‘We’ve got a tough one in front of us...’ Armagh have work to do ahead of Ulster Championship opener says Kieran McGeeney

Armagh lose their way in Croke Park League decider but Fermanagh quarter-final is the priority now

Peter McGrane holds position among a swarm of Donegal defenders. Picture Mark Marlow
Peter McGrane holds onto position among a swarm of Donegal defenders. Picture Mark Marlow

RAIN is forecast in Armagh City every day from now until the Orchard county begin their Ulster Championship against Fermanagh on April 14.

Perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney explained that relentless downpours meant he’d been unable to hold a pitch session in preparation for Sunday’s Division Two final. After a one-point loss to Donegal, McGeeney said he hoped “the sun shines a wee bit more” so he’d have a suitable surface to train his team for the trip to Brewster Park.

With promotion secured, the Championship is clearly, and understandably, McGeeney’s priority. It’s unlikely he lost much sleep over the League final and he said it was good to leave Croke Park “knowing that we’ve got a bit of work to do”.

Nevertheless, his team’s performance against Donegal was disappointing. After top-scoring in Division Two with a series of front-foot displays, the Orchardmen seemed to lose their way. Stefan Campbell and Rian and Oisin O’Neill remained on the bench until the second half and Armagh started a debutant (albeit a very talented one) ahead of tried and tested players including All-Ireland club winners. Hesitant in defence and one-dimensional in attack, last year’s Ulster finalists didn’t get into gear until the final 10 minutes by which time Donegal led by four points.

Even then, a terrific fightback saw them briefly snatch the lead at the death but a late Aaron Doherty score meant Donegal deservedly took the title.

Armagh goalkeeper Blaine Hughes clears his lines during Sunday's Division Two final at Croke Park. Picture Mark Marlow
Armagh goalkeeper Blaine Hughes clears his lines during Sunday's Division Two final at Croke Park. Picture Mark Marlow

“It’s nobody’s fault,” said McGeeney of the training ground issues caused by last week’s persistent rain and snow in the Orchard county.

“Nobody can control the weather. I’m not having a go at anybody whatsoever. I was telling myself it was good and it was going to be a rest (for the players), but I’m telling myself now: ‘No it’s not’. Hindsight!”

Armagh’s training grounds in the Cathedral City are close to the River Callan and are susceptible to flooding. The county have begun work on a new facility in Portadown which should make such issues a thing of the past.

McGeeney said he was hopeful that some of his injured players – a list that includes Ethan Rafferty, Conor O’Neill, Barry McCambridge and Shane McPartlan - could be in contention for the Ulster opener at Brewster Park. Despite the loss to Donegal, he added that, with promotion achieved, he’d been happy with progress in the National League.

“I think we’re better than that and I think we just played a wee bit flat,” he said of Sunday’s performance.

“We showed more of what we could do, we showed at different stages but it was hard, Oisín (Conaty) wasn’t getting much protection at different stages. He was getting inside a lot but new rules just seem to be like as long you (defenders) don’t hit the head that you can do what you like.

“I think we’ve had a good League campaign. We’ve a lot of young players like Oisin, Darragh (McMullen), Peter (McGrane) doing well. We’ve got Rian and Oisin (O’Neill) and those fellas pushing harder and getting fitter in the legs.

“We know going up to Enniskillen, it’s one of those matches that’s just not going to be pretty. In Enniskillen, it’s going to be tough. Kieran (Donnelly) is a great coach, he’s going have them tight at the back.

“I know against Louth there was a blip in their calendar (a 24-point defeat) but as they showed against Cavan, they’re a good team and any time we’ve gone to Enniskillen we’ve got our fill of it so we know we’ve got a tough one in front of us.

“It’s probably good to leave today knowing that we’ve got a bit of work to do.”