Drive for Division One will pave the way for Armagh Championship success, says Brian McAlinden
THIS is the year for Armagh’s “drive for Division One”, says former Orchard county joint manager Brian McAlinden who he is confident that Championship success will follow hot on the heels of a return to top flight football.
McAlinden, who guided Armagh to back-to-back Ulster titles in 1999 and 2000 when working alongside Brian Canavan, believes that this year’s National Football Leagues should be completed after the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. If they are, Armagh, sitting top of Division Two with two games remaining, can take a massive leap forward by winning them and clinching top tier football for the first time since 2007.
“They have been a wee bit inconsistent but they’ve had a few injuries and I think this is the year for the drive for Division One,” said McAlinden.
“Kieran (McGeeney) has a good team with him in Dennis Hollywood, Jim McCorry and Paddy McKeever. They can push the team that wee bit further and I think they are genuine Division One contenders – hopefully this virus doesn’t stop the progress they’ve made this year.
“If Armagh do get up to Division One we'll see the true ability and spirit in the team that Kieran has created. He has had to build a team, like we did in the late 1990s, and sometimes supporters can be impatient but I have known Kieran for a long time and he is very thorough in what he does. His focus would be on what is best for Armagh and Division One football would be progress and when they get there there’ll be success in the Championship in the not-too-distant future.”
Talented young players including Jarlath Og Burns and Rian O’Neill burst onto the scene last year as Armagh ended their five-year wait for a win in the Ulster Championship and progressed to the brink of the Super 8s before bowing out with a one-point defeat to Mayo in Castlebar.
McAlinden says: “If a player is good enough and has the natural ability, age doesn’t really come into it much” and adds: “You haven’t seen the best of this team yet.
“The O’Neills (Rian and Oisin) have experience at a fairly high level with their clubs and there are experienced players in the squad, the likes of Stefan Campbell, who have been playing at a decent level. I think this year has gelled them together and if they can get to Division One it will kick them on for the Championship because it’ll give them that belief that they’re in the top eight in Ireland, not the top 16.
“The game is faster in Division One, you get less time on the ball; you need to make decisions quicker and all that adds up in the build-up to Championship football. They’d be playing the top teams on a consistent basis, it wouldn’t be a sporadic match now and again against the best opposition; it would be part and parcel of their League campaign.
“They would build from strength-to-strength from playing at that pace consistently as opposed to coming into it and not knowing exactly what they were up against.”
Armagh’s form in the Qualifiers in the past three seasons has hinted at a major Championship breakthrough. In 2016, McGeeney’s men won four games in the backdoor to progress to the All-Ireland quarter-finals. A year later, another three victories set up a classic against Roscommon at Hyde Park and last season Armagh took the notable scalp of Monaghan on the way to that clash with Mayo. Playing in Division One could give the team the belief they need to turn narrow losses into narrow wins.
“Once they hit that Division One target, I would see a stronger focus going on the Championship,” said McAlinden.
“They would be up there with the Tyrones and Donegals and the players would have belief that they are equal to the so-called top teams, they would be part of that.
“Kieran has been trying to have a settled team for the past couple of years. They have no distractions from the Ulster club championship now and I would presume that everyone in the squad is totally focussed on playing for the county.
“He (McGeeney) has brought the best players in the county together, or very near it. I was always a great believer that you really have to want to play for Armagh; you have to have pride in wearing the jersey and Kieran uses the same sort of standards.”