By Shaun Casey
IF recent history is anything to go by, then Armagh’s National Hurling League opener with Louth has the potential to be a cracker. Their last two meetings have been decided by last-minute scores, with the Orchard County just edging through by one point on both occasions.
Dean Gaffney was the hero in both encounters, slotting over the final, game-winning score, but the Middletown man has gone travelling for the year and won’t be available for selection.
Armagh manager Karl McKeegan was sorry to see him go but has introduced a host of fresh faces to the panel for the season ahead.
“He’s away travelling. There are a few boys that could have been part of the panel that aren’t there, a few of the Gaffneys all had to step away for different reasons,” said McKeegan.
“It’s disappointing not to have players of that experience, when you’re losing players like that it’s hard. It is sort of a rebuild, but the boys that have come in are mad keen and they will get better as the year goes on. Everybody will get their chance and the ones on Saturday, hopefully they’ll take it, and we’ll get the win.”
The Antrim native envisions a tough opener on Saturday and he’s preparing his side for a big battle. “We’re under no illusions what we’re going down to.
“Obviously, you’re looking a fast start and get a win in the league but the last few games (against Louth) have been very closely fought so I don’t see this Saturday being any different.
“We just have to go down, we have to make sure that the players realise that they have to play for the full 70 minutes, and you can’t just play in fits and starts because if you do, that’s how you get punished. It’s just getting them to go in with the right attitude.
“The hurling’s there, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s just all the other wee bits that go with it. It’s going to be a battle and they obviously have a good manager in Paul McCormack (former Armagh captain) with them, it’s going to be a tough game.”
It’s a fiercely competitive division for Armagh, who reached the Division 3A league final last season but lost out to arch-rivals Tyrone. McKeegan is focusing on his players arriving with the right attitude and hoping to get off to a good start.
“In my eyes we’re looking to compete in the league. Of course, you would love to get to a semi-final or a final, but we will be first and foremost just looking to compete.There’s not much between any of the teams so it’s just down to attitude and how much you want it on the day and that’s what will probably decide a few of the games.
“We’re looking to get off to a good start and if we can get a good start then confidence grows so Saturday is a very important game and hopefully, we can come with the right attitude.”