Monaghan freshness might sway semi as League start looms
AIB Dr McKenna Cup semi-final: Armagh v Monaghan (tonight, Athletic Grounds, 7.45pm)
SECURING a place in Saturday’s Dr McKenna Cup decider will hardly define the season of either Armagh or Monaghan when all is said and done at the height of summer, but gains made in match fitness might matter once the hot and heavy stuff starts in Division One.
With dethroned Dublin under lights at Croke Park first up for the Orchard on January 29, Kieran McGeeney knows the importance of getting as many games into players’ legs now so they can hit the ground running in that League opener and beyond.
There was plenty to take from Saturday’s victory over All-Ireland champions Tyrone – Armagh’s next League opponents after the Dubs – not least the performances of Aidan Nugent, Jason Duffy and Rian O’Neill.
The Crossmaglen powerhouse will be central to the Orchard’s hopes of showing they belong in the top flight, having avoided the drop in last year’s truncated, regionalised version of the League.
However, having only returned from a team holiday in America, Armagh will face a very different version of the Red Hands in three weeks’ time.
That said, even in this early stage of the season, when the rule is invariably run over a host of new faces, there is an increasingly settled look to this Orchard panel. This is something McGeeney has sought since taking up the reins and, with nobody on Sigerson Cup duty today, the Armagh boss is playing with a relatively stacked hand.
From Monaghan’s point of view, having the best players available has seldom been an issue across the past decade. Their panel is full of seasoned campaigners, and Seamus McEnaney’s job now is to add further freshness and finesse to what they already have.
Hence, in their two McKenna Cup games so far – a draw with Derry and victory over Fermanagh – the Farney boss virtually picked two entirely different starting 15s. He has seen how the depth of quality stood to Tyrone when the going got tough last summer, and knows this is something Monaghan need too.
Typically, he has also freshened up his backroom team, bringing in former Tipperary boss Liam Sheedy as performance coach – a move he hopes can “add real value” as the year progresses.
“It’s all about making Monaghan the best they can be,” said the Corduff man.
“You have to look in the mirror as often as you can to see where you can improve, and I felt this was an area where a performance coach could help.
“With Monaghan people, you’d want real credibility when you go into a dressing room; Liam Sheedy brings real credibility. I know Liam quite some time but this job is not about friendship, it’s about adding value.
“The standards he set with Tipperary, the professionalism he brought, and what they achieved as a result, hopefully will transfer from the small ball to the big ball. I don’t see why there would be any difference.
“It’s a brilliant link between the players and the management.”
Considering McEnaney’s mix-and-match approach thus far, and the fact they haven’t played in nine days while Armagh came through that tussle with their beloved neighbours in Omagh last weekend, you would expect Monaghan to have an extra spring in their step at the Athletic Grounds this evening.
No doubt both would be glad of another game this weekend before the real test of their credentials commences.