GAA Football

Armagh's Stefan Campbell back and looking forward positively

Armagh's Stefan Campbell in action against Aaron Boyle of St Mary's in the Dr McKenna Cup.

SCORING power. Physical presence. Critical self-analysis. Desire to play for the county. Experience.

Stefan Campbell clearly ticks a lot of boxes for Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney – but the player himself certainly isn’t taking his return to the starting line-up for granted.

‘Soupy’ has lined out in both Dr McKenna Cup games so far after taking most of 2018 out, away from the inter-county scene.

Yet even after netting a goal in the opening rout of St Mary’s and then 0-8 against Antrim on Sunday (including six points from play), the 27-year-old knows he will face a battle for a place in the first 15 come the League:

“The talent we have at the minute is scary. My place wasn’t guaranteed in ’17 and I think the talent is through the roof at the minute, the squad is a lot better. The young fellas coming through are so athletic, so skilful, it’s gone to another level.

“Of course nobody is guaranteed their place but I definitely wasn’t coming in with that mind-set. Possibly I would have carried that mind-set in previous years, which probably went against me, getting complacent, etc.

“So I’ve been wary and I’m at a level now that I probably haven’t been at in pre-season before because of those young lads putting pressure on me.

“There’s lads that we haven’t even seen kicking a ball, Rian O’Neill, Ryan Owens, lads coming through, who are going to be playing for Armagh in years to come. They have put the pressure on.”

Now 27, the Clan na Gael clubman had become Armagh’s most reliable scoring forward for several campaigns before taking a sabbatical last season:

“I decided last year to take the year [out]. I only decided to go out [to the USA] in June. That wasn’t the intention throughout the year. I was playing a bit of soccer with Lurgan Celtic.”

He reached the New York final again, and despite losing that, says: “I enjoyed it, it’ll probably be my last summer out there as I got a new job recently, with Randox, so life’s good…

“It was more just to take a step back from inter-county. I’d been there six years and it was intense. It’s not a decision I regret in any way. I think I made the right call.”

For Campbell, it was a case of taking a step back to take several steps forward, and he believes that approach has worked: “I actually felt that the harder I trained my performance levels were dropping – as you saw in Newry [in the 2017 Ulster Championship]. Then I got dropped, and rightly so.

“Probably ‘Geezer’ gave me the benefit of the doubt going into that game against Down in 2017. My performances just weren’t at the level I expected them to be back then.

So, especially after the Tyrone drubbing [in the 2017 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final], I went away, did a bit of soul-searching and decided that it would be right for me to stand back and do my own thing for the year.

“The plan was always to come back and finish my [Armagh] career, another four or five years, whatever the case may be.”

Campbell laughs a little when asked if he was just able to declare his intention to return: “It’s not that easy. I came home from America, decided that I wanted to come back, and I met ‘Geezer’, when the team were meeting for the first meeting of the season, in the Armagh City Hotel.

“I’ll be honest, it was a brief meeting, but I just asked him to give me an opportunity to impress and here we are.”

He’s happy with his fitness levels, saying: ““I’m feeling stronger, I’ve been back about six or seven weeks. It’s good to be back and see all the lads again, because they’re my mates, I’ve been growing up with them.

“I wasn’t too far off them when I came back, I wasn’t playing too much catch-up, so the fitness levels remained. It’s just a matter of putting the head down and working hard.

“Of course I’m enjoying it. You can see that. The energy levels are high, I feel rejuvenated, re-charged.”

He’s also pleased at Armagh’s attacking approach, exemplified by a shout from the side-line by one of McGeeney’s assistants, Jim McCorry – ‘We’ve enough men back’.

“That’s giving us attackers the opportunity to hold our position,” explains Campbell. “You know there are maybe 12 or 13 behind the ball, so rather than sucking everybody back and maybe leaving nobody inside, we’re told to hold our shape, which is benefitting us on the scoreboard – because you can’t score unless you’re inside the ‘45’, basically.”

Among the experimental rules being tried out at the moment is the attacking mark, but Campbell isn’t sure about it, nor the limit on hand-passes:

“There’s no doubt Andy [Murnin] will take advantage of it [the attacking mark] but at the same time you don’t want to be slowing the game down.

“You could get comfortable taking the mark and kicking your score but what happens if you take a mark and there’s a man flying off your shoulder? You don’t want to get into that mind-set, especially as they could be withdrawn after the League.

You’ll take the mark when the pressure’s on, on the ground, but if the man’s on, he’s getting it [the ball] and he’ll be going for the score…

“I wouldn’t be against the mark, but the hand-pass rule is a tough one. When some boy is going clean through the middle and you’re on the third hand-pass, it’s hard not to give it. What do you do? Do you give it and hope the referee misses it?! It’s instinct.

“We’re going to have to work with it, but we don’t know if it’s going to be implemented for the summer.”

Before that is the League, and a Division Two that “is going to test us, there’s no denying that. There are tough teams. There’s no breaking-in period, it’s straight down to Kildare, and we all saw that game the last time we played them [in Croke Park in round 4B of the 2017 All-Ireland qualifiers]

“There’s been a yo-yo effect, we’ve been up and down throughout my career, so I think the best possible outcome is just to get safe.

“Especially playing our attacking brand, if we can go in and test ourselves against the likes of Donegal and Kildare that’ll stand us in good stead going into the Down game in the Championship, without looking too far ahead. I think a good League campaign would be just survival”.

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