Armagh can get off to winning start against inexperienced St Mary's side
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup round 1: Armagh v St Mary’s University College Belfast (tomorrow, Crossmaglen, 1pm)
WITH a fortnight of 2018 still to go, the Orchard county’s 2019 season begins in Crossmaglen against an inexperienced St Mary’s side who look, on paper at least, to be well out of their depth.
Armagh have welcomed back or called up a clutch of quality footballers including forwards Jamie Clarke, Stefan Campbell and Rian O’Neill while the students are concentrating on galvanising their squad ahead of their Sigerson Cup clash with NUI Galway on January 16.
St Mary’s have played challenge games against Antrim and Down in preparation for tomorrow’s opener but manager Gavin McGilly is expecting a much more demanding examination at St Oliver Plunkett Park tomorrow.
“It’ll be a step up from challenge games,” he predicted.
McGilly will be without Jarlath Og Burns who could line out against his student team-mates tomorrow while fellow Armagh hopeful Oisin O’Neill is injured. He does have a handful of players with inter-county experience at his disposal including Derry’s Niall Toner and Ben McKinless, Steven McConville and Mark Reid (Down). There are also emerging talents in Dromintee clubman Aaron Boyle and Moy’s Ryan Coleman but the focus is on performance, not the result.
“We’re trying to get ourselves primed for the first round of the Sigerson on the 16th of January,” said McGilly.
“We’ll be using these games for that and it will be a big test on Sunday. Armagh had a good season last year, they got promoted and weren’t a million miles away from the ‘Super 8s’.
“We want to go and give a good account of ourselves and keep the game as competitive as possible but it will be a big challenge. I think Armagh will target a really fast start to the McKenna Cup to give them a bit of a springboard to the start of the League.”
Armagh’s squad has been swelled by the returns of Clarke and Campbell and Crossmaglen defenders James Morgan and Paul Hughes who weren’t available last year. McGilly expects to be up against a side packed with individuals determined to nail down a starting roles in the side.
“A lot of counties have players who are aspiring to break into the team,” he explained.
“University teams used to have a bit of an advantage in that we were starting to peak for Sigerson at the start of January but with the early start to the National League there isn’t much of a gap any more.
“It’s ideal preparation for us to try and get ourselves organised for Sigerson. You find out in the McKenna Cup who you have in terms of your Sigerson team and our goal is to find our team.”
After two years in Division Three, Armagh begin their return to the second tier of the National League with a trip to Newbridge where they take on Kildare on January 27.
Orchard county manager Kieran McGeeney will be keen to see his side hit the ground running as they prepare for a campaign that also includes clashes with last year’s Ulster champions Donegal and finalists Fermanagh.
“Whenever you look at Tyrone’s approach, and it seems to work for them, they try to win everything from the start of the year,” said McGilly.
“There’s no experimenting and very few of the counties are at the stage now where they use the McKenna Cup as a totally experimental process. The counties would see it as an opportunity to get another two games – the semi-final and the final – to try and really sharpen themselves for the League.
“We just want to get our players exposed to what it’s going to be like in the Sigerson against (NUI) Galway because that Galway team has a lot of inter-county experience. This is a perfect test to see where we’re at and how much work we need to get done over the next two-three weeks to get up to speed
“We know we’re going to require a massive effort from the players and we always find in the McKenna Cup that we use our six subs because the energy required for that step up is massive. You need your full panel but we have young players who are aspiring to be on county teams in the next year or two so they’ll get an insight into where they have to go.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’ll go and give a good account of ourselves and see where that goes.”
St Mary’s: B McKinless; C McAllister, C Dillon, M Rooney; C Byrne, R McCusker, J Hannigan; S McConville, A Duffy; A Boyle, R Coleman, T O’Kane; D McKinless, N Toner, R McSherry
Subs: M Reid, G O’Neill, P Gunning, K Muldoon, C Stinton, C Goodwin, P McSorley, H McNamee, T Sludden, R McGrath, R Lundy
ARMAGH have played in 24 Dr McKenna Cup campaigns since they last won the competition back in 1994. That win did not translate into League or Championship success. The Orchardmen were also in Division Two and survived the drop as Mayo (who took a single point from seven games) and Galway were relegated. In the Ulster Championship, 1-4 from Peter Canavan saw Armagh lose to Tyrone at the quarter-final stage.