THERE were some half decent forwards hanging about the tunnel after Armagh’s victory over Meath on Saturday night. Kieran Donaghy, Trevor Giles, Colm O’Rourke, Conleith Gilligan, Stephen Bray - imagine that crew lining out in their pomp.
But also striking was the depth of attacking talent either only just returning to Kieran McGeeney’s matchday panel, or expected back as the Orchard’s promotion push hots up following two wins on the trot.
Rian O’Neill was waiting at the mouth of the tunnel to pat team-mates on the back. The towering Andrew Murnin, hands in pockets, headed for the changing room door, passing Aidan Nugent on the way.
Pressing flesh with young supporters was a bespectacled Ethan Rafferty, like Clark Kent eagerly awaiting the opportunity to perform Superman heroics on the field once more. The Grange man is up there with the best forwards in the county despite a belated redeployment as attacking goalkeeper extraordinaire.
Oisin O’Neill came off the bench and bagged a couple. Ross McQuillan - like Nugent a central figure in Cullyhanna’s All-Ireland intermediate triumph - was granted a late cameo, while club-mate Jason Duffy and Tiernan Kelly await their chance.
It is a supporting cast that would be the envy of most counties.
On the field, Oisin Conaty cemented his claim to a regular starting spot with a dynamic showing full of pace, power and purpose as the lethargic Royals were rumbled. Cian McConville’s clinical finish for the goal just before half-time opened the floodgates for Armagh, while older heads Rory Grugan and Stefan Campbell worked like Trojans to force openings.
At the head of it all was Conor Turbitt.
He had an unenviable task for much of the first half as, all too often, the Clann Eireann man found himself isolated between a sea of Meath jerseys - yet still he ran, he worked, he won and converted frees when the Orchard were struggling to make any headway.
And the strength of the competition, and those coming behind, is enough to keep all on their toes.
“The quality we have at training is excellent,” said Turbitt.
“We are only going to get stronger. We are seeing the Cullyhanna boys coming back and a few boys coming back from injury. We had a good pre-season and, closer to game-time, we picked up a few niggles. They’ll come back, so it is only going to get tougher and tougher.”
It will leave Kieran McGeeney facing some selection headaches in the weeks ahead – though it’s a problem the Orchard boss is only too happy to have.
“It’s only a strong squad when you’re winning,” said the Mullaghbawn man.
“If you lose a game people always say ‘they should be playing, they should be playing’. You give fellas a chance because they’ve been training in pre-season this year, other fellas have been out injured and stuff like that.
“When you’re winning, it’s good. It puts everybody under pressure and that’s what you want. I’m hoping the fellas who were watching will be going ‘I want on there’ and pushing hard to get it – that’s what you’re looking for.
“We have more people at training this year than we’ve ever had, so that’s a big plus.”
Turbitt missed two first half goal chances in the opening win over Louth but, as the Meath challenge collapsed in a flurry of wides and poor decisions, there were no such nerves towards the end of Saturday’s encounter.
Heading into a break weekend, it leaves Armagh well placed for their clash with Kildare at Carlow’s Netwatch Cullen Park on February 18.
“Last week Louth set up a bit more defensively… it can be tough obviously when teams are going defensive. It’s just the way it is.
“You’re trying to work them out and find wee pockets of space. Meath probably pressed us a bit harder -it took us a while to get used to what they were doing.
“We got the goals at the right times during the match, just before half-time and soon into the second half. That sort of killed the game off.”
Bigger tests lie ahead in the remainder of the year as McGeeney – in his 10th year as Armagh boss – hopes they can kick on after the disappointment of last year’s relegation from Division One and subsequent Ulster final defeat to Derry.
“I think we have a good team and we can compete with the best, but when you’re at that top level, there’s very little between the top teams.
“The ones that are really good are just good at those fine margins, coming into the last 15 minutes… the Dublins, the Kerrys, Derry last year too.
“I’m hoping it [last year] is more of a motivation than a hangover. They’re a great bunch of lads and they’ve started to understand over the last number of years it’s them that cross the white line. They make the decisions.
“They’re doing well at the minute, but the big thing is the next three or four games and whether they get that consistency.”