By Niall McCoy
SAFETY is not guaranteed and any Armagh player who thinks they have secured a spot in the Orchard county’s line-up for next month’s National League opener may need to think again, according to team coach Ciaran McKeever.
Kieran McGeeney should have his most competitive squad ever as the Ulster county prepare for their first Division One campaign since 2012.
The reason for that is the return of four players, for different reasons, who will be pushing hard for starting places.
Cullyhanna’s Ross McQuillan is back on board after ending his time with AFL club Essendon in January. Killeavy half-forward Ciaron O’Hanlon is also part of the squad having spent time in Australia in recent years.
There will be plenty of focus on returning Ballymacnab attacker Jack Grugan, arguably the best forward in the club championship over the last three seasons. Also back in for the first time since 2018 is promising Clann Eireann youngster Barry McCambridge who has been excellent at full-back for Armagh underage teams.
Jamie Clarke and Callum Cumiskey, meanwhile, are not expected to be involved from last year’s panel.
“You want all the best players in Armagh at your disposal,” said McKeever. “I think that is something that ‘Geezer’ has now. Boys who were maybe out of the squad are back in now. The best players in Armagh are there now and it’s up to us to blend them all together.
“These players have a lot of talent and they must not stand back and watch players who have been playing regularly over the last couple of years. Their ambition should be to say ‘I’m starting this first league match.’
“That’s something that I will be trying to get across to the players, that nobody is safe. If you’re there five years or if you’re only back in, the positions are going to be up for grabs.
“I’ll have a different eye, Kieran Donaghy will have a different eye, and we want to keep everyone on their toes. We’ll not be letting any player get comfortable or think that they’re safe.”
Armagh are now just a few weeks away from their opening National League Division One North game against Monaghan on the weekend of May 15/16.
Initially McGeeney’s side were due to travel to Monaghan for the fixture but it looks more likely to be held on neutral soil – probably Newry or Dundalk – as the Oriel county are set to be punished for breaking the training restrictions surrounding Covid-19.
Home games against Tyrone and Donegal will follow as they try to survive in the mini Ulster series with the bottom two after three rounds being forced into relegation play-offs.
McKeever, who only joined the coaching team over the winter months, said that he was disappointed not to be playing the likes of Dublin and Kerry in the group stage, but understood why it had to happen.
“Whenever Armagh got promoted to Division One last year I texted my cousin who works in Croke Park and said to make sure that we get Dublin away, Galway away and Kerry away,” said McKeever. “I was looking at a few weekends away as a fan!
“That’s all changed now but the key thing for us is to realise that we are in Division One now and that’s where we want to stay.
“We have Monaghan, Tyrone and Donegal. We are familiar with their players and they are familiar with the Armagh players.
“We’d be confident and content with where we are at. We feel we are very capable of competing with those teams and getting the results that we need.”
It’s a Ciaran/Kieran fest in the management team with McKeever and McGeeney being joined by Kerry legend Donaghy.
McKeever and ‘Star’ crossed paths on the pitch on a number of occasions while they were teammates in 2008 as Ireland toured Australia in the International Rules series. The Cullyhanna man is looking forward to linking up with him again.
“I played in the International Rules with him and I’ve been in his company on a few different occasions, nights out and things like that,” McKeever said.
“I’m really looking forward to joining up with Kieran and Armagh. We have been doing a lot of calling and Zoom calling to make sure we are singing off the same hymn sheet regarding our coaching language and ideas.
“The boys are excited about him coming down because he has been at the very top and he can share that experience.”
As well as a truncated league campaign, Armagh’s championship season will be between one and six games – excluding replays – as the knockout format is back for the second year in-a-row.
McKeever said that while nothing will be perfect in 2021, it was the decision he was expecting.
“Nobody was sure what was going to happen but in late January, early February there was a draft sent out with the possibilities.
“The longer the thing went on the more likely that it was going to be the hand we were dealt, a mini regionalised league and a knockout championship.
“At this stage it’s just great to get the green light to say that it’s going ahead. That’s the main thing.”