By Shaun Casey
THE last time Armagh faced Antrim in the Ulster Championship, Aidan Nugent missed out through injury. That was back in 2021 and Nugent, now Armagh’s joint-captain along with Rian O’Neill, was sidelined for the entire year having suffered the dreaded ACL tear.
Two years on and the lively Cullyhanna sharpshooter is making his way back from a different wound, this time a hamstring knock, that kept him out of the majority of Armagh’s Division One league campaign.
Nugent started on the opening night against Monaghan, kicking 0-2 from play, but his only other appearances came from the bench in the final two rounds against Galway (where he recorded another 0-1) and Tyrone as Armagh suffered relegation to Division Two.
“I was probably a bit off the pace,” said Nugent of his recent return to from injury. “I was out for six or seven weeks, and it is good to get back.
“I picked up a bit of a niggle after the Monaghan game, I pulled a hamstring, so it is good to get back onto the pitch and get minutes into the legs leading up to the championship.”
It’s not the easiest forward line to get into. When Armagh are full out, they have a lot of fire power in attack, although question remain regarding the fitness of Rian O’Neill and Andrew Murnin ahead of Saturday’s preliminary round showdown.
“It is a tricky one because if you are fit it’s great but if you pick up a niggle and you’re out for a month you could end up missing three or four games. You just have to roll with the punches.
“It’s swings and roundabouts, you could be out with an injury and someone else picks up a knock and that is just the way it works. That’s what you need if you have competition in training it keeps you on your toes.
“If you are on the starting team, you know there are five or six lads wanting your place and it keeps you on your toes, it’s healthy competition. It would be worse if we are struggling in that division.”
At different stages of the league, a variety of names emerged as Armagh’s main scoring threat. O’Neill always carries that tag, but against Roscommon, Jason Duffy stepped up to land four first half points while Conor Turbitt hit 0-5 against Tyrone, in a game where Stefan Campbell chipped in with 0-4 in the second half.
Armagh’s attacking power can’t be questioned, they even have goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty as a viable option coming forward. Only five players scored more than the Grange player throughout the league.
But Armagh’s inability to raise green flags has caused concern. Tiernan Kelly slotted home Rory Beggan’s gift in the first-round while Rafferty’s long ball towards the square flew to the back of the net against Galway. Other than that, Armagh scored no goals.
“I suppose with every other game there is a different scorer on the sheet,” added Nugent. “The aim is to spread out your scorers on the team, so if everyone is chipping in with points here and there obviously you are going to be harder to beat.
“I suppose we just get back to basics, move the ball forward as quick as we can, the game has gone a wee bit more defensive but when a team has set up defensively against you it is not as easy to kick the 17 or 18 points a game, which is always the aim.
“We didn’t change a whole lot (this year), we just maybe didn’t click as much as we had done but ideally, we want to be getting back to kicking 16, 17, 18 points a game. Especially in the Ulster Championship and in the latter stages, I suppose 12 or 13 points doesn’t really cut it.”
Armagh will enjoy the comforts of home advantage this weekend as they welcome Antrim to the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds. Nugent is expecting the huge Orchard fan base to drive the team on.
“We draw a big support, and it helps because most of our games, even when we are away, feels like we’re at home and the crowds give a good buzz and sort of drives you on. We are happy with our support and hopefully that continues into the summer.
“It will be a full house and it is always nice playing in the Athletic Grounds, it has a great atmosphere the way it is crowded so tight to the pitch, and it is always a good buzz, so I suppose it is a bit of a help that it’s at home.
“They (Antrim) are a good side, in Ulster out of all the competitions every game is a level playing field, I am looking forward to it.”