Armagh have lost the fear factor
Selection headache: Paul Grimley has a number of important players sidelined for tomorrow night's clash with Down
FEBRUARY may still be in its infancy but Armagh manager Paul Grimley is firmly convinced that championship football in all but name will be unfurled early this year.
To be precise, tomorrow night his team face Down in an Allianz League Division Two encounter – and it has sparked early season fervour in both counties.
"Make no mistake about it, there will be a championship feel to this match," stresses Grimley.
"I know that the Ulster championship is not due to start until May but take it from me that all the ingredients for knock-out football will be on show at the Athletic Grounds on Friday.
"There is invariably a special edge to Armagh v Down encounters and I think this will be more in evidence on this occasion."
Grimley is particularly anxious that Armagh followers, known to be disenchanted with their team's more recent performances, should "keep some perspective" if they are intending to go along to the game.
"If the fans are disappointed at this point in time because of recent results, how do they think the players themselves feel? These are young guys for the most part, after all, and they are making the huge step up from club football to inter-county football," maintains Grimley,
"I would ask our supporters to keep some sense of perspective and get behind the side rather than denigrate their efforts."
And Grimley describes the theory that fans who pay the admission price to see the game have a right to air their views as they see fit as "a load of bull".
"I don't subscribe to this at all," raps Grimley. "If people are coming to the game to condemn players, then they should stay away. The notion that because they pay their money they can criticise all they like is a load of bull.
"I would like to think that our supporters will come in positive mode and give the lads encouragement. That's all I ask. I know that we are not in a good place at the minute but heaping abuse on the players is certainly not going to help matters."
In the not too distant past, the Athletic Grounds was viewed as an intimidating fortress by visiting sides.
Not any more though according to the straight-talking Grimley.
"No team fears coming to us now," he concedes, "And Down certainly won't be quaking in their boots at the prospect of facing us.
"Time was when home advantage meant a lot to us but that's gone.
"We have Laois, Donegal and Monaghan still to come to us and you can bet your life that they will be fancying their chances.
"The challenge for us is to try and maximise the opportunity to build up league points on our own ground. That's not going to be easy."
Indeed, Armagh's already considerable woes have been compounded now that Aidan Forker will undergo today on a knee injury.
And with Grimley admitting that he is forced to apply "a sticking plaster" remedy to his defensive ills, it's not hard to deduce that optimism is thin on the ground.
"I have an entire defence out injured at the moment," confirms Grimley. "I know that all counties have their injury concerns but we seem to have an inordinate number of casualties right now and the really worrying thing is several of them are long-term.
"I will have to use a sticking-plaster to bind our defence together."
Aaron Kernan, Finian Moriarty, James Morgan, Kieran Toner, Gary McCooey, Paul McGeown and Brendan Donaghy will all be conspicuous by their absence from the Orchard county rearguard.
Grimley is still mulling over the composition of the left flank of his defence but looks certain to give starting berths to Stephen Harold at midfield and Ciaran McKeever at centre-half-back following their impressive contributions when introduced as substitutes last Sunday against Louth.
And the Armagh boss gleans encouragement from the fact that Ethan Rafferty, who had been doubtful prior to the Louth game, is continuing to underscore his reputation as a midfielder of considerable talent.
Down manager James McCartan, meanwhile, looks certain to tweak his side, especially at the back.
Armagh: P McEvoy; A Mallon, C Vernon, P Hughes; M Shields, C McKeever, C Rafferty; S Harold, E Rafferty; B Mallon, K Dyas, T Kernan; J Clarke, S Campbell, R Tasker.