of hamstring injuries that have curtailed his involvement, with McGeeney feeling he needed to be given space and time to recover properly.
While ‘Geezer’ has come in for criticism after some laboured performances, the second half of the Qualifier re-fixture against Laois saw Armagh throw off the shackles and play with freedom.
Having registered just one point, they trailed the O’Moore county by seven at the break. After a frank discussion and a few tactical alterations, including posting Rory Grugan on the edge of the square, Armagh scored 1-9 in the second half before losing out by a point in the end.
Perhaps that performance will have given the Orchard boss food for thought as he prepares for a vital year.
ANOTHER year like this and Kieran McGeeney could be under serious pressure. ‘Geezer’ was handed a five-year term upon his appointment in 2014 but, despite mitigating circumstances such as injury and absentees, McGeeney’s first two years in charge have been underwhelming.
There were rumblings of discontent within the county after relegation from Division Two, and that was compounded by their Ulster Championship defeat to Cavan and eventual Qualifier exit to Laois.
IN a disappointing year for Armagh, Stefan Campbell shone – proving once again that he is one of the best forwards in Ulster. The Clan na Gael man scored 2-34 (40 points) of the 4-86 (98) the Orchard county racked up during a disappointing National League campaign that ended in relegation back down to Division Three.
From those performances, the 1-5 against Fermanagh and 1-9 in the drawn game with Galway saw ‘Soupy’ demonstrate his class. He carried that form into the Championship, giving Killian Clarke a nightmare afternoon in Armagh’s Ulster opener with Cavan.
Although the Orchardmen came off a convincing second best, Campbell was a nuisance all afternoon, bagging 0-8 (0-3 frees, 0-2 45s) and seeing a penalty saved by Raymond Galligan.
THE Armagh management have been casting their eyes over the county championship to try to unearth a couple of gems ahead of next year, and there is certainly some emerging young talent.
Clann Eireann full-back Shea Heffron and Joe McElroy from Armagh Harps both showed well when handed opportunities at senior level this year, while Cullyhanna midfielder Pearse Casey started the Championship re-fixture with Laois.
In the absence of forwards like Jamie Clarke and Caolan Rafferty, Forkhill’s highly-rated Jemar Hall is quick, lively and good on the ball, if perhaps lacking the physical presence for senior inter-county football at the moment.
Kieran McGeeney could also bolster his attacking options by turning to the likes of Ballymacnab’s Jack Grugan, younger brother of talented fellow forward Rory.
Crossmaglen’s Oisin O’Neill has also been tipped for a senior call-up in the near future. Defensively, full-backs Barry McCambridge (Clann Eireann) and Aidan Rushe (Crossmaglen) could have big futures, while raiding wing half-back Ryan Owens has the look of a young Aaron Kernan and will hope to catch McGeeney’s attention.
In midfield, Aaron McKay has been putting in some impressive performances for Dromintee.
END OF THE LINE
ARMAGH have a fairly youthful squad, but there are question marks over some of the older heads on the panel.
Captain Ciaran McKeever returned from a knee injury to start the Championship opener against Cavan, but suffered a broken foot in training the week before the Qualifier re-fixture with Laois.
He has indicated that he will consider his inter-county future, but is expected to make himself available in 2017.
Andy Mallon had an afternoon to forget against the Breffnimen as Seanie Johnston ran riot in the first half, and it remains to be seen whether the veteran defender will return for another crack next year.
Another whose participation could be in doubt in 2017 is Tony Kernan.
The Crossmaglen forward was in and out of the Armagh team during the League but started against Cavan in the Championship, as well as both dates with Laois. His coolness and creativity would be missed i