Forward power gives Armagh a chance in Division One opener against Dublin at Croke Park
Allianz National Football League Division One: Dublin v Armagh (today, Croke Park, 7.30pm, live on RTE2)
IN A game that should banish the January blues, so much will depend on how Armagh come out of the tunnel tonight.
Every excuse in the book is readymade for them: It’s the mighty Dubs, it’s Croke Park, it’s Fenton, McCarthy, Kilkenny and Rock, it’s the first game of a full Division One season… But Armagh have to hit the hallowed turf convinced they can win with the gameplan to make that happen.
This is an intriguing battle between Kieran McGeeney’s men, who have flirted with success for a couple of years now but look a little shy on commitment, and a Dublin side on the rebound after breaking up with the Sam Maguire last summer.
Their manager Dessie Farrell (a former team-mate of McGeeney’s at Na Fianna) will have been stung by the criticism of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final loss and hampered by the retirements of Stephen Cluxton – the keystone of the invincibles – as well as Philly McMahon and Paul Mannion.
Farrell inherited a well-oiled machine from Jim Gavin. He retained the Sam Maguire in his first season but lost it in his second, so this is the year he really earns his corn. Was last year a blip, or have Dublin still got it? The Dublin manager will expect his men to lay down a marker and possession will be king in Croke Park tonight.
So Armagh goalkeeper Blaine Hughes will have a massive role to play. Dublin will hunt down his kick-outs so he will need to be absolutely on point as he was at Croke Park in 2017 when he gave an exhibition in a Qualifier win against Kildare.
The Armagh strategy will need to work or the Ulstermen will find themselves chasing shadows tonight. But Hughes has plenty of options to target because this is a big Armagh side and the likes of Niall Grimley, Stephen Sheridan, Rian O’Neill, Ciaran Mackin, Oisin O’Neill (if he’s fit) and Jarly Og Burns are all capable of getting their hands on Hughes’s restarts.
They’ll press Dublin’s kick-outs hard too because, if Armagh get their hands on enough ball, they have the forwards to do damage. With Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy an influential presence in the management team, it’s no shock that Armagh play with a full-forward and Rian O’Neill will be pushed up on Davey Byrne under the shadow of the Dublin posts.
The supporting cast includes the experience of Stefan Campbell and Andrew Murnin and playmaker Rory Grugan has the passing game to be a real influence tonight. Alongside them are fit-again Aidan Nugent, Jemar Hall and Conor Turbitt and Clann Eireann pair Tiarnan Kelly both proved their worth off the bench last year.
Scoring has not been a problem for Armagh. After all, this team racked up 6-36 in two Ulster Championship games last summer, but conceding 4-17 against Monaghan meant they only won one of them and the defensive frailty that has undermined Armagh over most of the past decade will be examined forensically and exploited ruthlessly tonight.
Monaghan drove a coach and horses through the Armagh defence last June and, in the McKenna Cup, Cavan and Monaghan (again) had long spells of dominance which suggested that the Armagh management has yet to get to grips with their rearguard.
Man-marker Ryan Kennedy is sitting this season out with injury and he is a loss but the return of Maghery’s Ciaran Higgins is a plus and Barry McCambridge had a good season with county champions Clann Eireann.
In the build-up to this Division One opener, Dublin won their 10th O’Byrne Cup last Saturday and manager Farrell gave game-time to 40 players over the four games in Leinster’s pre-season competition.
Familiar names will lead the way tonight. Six of the men who started against Mayo when Dublin’s Championship-winning streak came to an end - Davey Byrne, Eoin Murchan, John Small, Brian Fenton, Ciaran Kilkenny and Cormac Costello – featured in that win over Laois and James McCarthy, Brian Howard, Niall Scully, Sean Bugler, Tom Lahiff and Paddy Small got game-time too.
Armagh manager McGeeney was on the field in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2002 when the Orchardmen beat Dublin at Croke Park for the only time in their history.
He knows that the mould can be broken and his team will make an entertaining game of it tonight but the Dubs get the nod to begin their comeback year with victory on home soil.