By Shaun Casey
KARL McKeegan will lead the Armagh hurlers into the new season and the Antrim legend is looking forward to getting started. The busy period of sorting out a panel and finalising his management team is almost over and the games will soon be coming thick and fast.
The Orchard County have been so close to success over the last number of years in both league and championship, and McKeegan is hoping to ensure the commitment of the team will finally get them over the line.
Having reached the Division 3A final last year, only to lose to near neighbours Tyrone by two in the end, McKeegan knows his new side aren’t far away from capturing some silverware.
“At the minute all I want is to get players committed,” said the former Antrim captain. “You hear things that some players aren’t committed and they’re just in and out so first of all I want to get the players committed and enjoying it and that I think is the most important thing.
“Obviously, they were knocking at the door last year so I think for themselves, they should be looking to win that league. It’s not going to be easy, of course it’s not, the other teams will all be thinking the same.
“But I think if they commit and they realise they weren’t that far away last year, we just need to push on and try and win that league. It would be good to get promoted and get up to another level because obviously playing at a higher level brings you on again.
“The league is important, I think the league is very important, it would be good to get out of it. The Nickey Rackard comes after that and again it’s probably the same. You want to have a good run in the Nickey Rackard, so I think they should be looking to win that as well.
“But as I say, I just want to try and get a good, committed bunch who are enjoying coming to play for Armagh. They should know themselves that they’re not that far away so it should be easy for me to push them that extra bit.
“They’ve been so close over the last couple of years and if they can push themselves a wee bit more and be a bit more committed then there should be a league title in this team. They should see how close they are, and it just takes that one extra step and that one more push.”
With preseason just around the corner, McKeegan expects the players to comeback into the squad in fairly good nick. “We’ll be looking to get into the McGurk Cup again this year, it’s a good chance to get to play good, competitive games before the league starts.
“We don’t have that long, it used to be pre-season for a county team was three or four months but now with the club season ending a lot later it means you’re starting a bit later.
“I think that way you’re not having to build up as much fitness because the Keady boys only finished a few weeks ago and then Sean Treacy’s and Derrynoose have only stopped, and Middletown are obviously still going.
“It’s not as if those players are losing their fitness and you have to do two or three months to get them back into shape so a lot of them should be coming back fit enough.
“December will really be about topping that fitness up and then getting a few matches in January with the McGurk Cup and hopefully another couple of friendlies. Obviously, I haven’t seen that much of the players so it’ll be good to get as many matches as we can before the league starts.”
McKeegan takes over from fellow Cushendall native Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton, so he knows what to expect in the Orchard County hot-seat. “I’d be very friendly with ‘Sambo,’ and he was involved in it last year, he got the call whenever the management team stepped down.
“I’ve been speaking with him, and I’ve got a friend, Brian McNaughton, in Keady so I always would have followed Armagh hurling and knew a bit about it. So, whenever I got the call to see if I would be interested, it didn’t take me long to think about it.
“I thought it would be something great to be involved in. I hurled against the likes of Keady and Middletown during my playing days, and I know how passionate they are about hurling and how committed they are.
“I thought it would be a good gig and I always wanted to get involved in the management side. Whenever the call came, I was very excited, and it didn’t take me too long to think about it and I really am looking to get started.
“I ran a few idea by ‘Sambo’ and he was a good help and I spoke to Simon Doherty (recently retired), I met him, and Simon gave me a few pointers, so it was good to talk to people like that. Everybody wants to see Armagh hurling doing well so it was easy talking to those people and they’re just pointing me in the right direction.”
For now, it’s all about finalising a playing squad and his backroom team before the action throws in after Christmas.
“Obviously, we’ve just got together and we’re trying to get a panel together and that’s been the main job for the last couple of months. We’re trying to get all the backroom team sorted as well so it’s been all go so far.
“This is the hard bit at the start of the year, trying to get everything sorted and everything in place for the year ahead. It’s different with a new manager coming in, you’ve got to put everything in place and that’s been the difficult part, but it’s been good, and we’ve got a great response from the players.
“We’ve almost got all the panel sorted. We’re leaving the Middletown players at it at the minute because obviously they’re still involved in the Ulster Championship and that’s very important for them.
“But everybody else has been contacted. We’ve had a few no’s which is understandable too, some players just can’t commit but from everybody else we’ve talked to we’ve had a great response and they’re all looking forward to it.
“It’s just over a couple of weeks away until we get started. We’re having a meeting with the players this week just to get a wee chat to them and explain what all we’re planning for the year ahead and what we’re expecting of them. It’ll not be too long, it’s just to get to know them really.
“John Carson is in with me as coach and Ruairi McGrattan, who was involved in the management team last year. Ruairi’s a great man and obviously he knows a lot of them as well which has been good, and he has helped me a lot in getting this panel together.
“He knows the Armagh set up very well, obviously he played for them, and he knows a lot about them which was needed. Michael Murphy from the Keady club is also in along with me.
“Another good man, he’s been involved with the Armagh u-17s and u-20s, which is good to have a link with that because we will want to bring in u-20s throughout the year, not only to give them experience of the senior set up but also, they can help with matches. It’s good to have a link with that and Micheal will know all those players.
“That’s the four of us involved in the management team and then we’re still waiting to confirm our strength and conditioning coach and physio, etc.”