A tough campaign ahead for Armagh

ARMAGH will begin their 2012 campaign against Down on Sunday in the McKenna Cup competition.

And then they will look forward to what could be their toughest NFL campaign of modern times which starts in early February with a home game against 2010 All-Ireland champions Cork.

Paul Grimley, who returns to the sideline as assistant manager to Paddy O’Rourke following stints with both Monaghan and Meath, will find a very different Orchard County squad to the one which reached the pinnacle of success back in 2002.

With Steven McDonnell taking a break and Ronan Clarke still attempting to get back to full fitness following a sustained period on the sidelines with an Achilles tendon problem, no players remain from the All-Ireland winning side of 2002.

Armagh will have an experimental look throughout their McKenna Cup campaign and the early stages of the league considering that Crossmaglen will be involved in another tilt at the All-Ireland club crown.

Midfielder Kieran Toner is now in Australia for an unknown period and Ciaran McKeever, who is carrying an injury, is expected to miss the early part of the season.

January games for the county are all close to home. This Sunday’s McKenna Cup opener is followed by a home game against Monaghan on Sunday week and a midweek match against St Mary’s College on Wednesday, January 18.

With the recent call coming from Varsity quarters for county managers not to select university students who are in preparation for the Sigerson Cup competition, fewer players from Queen’s, UUJ and St Mary’s will appear in county squads in the early part of 2012.

The general belief of supporters is that this season Armagh, under the stewardship of assistant manager Paul Grimley, will attempt to play to a more co-ordinated game plan than last season which saw some of the more experienced players dictate strategies varying between stern defensive formations and cavalier attempts at all-out attack.

Last season Armagh survived in division one by the skin of their teeth using the much-criticised head-to-head rule and, despite showing good form on a one-off occasion against Down in the championship, struggled to overcome division four outfit Wicklow before being easily despatched by Tyrone in the All-Ireland Qualifiers.

Ironically, Armagh’s heavy defeat against Derry in the provincial series underlined the varying degree of strategies currently being employed by county boards in the search for sustained success.

In 2011 the Armagh management employed the services of strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn who since has been deemed surplus to requirements.

However Derry, despite their handy win over Armagh without the services of a strength and conditioning coach, have now appointed one.

The rationale behind the Oak Leaf appointment may have been inspired by the results of injury-reduction methods being implemented by Lurgan man Tommy Stevenson who has been overseeing strategies at Derry club Lavey.

With possibly only Aaron Kernan and Jamie Clarke from the all conquering Crossmaglen side guaranteed places on the Armagh Championship team in 2012, places would appear to be up for grabs.

Talented Ballymacnab player Rory Grugan’s much-documented arrival on to the scene at the start of last season saw the young player suffer under the pressure of the media spotlight, but with time the young forward, an All-Ireland Minor medallist, can become a good county player.

Real talent lies amongst a poll of possible debutants which could include Clan na Gael’s Stephan Campbell, Aidan Forker from Maghery and St Peters’ towering midfielder Aaron Findon. Gareth Swift is expected back soon and with Kieran Toner in Oz, midfield places are certainly up for contention.

Until such times, should they ever arise, when Steven McDonnell, Ronan Clarke and Jamie Clarke line out together in the Armagh full forward line, new attacking quality will have to be unearthed. Strong options, however, do exist in defence with Moriarty, Mallon, McKeever, Duffy and Donaghy all capable.

Armagh are currently ranked at odds of 40|1 for the All Ireland title and 10|1 for the provincial championship. The Ulster dream is certainly attainable with new thinking and a fresh approach.