Under-strength Armagh up against it for Christy Ring opener against Down
Christy Ring Cup Group Two: Down v Armagh (today, 3pm, Ballycran)
THERE haven’t been too many occasions in recent years when Down have been 1/8 favourites going into a meeting with neighbours Armagh.
Indeed, the Orchardmen have more than broken even against the Ardsmen in the big games during recent years, winning promotion play-offs and Ulster Championship encounters.
Now the bookies have them rank outsiders heading to Ballycran, those odds an indication of a slump in Orchard fortunes – culminating in back-to-back relegations and the prospect of Division 3A hurling next year.
A serious amount of experience has departed the panel, with Cahal Carvill announcing his retirement at the end of the League, and fellow forward David Carvill unavailable for the Christy Ring campaign.
Of the Middletown contingent that has backboned the Armagh panel in recent years, only a handful - including Paul Gaffney and the Curry brothers, Nathan and Odhran -remain
There was an unexpected change in management too, with personal circumstances forcing Paddy Kelly to step down last month after taking over from Sylvester McConnell towards the end of 2017.
The ship needed steadied, and Padraig O’Connor was named interim manager following the Meath man’s departure.
O’Connor – assistant manager to McConnell in 2015 – is immersed in Armagh hurling and knows the players, and the lay of the land, well.
Picking up the pieces of a disappointing League campaign is a tough ask, but he is confident Armagh can successfully emerge from this period of transition.
“It’s not ideal [to come in] after being relegated, and it’s not ideal when you have April, the club month, to prepare for it. But this is the position we find ourselves in,” he said.
“This year we were unfortunate enough to be relegated, however it probably gives us an opportunity to blood youth now in 3A.
“Previously we had quite a settled squad. Sylvester, to his credit, added younger guys to that squad, gave them experience in challenge games and now has come the time where they need to get experience against the likes of Down.
“It’s probably a higher level than the younger guys have experienced before and it’ll bring them on and let them know the work that they need to do in order to move forward next year.
“We have quite a bit of faith in our younger guys and we would hope that they’ll do well, that they’ll learn their trade quickly at this level.
“A lot of these guys have a 10 year future wearing our county jersey, and during that period there’ll be peaks and there’ll be troughs.”
Down, meanwhile, will be without a couple of key men and are sweating on others heading into today’s game.
Injury rules out the influential John McManus (knee), while Rian Brannigan, Caolan Taggart and Caolan Bailie are all doubts - although Brannigan and Taggart are named in the 15 to start.
On a more positive note, free-taking forward Danny Toner is back in the fold, as is the industrious Brook Byers.
“We’re happy with our first 15, we’ve a very young team but we’re going to stick with them and keep at it,” said boss Marty Mallon.
“We haven’t been beat in Ballycran in a long time, and we’re in good enough shape.”
Down: S Keith; B Byers, C Taggart, M Hughes; M Fisher, R McCrickard, L Savage; D McManus, M Magee; P Og McCrickard, R Brannigan, P Sheehan; D Sands, D Toner, E Sands