Armagh have to learn lessons of last year and beat Sligo to start promotion push
Allianz National Football League Division Three: Armagh v Sligo (tomorrow, The Athletic Grounds, 2pm)
ARMAGH were the best team in Division Three last year but a combination of bad luck, refereeing decisions that went against them and their inability to close out games cost them a place in Division Two.
In the last minute of the last round of games, Tipperary's Michael Quinlivan broke through for a dramatic match-winning goal and so Tipp and Louth went up and the Orchardmen faced another year in the third tier.
As gut-wrenching as that defeat was, the point Armagh left behind them in Sligo ultimately proved to be every bit as costly. With the end in sight at Markievicz Park, the Orchardmen led 2-10 to 0-10 and looked certain to take two points from their League opener.
However, Armagh's lack of streetwise savvy began to show as the Yeatsmen reeled them in. With the game in injury-time, referee Patrick Neilan somehow spotted a foul on Stephen Coen in a packed area and he awarded the home side a penalty. Armagh were outraged as Adrian Marren stepped up to take it and he kept his nerve to find the net and earn the home side a draw they scarcely deserved.
Twelve months on the sides meet again, this time at The Athletic Grounds, and Armagh will have to finish the job and make sure of the win if they are to clinch promotion this season.
Both sides are much-changed from last year. Armagh begin are without six players who featured in the 2017 opener including key forwards Jamie Clarke, Stefan Campbell and Oisin O'Neill. Meanwhile, defenders James Morgan, Shea Heffron and Ciaron O'Hanlon are also unavailable.
Off the field, manager Kieran McGeeney now has Jim McCorry in his backroom team and the former Down and Kilcoo manager brings a wealth of experience to a set-up that also includes All-Ireland winners John Toal, Paddy McKeever and Paul McGrane.
Meanwhile, Sligo are also without tried and tested personnel, but so are their opponents. Manager Niall Carew stepped down at the end of last season and he has been replaced by Tyrone native Cathal Corey.
The Kildress clubman has been a successful and highly-rated operator at club level but makes his inter-county League debut tomorrow and has former Derry and Ulster player and mentor Tony Scullion alongside him in the dugout.
For the first time since the turn of this century Sligo's plans don't include Mark Breheny. Breheny called time on his 17-year career earlier this month and Corey is also without Charlie Harrison, Ross Donovan, Brendan Egan, Adrian McIntyre, Johnny Kelly and David Kelly and Corey is expected to blood several rookies at The Athletic Grounds
Team captain Marren, the man who denied Armagh last year, has been in fine form in Connacht's FBD during which Sligo beat Leitrim and lost to 2017 Connacht champions Roscommon, 2016 Connacht champions Galway and, last Sunday, 2017's losing All-Ireland finalists Mayo who included 11 of the team that featured against Dublin last September.
“It has been good for me to get to know the players,” said Corey.
“We started up in December and we have done a good bit of work over the last eight weeks. We played some challenge matches but then it was good to come into organised matches with referees and all the stuff that goes with a competitive game.
“It was good to see the lads in action. We did okay against Galway, we suffered a heavy defeat to Roscommon, they were very good, and then we played Leitrim and we won that.
“We were competitive against Mayo and we could have won the game but we weren't looking about winning games, we were just looking to get to know the players. There are a lot of new players in and we wanted to see what they can do against those teams.”
Despite the loss of so many experienced players, Armagh's Dr McKenna Cup form should have restored confidence in the camp.
The Orchardmen beat Down in Newry and Derry at home and looked fit and defensively solid in both games. There are concerns over their attacking options and experienced Sarsfields forward Eamon McGeown could be in line for a League debut after impressing in last weekend's Dr McKenna Cup semi-final against Donegal.
Despite the losses in personnel, Armagh can still field an experienced side tomorrow and, with home advantage, they will hit new-look Sligo with pace and power on the break and should get their campaign off to a winning start.
Armagh (possible): B Hughes; P Hughes, C Vernon, A McKay; N Rowland, B Donaghy, M Shields; M Grimley, S Sheridan; A Forker, J McElroy, E Rafferty; R Grugan, A Murnin, G McParland