GAA Football

Dublin at Croke Park the acid test as Armagh begin Division One the hard way

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney.
Picture Seamus Loughran
Andy Watters

AIDAN Nugent started with a half here and a few minutes there during his rookie season in 2019. He’d marked his debut with a point after coming off the bench against Antrim in the McKenna Cup and was a regular substitute as Armagh finished mid-table in Division Two despite allowing a couple of wins to slip through their fingers.

Nugent could have contented himself with a place on the bench for the Ulster Championship opener against Down that followed but that’s not his way and he got his head down and trained hard before the trip to Newry in May.

When Kieran McGeeney named the team to start the Cullyhanna forward was pleasantly surprised to get the number 12 jersey and he played his part in a memorable extra-time win that brought an end to Armagh’s barren run in Ulster.

Nugent was a surprise starter in 2019 but, as joint-captain with Rian O’Neill, he’s a certain starter when fit these days. Being named skipper was an endorsement of the character he’s shown to recover from the 2019 cruciate injury that robbed him of two seasons (2020 and 2021) of inter-county football.

Watching from the sidelines was hard enough and then there was that nagging doubt in his mind: Could he regain the fitness he’d lost and get back into the team?

“You want to be out there and the other side of it is you see the pace increased massively from Division Two to Division One so you wonder are you going to get your place back?” he says.

“You can either, sit there and take the hump or you can work hard and see what sort of level you have to get to. I was watching training week-in, week-out so it was good motivation for me to put the head down and try and get back in.”

He returned to county colours in the Time2Play charity game in December and was a regular throughout the McKenna Cup. Missing last season means Saturday night’s League opener against Dublin will be Nugent’s first taste of Division One and the closest he’s come to playing at Croke Park was refereeing some Go Games matches on the hallowed turf.

He’s looking forward to ticking both boxes at the weekend.

“When you start playing football, the aim is to get to Croke Park,” he says.

“Every big game you go to watch, the aim is to get out there but you have to put that all aside. It’s Division One and it wouldn’t matter if the game was in the Athletic Grounds or Croke Park we’d still be going for the two points. It is a nice occasion but once you get in there you just focus on the gameplan to get the team over the line.

“We’re not going to Croke Park to drop points; we’re going to win. We have worked hard this last few weeks in training and we know if we put our gameplan together we will get the result.”

NUGENT is the second Armagh captain to come out of the Cullyhanna club in recent years and there are shades of the cutting edge and drive of his predecessor – Ciaran McKeever – in his game. McKeever was a combative centre half-back and Nugent has the same aggressive spirit and the silky skills, pace and scoring touch to go with it.

“It’s good to get the captaincy but, in the wider scheme of things, it doesn’t really change much,” he says.

“You’re still pushing on the pitch and off the pitch so getting the captaincy doesn’t affect me a whole pile, I’m still going to do what I’ve been doing since I’ve been on the panel.”

When playing at Croke Park was still a distant dream for Aidan Nugent, Dublin were already the team to beat and of course they still are. Mayo broke their stranglehold on the Sam Maguire last year and there has been a changing of the guard in the off-season but the Dubs are still the Dubs.

“Everything they do is close to perfection so you have to have your gameplan perfect if you are going to beat them,” he says.

“I’ve watched them and admired how they play but when you are beside them on the field you can’t be looking up to them too much, you’re going to be trying as hard as you can to get the result.

“They were always going to get beat at some stage, it was just a matter of when, and now they have been beaten they will have stepped back and looked at themselves and realised that they have to push even harder.

“The wounded animal is always dangerous but if even they had won the All-Ireland last year, I’m sure they would have prepared the same way for the first round of the League.”

Armagh’s prospects in Division One don’t hinge on their opening encounter but obviously getting a result at Croke Park would be massive for the Orchardmen and they have the scoring power to make a real game of it on Saturday. Nugent has forced his way into a forward until that is crammed with talent and he is well aware that he’ll have to consistently produce his best to keep his place as challenge follows challenge throughout a demanding Division One programme.

“We’re playing in-house games every week and you couldn’t pick our ‘B’ team if you were watching from the outside,” he said after a training session at Armagh’s Callanbridge.

“That’s always a good thing - there is someone stepping on your toes trying to get your place all the time. Even last year there was no two forwards the same and we have brought in another four or five since then.

“So everyone brings something different and you know if you’re not on your game then someone will come in and replace you or even if you have played 50 or 60 minutes that the man coming on is going to do the same job if not better to close the game out.”

He knows how important competing in Division One is for Armagh’s Championship prospects. Orchard teams have been over-hyped after impressing in Division Two and Three campaigns in the past but this year, if they can hold their own with the top dogs, their time may finally come.

“Division One is where we want to be,” says Nugent.

“Our aim is the Championship three months down the line (Armagh meet Donegal in the Ulster quarter-final) so I think if you’re in Division One and playing the top team’s week-in, week-out you will be well prepped for the first round of Ulster.

“That’s the aim, you obviously want to stay in Division One because we want to be there or thereabouts every year, so it is about picking up points and prepping for Ulster.”

And it all starts with the Dubs at Croker on Saturday night…

Verdict

THIS is the strongest squad Armagh have put together since Kieran McGeeney became manager.

With the possible exception of Jamie Clarke and despite the losses of defenders Ryan Kennedy and Paul Hughes, the best performers are all under the Orchard umbrella working towards a common goal – Division One survival and an Ulster Championship title.

Maghery pair Ciaran Higgins and Ben Crealey have returned to the fold and Conor Turbitt, Tiarnan Kelly and Barry McCambridge are in from county champions Clann Eireann

The signs during the McKenna Cup were positive. Injury-plagued Andrew Murnin – not always seen until later in the year – played and looked sharp while Paddy Burns, Stephen Sheridan, Aidan Nugent and Mark Shields returned to action after missing all, or most, of last season. Oisin O’Neill didn’t feature but he could return for the opener against Dublin.

So this is an experienced Armagh team. 11 of the players who started against Down in Newry back in 2019 are available for selection on Saturday and that’s not counting the likes of Stefan Campbell, Stephen Sheridan, Mark Shields, Ethan Rafferty, James Morgan and Andrew Murnin who all came on as substitutes that day.

A note of caution: The Achilles Heel of this team over recent seasons has been a leaky defence and a tendency to switch on and off during games and there were signs of both bad habits during the McKenna Cup.

After a superb first half against Cavan, the Orchardmen were outplayed after the break but got out of jail at the death. It was the same story against Monaghan in the McKenna Cup semi-final when a commanding lead was squandered in the second half and, ultimately, Armagh lost on penalties.

But those lapses can be explained away by multiple substitutions and McCambridge and Higgins should help seal the defensive cracks that were apparent last season.

Like all the best Armagh teams, the strength of the class of 2022 is its attack. Rory Grugan is the artful playmaker with has Rian O’Neill, Andrew Murnin, Conor Turbitt, Stefan Campbell, Aidan Nugent, Jemar Hall among the willing recipients of his clever passing. Manager McGeeney also has plenty of options in midfield with Oisin O’Neill and Niall Grimley his first choice pair.

Armagh’s opener on Saturday is as tough as it gets and to follow it they welcome All-Ireland champions Tyrone to the Athletic Grounds. That’s a serious test of any team’s credentials.

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