‘There’s definitely more in this team...’ says Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney as squad nears full strength for 2024 campaign

Injured players back in the fold as Orchard County prepares for League opener against Louth

Collision course
Armagh's Ciaran Higgins and Derry's Brendan Rogers on collision course at the Athletic Grounds

INJURIES robbed Armagh of the services of experienced performers including Oisin O’Neill, Mark Shields, Ciaron O’Hanlon, Tiernan Kelly, Niall Rowland and Niall Grimley last season but they all featured in McKenna Cup games.

Along with talented youngsters like Peter McGrane and Sean Conlon (who scored 1-1 and 1-2 against Tyrone and Derry respectively from corner-back) coming through, the Orchard County squad seems in excellent health.

Competition for places will be intense in the build-up to Armagh’s Division Two opener against Louth on January 27.

“One of the biggest things for any of the top teams is the ability to have competition for places,” said manager Kieran McGeeney.

“Competition for places only stands up when you’re winning games because that’s when you know that you’re doing something right. Everybody will complain about not playing if they’re not on and you’re losing.

“We have had decent years over the last while but there’s definitely more in the team and a lot of young fellas like Oisin Conaty, Darragh McMullen, Peter McGrane, Sean Conlon… Those fellas are starting to push in and put their hands up and that’s what we want. You still have fellas coming back like Tiernan Kelly, Oisin, Mark, Ciaron as well still wanting to show that they have it. I’m hoping that competition for places will make us sharper for the start of the League and put us in a position where we can win some of these games.

Kieran McGeeney
Armagh's Kieran McGeeney has been pleased with the "competition for places" in his panel

“The hard thing about playing in Division Two is that teams play a wee bit tighter, they don’t take as many risks and it’s hard to break them down. Last year even Dublin were getting one or two-point wins and it’s important that you’re on the right side of those.

“We have Louth first and then Meath – two big, aggressive teams that are going to be pushing hard. They’re hard to break down and they’re quick on the counter with two very talented forwards up front.

“They’re going to be tough games and in those games it’s the small things that matter. If you don’t take your goal chances in Division Two you’re going to get punished because the games are tighter.

“We have to get better at our shot-to-score ratio and make sure that the chances we have we convert and that’s the whole thing about having competition and keeping fellas on their toes.”

Blaine Hughes is another player back on McGeeney’s radar. The Carrickcruppen goalkeeper withdrew from the squad last year but has returned and, in the absence of injured Ethan Rafferty, is competing for the number one jersey with Shea Magill.

McGeeney ruled out the possibility of sending Rafferty – who has played from midfield to full-forward in the past - back outfield.

“Ethan has been outstanding for us in that (goalkeeping) role,” he said.

“Every goalkeeper has to play to their strengths and some have that.

“Ethan was an outfield player a lot of his life but he is a good goalkeeper as well and he adds a different dimension and we play a different game when he’s in nets.

“A lot of goalkeepers will try to copy him but I do think he’s unique in that aspect because he has different pace and different ball skills. Blaine showed that he can do a lot of things as well – he’s a good shot-stopper and his kickouts were good.”

On Saturday night and inexperienced Armagh side battled gamely against a much stronger Derry team until the Oak Leafers pulled away in the final quarter. McGeeney was pleased with what he saw from his team.

“They did well,” he said.

“There were a lot of tired legs, we’ve had a long week. We’ve been hard on them, we tried to push them hard and you could see that extra tiredness coming into it. There were a lot of positives from it but it’s just disappointing we didn’t finish as strong as we’d like but at the same time we’ve a lot of game-time into the fellas’ legs.”