Nicky Rackard Cup Group One: Armagh v Monaghan (today, 3pm, Athletic Grounds)
STEPHEN Renaghan was all smiles at Croke Park on Thursday, happily posing for the cameras and chatting away. Truth be told though, it hasn’t always been his favourite place.
Since he came on to the county’s senior panel towards the end of 2012, Armagh have come up short in three Nicky Rackard Cup finals.
“We haven’t had much luck down there,” he says, those consecutive defeats to Roscommon (2015), Mayo (2016) and Derry (2017) still a bitter pill to swallow.
Renaghan missed the last of the three after a horror hand injury – or perilunate dislocation to give it the proper medical term - sustained during a National League clash with Antrim, leaving him sidelined for 10 months.
“At the time I actually thought I could play on and then I looked down… I could see the lump in my arm, the bone was completely out,” recalls the 24-year-old.
“I was in hospital for 10 days, and the pain after the first operation was dreadful; that was when they went in and reconstructed all the ligaments.
“The timing wasn’t great either, it happened in my final year at university too so I had to type all my finals with my left hand, which wasn’t ideal.”
The road to recovery was tough, physically and psychologically, and he came back into an Armagh side that bore little resemblance to the one he last figured in.
Nothing ever lasts forever, and after a mammoth push in 2016 and ’17, several of Armagh’s more senior players walked away. All of a sudden, the talk was of transition rather than trophies.
Last year was tough, they took some bad beatings, but for Renaghan and co it was important to retain a sense a perspective.
Now, they are slowly but surely starting to move in the right direction, and this afternoon they open their Nicky Rackard campaign against Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds.
The Keady man was made captain by boss Padraig O’Connor at the start of the campaign, and he knows they face a tough start to the campaign.
“We weren’t too far away against Roscommon [in the Division 3A final],” says Renaghan.
“Monaghan will be a really tough game for us – we played them without their Castleblayney players at the start of the League, so this will be a different game altogether.”
Castleblayney showed how far they, and Monaghan hurling, have come when they almost pulled off one of the shocks of the year in the All-Ireland junior club final, just losing out to Kilkenny kingpins Dunnamaggin at the death.
And their return to the county fold coincided with a considerable upturn in Farney fortunes as the League progressed, having suffered a 4-11 to 0-5 defeat at the hands of today’s opponents in the first round of games.
Monaghan will fancy their chances of going to the Athletic Grounds and getting a win today – especially considering Armagh are without the injured Barry Shortt, Niall Burns and Eoin McGuinness, with Dylan McKenna also a doubt.
However, with Paul Gaffney back in the mix, you still feel that Armagh have too much experience and firepower to see them across the line.