Armagh get the nod to win Division One opener but derby clashes with Monaghan don't always go according to the script
Allianz National Football League Division One: Monaghan v Armagh (today, Castleblayney, 6.30pm, live on BBC iPlayer)
By Andy Watters
ARMAGH came sprinting out of the traps in Division One last year. First there was that brilliant win against Dublin in Croke Park and then Tyrone, the reigning All-Ireland champions, were routed as the red mist descended at the Athletic Grounds.
Monaghan, who had taken a point from two games at that stage, were next up and all the evidence pointed to a third successive win for the Orchard county. But the game, like so many between these neighbours, didn’t go according to the script.
Monaghan led at half-time and, even when Conor McManus was sent off early in the second half, the Farneymen dug in and battled it out for a draw on a terrible night in the Cathedral City. For the last five minutes - with goalkeeper Rory Beggan playing out around the halfway line - they kept the ball, ran down the clock and went home with a 10-all draw which, in the final reckoning, was vital to their survival last year.
Armagh’s good start meant survival was never a real concern for them but after that draw against Monaghan their form fell away and they lost three of their remaining four in the League.
That was last year. This evening’s clash in Castleblayney is the first serious outing of the season for two counties that have been, according to reports, pushing very hard in pre-season and, although it’s the first of seven League outings, it is an important game because the losers will be playing catch-up right from the off.
Monaghan have made a very good habit of pulling off Houdini-style escape acts on the final day of League seasons. Last year, for the sixth time in eight, they saved their skin right at the death when Jack McCarron (who had done the same the previous year against Galway) conjured up the injury-time score that kept his county up and relegated Dublin.
You might say: ‘They can’t keep doing that’ and rightly so. Then again, you’d probably have said the same thing this time last year.
Armagh beat Antrim without any fuss in the first round of the McKenna Cup but came unstuck against Cavan in the second round. Victory would have secured a semi-final but the Orchard management seemed more concerned with giving players a run-out than reaching the knockout stage and, after a flurry of Armagh substitutions, the Breffnimen took control in the second half.
There hasn’t been much news out of the Armagh camp since but they have been training hard and you can bank on a fit and focussed team taking the field at Castleblayney this evening.
Ben Crealey and Ciaran Higgins are struggling with injury but Rian O’Neill, who didn’t feature in the McKenna Cup, is expected to be fit. So too are Tiernan Kelly, who hasn’t played since the Ulster Championship loss against Donegal in Ballybofey because of a blood-clotting issue and then suspension, and Niall Grimley, who broke his neck in a training injury in May.
Armagh lost Blaine Hughes and Brendan Donaghy from last year’s squad but, unless some new faces are breaking the door down for selection, they are likely to go with a tried-and-tested line-up for this opener.
Meanwhile, Monaghan – under new manager Vinny Corey – have said farewell to stalwarts Colin Walshe and Drew Wylie but Corey still has the experience of Conor McManus, Darren Hughes and Rory Beggan, among others, to call upon.
He also has an in-form forward at his disposal in David Garland who has been absolutely tearing it up for UCD in the Sigerson Cup. After scoring a combined 2-8 in the first two games, the Donaghmoyne forward hit 3-3 against Ulster University at Jordanstown on Wednesday night to ease UCD into the quarter-finals.
Garland is a talented finisher and Monaghan need young players like him to put their hands up this season. He needs space to play in but it will be at a premium this evening so whatever ball comes his way, he’ll need to use it well, because every score will count.
Armagh should be in their prime, Monaghan may be just past it and, while you couldn’t rule out another draw in packed ’Blayney, the Orchardmen get the nod to win by a couple of points.