The penny is dropping in Armagh as Derry rookies face uphill battle
Allianz National Football League Division Three: Armagh v Derry (Saturday, Athletic Grounds, 7pm)
THE penny is finally dropping in Armagh. After periods of fluctuating form over the last three years, the Orchard County have steadied themselves considerably and are fancied to take another important step towards Division Two against Derry tonight.
You don’t get the feeling that a car-crash performance is lurking around the corner in the way it did a couple of seasons ago in Cavan.
Far from the finished article, Armagh nevertheless look like a Division Two team playing in Division Three.
That hesitancy in possession is no longer there and their decision-making in possession looks more instinctive than at any point during Kieran McGeeney’s reign.
In short, Armagh look comfortable in their own skin these days.
Four NFL wins out of four - which included beating Longford while playing poorly - Armagh look too strong, too settled for Derry who are unlikely to derail their hosts’ pursuit of a promotion berth.
Promotion was never a realistic proposition for Derry’s new boss Damian McErlain this season given that the Magherafelt man has been tasked with digging almost brand new foundations with a big number of the players he had success with at minor level over the last three years.
Derry, minus the Slaughtneil contingent, have been running with a very thin 22-man match-day squad which isn’t ideal.
They put some much-needed points on the board against Offaly before falling to their third defeat in four against promotion hunters Fermanagh.
Against Offaly, it was the old heads of Enda Lynn, James Kielt and Mark Lynch that steadied them in the second half to win.
Kielt, who knows the NFL terrain better than most in Derry’s youthful ranks, says that talent isn’t an issue - coping with the physical challenges of senior football is for those with Ulster minor medals in their pockets.
“Division Three is probably not a bad learning experience because you do make mistakes but you maybe get away with some of them more than in Division One or Two,” said Kielt.
“The key for young lads is physical because boys in Division Three or Four are no weaker than those in the higher divisions.
“I suppose the test is the matches themselves. Physically, you can see it’s a bit harder on the younger lads. There are not many 18 or 19-year-olds who are fully developed for senior football, never mind senior club football.”
Physically speaking, Derry face the ultimate test in the Cathedral City tonight.
That’s not to say Derry won’t pose Armagh problems. Tradition dictates that Armagh won’t have it all their own way.
Against Offaly, Derry had good attacking thrust from their half-back line and a solid midfield base – Conor McAtamney and Emmet Bradley – and Enda Lynn is the man that is generally tasked with transitioning from defence to attack.
Derry’s full-back line still looks quite makeshift and with Armagh’s front men Ethan Rafferty, Andrew Murnin and Rory Grugan performing well to date they also boast a healthy spread of scores in games – 10, seven, six and eight.
It’s hard to look past the front-footed hosts making it five wins out of five this evening.
Derry still have more winnable games down the road – Wexford (h) and Sligo (a) - to preserve their Division Three status.
Tonight, though, is a massive test for McErlain’s young crew – but it’s one they should embrace as they’ll get a first-hand taste of what awaits them in the summer months.