“National League rolling straight into Ulster and then straight into the Super 16s...” Players need a proper break in GAA season

Kieran McGeeney says condensed fixture schedule is tough on players

Stefan Campbell will line out for the Armagh Club Allstars
Stefan Campbell didn't feature in the McKenna Cup but should feature against Louth on Saturday

THE Ulster Championship retains its allure and status as Ireland’s most competitive provincial series but the teams that progress to the final need time to recover for the All-Ireland series, says Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney.

Last year, after their Titanic battle with Derry in the Ulster final went to extra-time and penalties, Armagh’s weary players had to get over their disappointment and rouse themselves for a ‘Super 16′ group opener against Westmeath two weeks later.

McGeeney suggested a three-week window for provincial finalists between the end of one competition and the start of the next and predicts a typically competitive Anglo-Celt series this year.

“Ourselves, Derry, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Cavan… It doesn’t matter who you get, it’s going to be a tight game in Ulster,” said McGeeney.

“Or if it doesn’t finish tight, it will be tight for three-quarters, which we saw right throughout the Championship last year.

“Everybody is willing to fight tooth-and-nail and I don’t want people giving out to me but Ulster is probably one of the few proper provincial Championships that are left.

“There is a great buzz about it, but the problem for us is that when we go into the Super 16s, if you make the top end of the Ulster Championship with a few hard games under your belt, it’s tough.

“With the National League rolling straight into Ulster, straight into the Super 16s... It’s a long season and you need a strong panel for it. But it’s a great Championship and you love being involved in it – if you’re winning that is.”

Armagh look to have their house in order for their National League opener against Louth this weekend. McGeeney has an almost full-strength squad to pick from with Oisin O’Neill, Niall Rowland, Ciaron O’Hanlon and Mark Shields all recovered from the injuries that kept them on the sidelines last season.

The true worth of a full-strength panel comes through, he explains, when players are battling for places on the team.

“We have it (a strong squad) today but that can change in a heartbeat,” he said.

“When you’re winning games it becomes a competitive thing. But if you’re losing games, then the people who aren’t playing think that they should be playing.

“When you’re winning, they know that they have to be better than those who are playing, rather than thinking they should be on. So, that’s when it becomes competitive and that’s when it becomes a strong panel.”

New Armagh selector Conleith Gilligan
Experienced coach Conleith Gilligan is part of the Armagh management

McGeeney has brought vastly-experienced former Derry opponent Conleith Gilligan into his management team this season. The highly-rated former Kilcoo and Edendork manager is working alongside McGeeney, Ciaran McKeever and Kieran Donaghy.

“Conleith has been very good, he’s a great coach,” he said.

“I’ve known Conleith a long time, I have played against him, and we have had loads of conversations away from football too, he has been involved with a lot of clubs and he just loves the sport, he loves the games, like the rest of our coaches.

“Big congrats to ‘Brookie’ (Ciaran McKeever) and Cullyhanna (All-Ireland Intermediate winners) - I’m delighted to see him get some recognition for the work that he puts in because he does the same here.

“I have three great coaches there and they get on like a house on fire. It’s great having them, they have a great buzz about them and Conleith is the same as the other two.

“He has very strong opinions, and he loves football, he would talk to you about it 24/7, so he’s in good company here. It feels like a good set-up, but we will be judged at the end of the year rather than the beginning.”

McGeeney didn’t specify the exact brief he has given to the former Ballinderry Shamrocks All-Ireland winner.

“They all have certain areas to look at and they work well together,” he said.

“The way we work things here is that, you might be in charge of one area, but you listen to everyone else too, so it’s good like that.

“I’m loath to say which area each one covers, because every time something happens then they will get it in the neck. We have collective responsibility for doing well and singular blame when you don’t.”