Armagh on the brink of Division One return

National Football League Division Two

Armagh v Roscommon

(Saturday, Athletic Grounds, 5.30pm)

KIERAN McGeeney has often come under scrutiny for carrying an enlarged panel, but over the last two weeks it has been a bit of a blessing as a Covid-19 outbreak meant that a number of players were unable to attend sessions ahead of Armagh’s clash with Roscommon.

The Orchard county manager likes to work with an extended training panel. Last year, when the players had to have their Sportsfile portrait pictures taken ahead of their Ulster clash with Down, 44 bodies appeared before the cameras.

The isolation period differs for positive cases and close contacts, so like Ulster rivals Fermanagh, their build-up to the game at the Athletic Grounds on Saturday evening has been pretty chaotic and that entire panel would have been badly needed.

However, while the Erne county have been publically demanding a postponement Armagh have been keeping their powder dry. The risk of forfeiture is something they do not want to dice with. For Fermanagh it’s worth a try, they are in deep relegation trouble, but Armagh are basically one win away from a return to Division One football for the first time since 2012.

Numbers were never confirmed but Gaelic Life understands that more than a third of the training panel was impacted by either positive tests or being deemed a close contact. It has robbed the side of some key preparation time in what was an already short window and there is no guarantee that the consequences of that will not be felt in front of the RTÉ cameras this weekend.

Still though, there are plenty of reasons for Armagh fans to be optimistic, even if they can’t actually get to the ground to cheer their side on due to restrictions.

For one, Armagh were playing some superb football pre-lockdown. In last week’s Gaelic Life, Oisin McConville said that the attack is worthy of the hype and that they have yet to hit their heights.

The way that they dismantled Fermanagh in the final game before Covid-19 turned the world upside down showed a forward line that was starting to get comfortable in its own skin. They hit 3-14 in the 13-point win but, if anything, the scoreline was flattering to Ryan McMenamin’s men.

The unique club championship window was also very revealing. Without the requirements to serve two masters at the one time, county players stood out a mile.

Aidan Forker was exemplary in an attacking role for Maghery (he will likely be in the defence on Saturday), while Oisin O’Neill probably outshone his brother Rian in Crossmaglen colours – no mean feat. Aaron McKay, who was struggling to get his place pre-lockdown, was the standout defender in the county as Dromintee shot to the top of the Senior A League and he looks a shoo-in for centre half-back while team captain Stefan Campbell was unstoppable as Clan na Gael secured a return to top-tier football after their Intermediate Championship success.

McGeeney’s panel will look almost identical to the one he had back in March, bucking a trend of some other Ulster counties who have added five or six new players.

There have been changes. A few fringe players have dropped off while Aidan Nugent has been ruled out for the season with a cruciate injury. One or two players were looked at but it’s pretty much as you were with the side showing well in a narrow challenge game loss to Galway before Covid interrupted their plans.

It has also been Connacht v Ulster for Roscommon’s preparations with Anthony Cunningham’s side facing Donegal in Sligo on Saturday past.

Played in awful conditions, the Rossies led by a few points at half-time before a strong Donegal outfit – that included the Kilcar and Naomh Conaill county players – turned the tide in the second half to win by a small margin.

There was some unwanted fall-out after that are it was reported that Gardai attended Roscommon’s post-match meal to see if any Covid restrictions were being broken, and an investigation is underway. A Roscommon official told the Irish Daily Mail that they were in compliance with all rules.

Like Armagh, Roscommon have a hugely talented and physically capable attack to call on and they find themselves behind the Orchard county on scoring difference alone.

Their last match in March was a seven-point win over Westmeath and didn’t feature the Murtaghs, Diarmuid and Ciaran, Shane Killoran and Ultan Harney. They are all back in full training. Mark Richardson and Richard Hughes, who both featured in that last league game, are out though.

This is a huge clash between the top two in the division, and the winner here will almost certainly be dining at the top table next year. If played in March as it was meant to be, it would have had ‘draw’ written all over it. Seven months on and with everything changed, don’t be shocked if they still can’t be separated.

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