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Clock ticking in battle to stay up, but Armagh believe

By Declan Bogue

This week, the phones of the Armagh players lay silent. Interview requests were politely refused or re-directed to the ever-growing number of people who handle their public relations nowadays. Missed calls were not returned.

The League is the League and the Championship is still the Championship but there comes a time for putting the head down and this week was it for the good ship Armagh.

Their immediate goals could not be more stark; two games left, two points required. If not, then the mocking arms of Division Three will break their fall.

But where will they come from? In front of a typically fervent Tyrone support in Healy Park tonight (7pm), or next week against Derry?

One man inside the camp was able to answer the pervading air of pessimism of the Orchard County footballing public this spring.

Coach and selector Aidan O'Rourke said: "Unless you are winning Ulster Championships and challenging for All-Irelands, sometimes there can be a malaise there. The perception can be that we are not at that stage yet. I don't think the players or the coaching staff feel that we are that far away from it.

"The Cavan game aside, the performances haven't been terrible.

"The lads know that there is a good bit more in them. Consistency-wise, we have only played in 10 or 15-minute spells. They know that when we are knitting it all together, we can compete with anybody."

Kieran McGeeney's men have shown impressive character a few times during the league. After losing their opening two games to Meath and Laois, they could have settled for a draw for the second consecutive league encounter against Fermanagh when Tomás Corrigan potted a long-range free in injury-time to level matters.

Instead, they chose bravery in working the ball upfield instantly, with the move crowned by a glorious point by Stefan Campbell, who has without question been one of the best players across the four divisions of the Allianz League.

The puzzling thing is that a week later, they were so limp in their casual surrender to a Cavan team that they have plenty of previous with, blitzed by 17 points.

After that game, McGeeney stood up and took the rap. He said: "I don't think we're as bad as we showed out there… I believe I have good footballers in there, I mustn't be doing the right thing with them for them to perform like that.

"I would like to consider myself a competitive person but we weren't even competitive there, we've been competitive since the start of the year with players missing but we just fell asunder there and it's me that has to look at it, not them."

Cavan manager Terry Hyland suggested it might have been part of McGeeney's bluffing ahead of their meeting in the Ulster Championship on May 29. But nobody really plays bluff with Division Three snapping at their backside.

The other occasion that gives lie to their powers of recovery was how they responded to Ethan Rafferty's red card in the next game at home to Galway, getting themselves into an eight-point lead before Galway caught them in the seventh minute of time added on.

For that Galway game, McGeeney finally put in goalkeeper Paddy Morrison - one of the most vocal presences on any goal-line to ramp up the organisation in defence. Brendan Donaghy returned to the starting team while Joe McElroy and Sean Connell made their first starts of the year.

As manager of the county Under-21s for a couple of years, Stevie McDonnell is well-placed to offer his assessment of a senior team whose age profile is getting younger.

The 2003 Player of the Year said: "I believe that the next wave of players are very good, very strong. They are capable of competing at the highest level. You only have to look at a number of them who have almost stamped their authority on the senior team, Micheál McKenna being one.

"Ethan Rafferty, Ciaron O'Hanlon are two more. In the last match you had young Joe McElroy and Shea Heffron, two still playing Under-21 football.

"There is a great crop of youngsters coming through in Armagh at the minute with good attitudes. Attitudes that let you know that these guys are going to be household names for Armagh for the next 10, 15 years. If they can go over to Omagh and throw the shackles off… Why don't they just do it?"

Looking at the bigger picture, O'Rourke is cautiously concerned about the time available to deliver their messages in training. Altogether, 31 players have seen action in the first five games with captain Ciaran McKeever only returning against Galway.

"Everything is incremental," he explained. "You have a starting point at the start of the year and with the best will in the world, it's never as far on as you would like it to be, irrespective of what's done before.

"Unless you are on the road a long time and are established at coaching patterns and playing patterns, then you always wish you had more done. We are feel there is a lot more to do."

The raw materials, the talent in the likes of Campbell - "almost unmarkable" says McDonnell - and the coaching brains trust are all in place. Quite how Armagh find themselves going to Omagh desperate for points and unlikely to gain a flicker of sympathy from a hungry Tyrone side is remarkable.

McDonnell rued: "It's going to be difficult going to Omagh and expecting to get two points.

"But it's not unachievable. Armagh went there two years ago and beat them in the Championship when they weren't expected to.

"Sometimes, Armagh teams perform a lot better when there is a lot of pressure on them. There is pressure on Kieran and the management team and the players to get a result this weekend."

If there is a kick in them, now is the time to see it.

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