Armagh hurler Artie McGuinness believes the county have a fighting chance of staying up in Division 2A
IF you were searching for Armagh's sliding door moment of recent times then you'd need to head back to Inniskeen, March 30, 2014.
In front of just a handful of observers, the Orchard county took to the field for a relegation play-off with Fingal. The Dublin side had comfortably defeated them two months previously and, as a result, Armagh had finished rock bottom of Division 2B. Lose the play-off and 3A hurling would be on the table in 2015.
But they didn't lose, and when Sylvester McConnell took charge the following January they were still in 2B.
Fast-forward two years and they are now preparing for life in Division 2A following a famous final win over Down last season in Dowdallshill.
It was just 20 kilometres down the road, but it was a world away from Inniskeen two years before.
There's been no secret ingredient, no superstar discovered in Keady or Middletown – McConnell has simply asked his players to follow his lead of never taking a backward step.
Hit hard and hit often and have the utmost confidence in your ability to better your opponent.
If the manager was asked to pick a player that followed those instructions to a tee then he'd be hard pressed to look past Artie McGuinness.
Off the pitch McGuinness is a quiet, softly-spoken individual, but when he crosses the white line he has one mission – protect the Armagh goal at all costs.
Over the coming weeks he will face forwards of a higher quality than he has ever come up against.
For the Newry Shamrocks man that means you simply have to hit a little harder and hit more often, you have to be more willing to put your body on the line - and that starts with Sunday's home game against Kildare.
"It's a huge step up, we know that," said McGuinness.
"The last time we played Kildare would have been two years ago and they really taught us a lesson that day.
"Every single one of us still talks about that match and we will be ready for them this year.
"It's the same with Antrim. We played them last year (Ulster final) and they got away from us.
"We learned a lot from those two defeats. That's the level we want to compete at so everyone is ready to step up.
"Even when we were winning in the League last year we were learning.
"This team relishes playing the so called better teams. There's nothing better than putting a challenge in front of us because we all want to rise to it.
"The perceived gap in talent some people may see us as having, we'll more than make up for that with hard work and intensity."
While McGuinness will be trying to keep attackers out at one end, his younger brother Eoin will be attempting to steamroll defences at the other side of the pitch.
The siblings have taken an unusual route to the county team with Artie representing south Down in the past while Eoin has been involved with the Down senior side.
When the Killeavy natives transferred in 2014, the thought of Armagh being above Down in the pecking order was laughable, but it's a reality now.
Alongside Antrim, also in Division 2A, McConnell's men can look down on the rest of Ulster in the National League - and McGuinness said that the aim is to ensure that it's a long-term standing, not just a one-year deal.
"We had success last year and it's much the same squad," he said.
"We have had three or four lads that haven't come back but we have found boys around the county that are willing to step up.
"To tell you the truth, it has been surprising just how good some of them have been.
"They're very hungry to get the jersey and that can only make us stronger. We know that's exactly what we need going up to play in a division like this."
Kildare, London, Westmeath, Antrim, Carlow, it's company that a county with such little hurling participation shouldn't be keeping.
Negative phrases like 'shouldn't and 'can't;' bounce off this Armagh squad though and they're keen to show they belong in their first two matches, home games against Kildare and London. Antrim are also set to visit the Athletic Grounds in round four.
"We make no bones about it but we are targeting these home games," McGuinness continued.
"We see these games as an opportunity to get points and none of those teams will be looking forward to coming to Armagh.
"They will have heard the reports last year that we were a physical side and that we managed to bully some of the teams we came up against.
"We want to get even stronger and faster and fitter this year and we want to show that against these teams."
Never take a step back, it's the only way they know how. Nothing is expected of Armagh in the coming months, but that's just the way they like it.
ARMAGH have really been a hard act to judge since Sylvester McConnell took charge in 2015. Their Division 2B form has been superb in that time with the Orchard county winning eight games from 11, putting a number of Christy Ring teams to the sword in the process.
However, they have been unable to achieve their main goal in that period – another Nicky Rackard Cup. Two final losses suggest that they're not too far away, but as the season progresses their panel seems to become more stretched and they haven't had the depth to deal with that.
They also seem to have no problem raising their game for bigger opposition, but they have the ability to stumble in matches they're expected to win. McConnell will be hoping that a few new additions, and a few returning faces, can help their Championship ambitions later in the season.
Before that they have to fight off the seemingly inevitable perception that they will be out of their depth in Division 2A. What they need is very simple, good home performances.
Kildare, London and Antrim visit and to survive, they'll need two wins. They have beaten London as recently as 2010, but Kildare and Antrim look out of reach.
However, they were expected to struggle last year and proved the doubters wrong and McConnell will be drawing on that for inspiration.
Eoin Cadogan had worked closely with the side in recent years on strength and conditioning and that was very evident on the field of play as they bullied teams like Mayo out of it.
Cadogan is away now and the teams they face will be stronger now, so it will be interesting to see if they can still hold sway in the physical stakes.
Sylvester McConnell has filled out his panel well in the winter months and there are some notable additions.
One of those is attacker Danny Magee who has been a consistently heavy scorer for Sean Treacy's in their recent Ulster Junior excursions.
Magee caught the eye in January's McGurk Cup and should feature this weekend against Kildare.
Also back on board is Cuchullain's player Caily Gorman after he had taken a year out in 2016. Gorman is hugely rated and had a real breakthrough season in 2015.
A lot of last year's U21 squad are also in the panel with players such as Barry Shortt, Tiarnán Nevin, Mattie McEvoy, Peter McKearney, Shaun Toal and Joe O'Connor hoping to make their mark on the senior team.
Another man back in the fold is the experienced Fiachra Bradley, although an injury may prevent the Croabh Rua man from featuring in the early games. Declan Coulter is a notable absentee from the squad.
Artie McGuinness, Barry Shortt, Cahal Carvill, Caily Gorman, Caoimhín Rafferty, Caolán Rice, Ciarán Clifford, Conleth Lavery, Connor Devlin, Conor Corvan, Danny Magee, David Bridges, David Carvill, Dean Gaffney, Dylan McKenna, Eoin McGuinness, Fiachra Bradley, Fintan Corvan, Fintan Woods, Glenn McKeown, Joe O'Connor, John Corvan, Mattie McEvoy, Nathan Curry, Niall Strain, Odhrán Curry, Paddy Kelly, Paul Gaffney, Peter McKearney, Ryan Gaffney, Shaun Toal, Shea Gaffney, Simon Doherty, Stephen Keenan, Stephen Renaghan, Tiarnán Nevin.