Neighbours Down and Armagh meet again in Dr McKenna Cup opener
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup Section B: Down v Armagh (Wednesday, Pairc Esler, 8pm)
SIX months is a long time in inter-county football. Rewind back to June 2017 and Armagh travelled to Newry for an Ulster Championship derby that they were expected to win.
Six months previously the Orchardmen had beaten their neighbours comfortably in the McKenna Cup but in June Down produced a composed and determined performance that many of their own fans had feared was beyond them and deservedly progressed to a semi-final meeting with Monaghan, producing another upset to reach the Ulster decider.
Despite losing to Down, Armagh recovered and eventually went a step further than their neighbours in the Championship by beating Fermanagh, Westmeath, Tipperary and Kildare in the Qualifiers to reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
That proved to be a step too far for the Orchardmen who were taken apart by Tyrone on a day when nothing went to plan. But as the dust settled, the management and players would have reflected on the progress that had been made and the platform that had been laid for 2018.
But six months on from June, the wind has been taken out of Armagh’s sails after a string of high-profile withdrawals from the panel.
Some may return before the season is finished, but Armagh start the year without the retired Ciaran McKeever and a long list of ‘unavailables’ that includes Jamie Clarke, James Morgan, Oisin O’Neill, Stefan Campbell, Shea Heffron and Ciaron O’Hanlon.
The absence of those players has removed depth from the squad and manager Kieran McGeeney – who now has former Down bainisteoir Jim McCorry on his backroom team - scoured the county for new talent before announcing his panel for this competition. He will hope that new faces Ryan Kennedy and Jack Grugan (Ballymacnab), Darren McKenna (Dromintee), Patrick Burns (Forkhill) and Ryan Owens (Clann Eireann) can take their chance to shine before the League begins on January 28 with the visit of Sligo.
Of course, giving youngsters the chance to stake a claim for a jersey is what the McKenna Cup is for and McGeeney still has experienced campaigners like Charlie Vernon, Aidan Forker, Aaron Findon, Rory Grugan, Paddy Morrison and Mark Shields to show the young lads the way.
Meanwhile, Ethan Rafferty, Ireland International Rules star Niall Grimley, Stephen Sheridan, Crossmaglen clubman Paul Hughes and Andy Murnin will all be determined to build on the progress they made last season.
Across the border in Down, manager Eamonn Burns has also brought in a former county manager in Antrim native Gearoid Adams. Down have yet to confirm their squad but they will be without retired duo Mark Poland and Aidan Carr while goalkeeper Michael Cunningham is now living in New York.
With Bryansford’s Marc Reid likely to take over from Cunningham in goal, Burns has brought in some new faces including Aaron Morgan from county champions Kilcoo and Shay Murnin (Clonduff). Longstone’s Conor Poland (younger brother of Mark) was in last year’s Championship squad and will hope to stake a claim for a starting spot while versatile Glassdrumman netminder Shane Harrison (brother of star forward Connaire) will also feature.
Saval clubman Niall Madine has also returned to the fold but he will play for Ulster University along with fellow Mourne natives Lorcan Harney and Pierce Laverty.
Tonight’s game is a dress rehearsal for the League campaigns which follow and Armagh will target promotion from Division Three while Down will aim for stability in Division Two.
If you had to pick a favourite for tonight’s season opener, Down would get the nod but let’s not get carried away. Armagh were convincing winners when the sides met in this competition last year and what did that prove? Nothing, because Down took revenge in the Championship when it mattered.
Still a competitive tussle is guaranteed when these neighbours meet and a healthy crowd will enjoy the entertainment at Pairc Esler tonight.