By Shaun Casey
AS is usually the case in Armagh before the championship starts, Crossmaglen are the early front runners to be the last team standing.
The Rangers reclaimed their throne last season following back-to-back final defeats to Maghery (2020) and Clann Éireann (2021) and will be targeting another tilt at the title.
The return of Oisin O’Neill to full fitness is a major boost to Anthony Cunningham’s men, who have the quality of Rian O’Neill, Aaron Kernan, Cian McConville, Callum Cumiskey and Jamie Clarke to call upon.
Star names such as James Morgan and last year’s captain Stephen Morris are injury doubts, and look set to miss out on a large chunk of the campaign.
There are four groups of four in the Armagh SFC and Cross will face neighbours Mullaghbawn along with north Armagh pair Clan na Gael and Sarsfields.
Clans have been building nicely over the past few years and with Stefan Campbell and Shane McPartlan leading the way, they could offer a real challenge.
Mullaghbawn will be without the injured Eoghan McDonnell, while Sarsfields didn’t have the best of league campaigns, but are always capable of springing a surprise.
Division 1A league championships Clann Éireann look best placed to offer a real challenge to Crossmaglen’s crown and are stacked with a serious amount of quality.
Tiernan Kelly, Conor Turbitt and Barry McCambridge are the headline acts, but they are ably assisted by the likes of skipper Conor McConville, the experienced Ryan Henderson, along with Sean McCarthy and Ryan Owens.
They will be without their 2021 SFC winning captain Shea Heffron, who has gone travelling all year, while goalkeeper Eoghan Mulholland has relocated to Australia.
Ruairi Lavery’s side take on St Peter’s in the opening round in an all-Lurgan clash and the Whites will be confident of causing an upset on home turf.
They have ex-Antrim boss Frank Fitzsimmons in charge while Aaron Findon and Niall McConville are the star attractions.
Last year’s beaten finalists Granemore are in the same section and are boosted by the return of former Armagh midfielder Kieran Toner, who stepped out of retirement at the start of the year.
Grange make up the group and they’ve had a horrible year to date. Chris Rafferty’s side suffered relegation and face a championship campaign without their star man Ethan Rafferty, who picked up a season-ending injury in their final league encounter.
Group A looks to be the proverbial ‘group of death’ containing two-time champions Maghery, Ballymacnab, Killeavy and Dromintee.
Maghery have lost a few of the stars that led them to their first and second ever titles in 2016 and 2020 but have retained the services of some experienced heads such as Stephen Cusack and Stefan Forker, although Ronan Lappin will miss out through injury.
Of course, they have their county contingent to call upon as well and the return of Aidan Forker, Ben Crealey and Ciaran Higgins adds untold quality and experience.
They begin their campaign with a home tie against Ballymacnab, the side they knocked out of the championship at the quarter-final stage last season.
The ‘Nab were relegated from the top tier this season but have Rory Grugan back in the fold. They have county experience to lean on as well with former Armagh players Ryan Kennedy and Gavin McParland in their ranks along with ex-Antrim keeper Chris Kerr.
Killeavy, led by Tommy Coleman, Clann Éireann’s 2021 championship winning manager, have been hailed as one to watch over the last few years but have yet to make a proper dent in the championship.
With Ciaron O’Hanlon back to full fitness, Killeavy will be eyeing up top spot, but face a difficult opener away to fellow south Armagh opponents Dromintee, who earned promotion from Division 1B.
Group C seems impossible to call from the outset and all four teams will be confident of opening round wins. The SFC kicks off in Silverbridge on Friday night and the Division 1B winners host Madden.
Jarly Óg Burns is the big name for Colm Nally’s side, who are in brilliant form. For Madden, they’ll hope Niall Grimley is ready to make his long-awaited return and he’ll be a big addition having not played for the Raparees since 2021.
2022 intermediate winners Shane O’Neill’s were relegated from the league but played the entire campaign without the services of Greg McCabe and the Mackin brothers, Connaire and Ciaran.
They take on 2017 champions Armagh Harps who will be without the experience of Charlie Vernon and Karol Loughran but have a number of youngsters coming through that are worth keeping an eye on.