Former Down All Ireland winning colleagues James McCartan and Paddy O’Rourke today find themselves confronted by a not unpleasant dilemma as they prepare for Ulster’s biggest match of the year to date.
While McCartan, now the Down manager, has been striving of late to accommodate as many players from his ambitious squad in his team as possible during their dynamic unbeaten surge in the National Football League, O’Rourke in his capacity as Armagh boss is suddenly discovering that he has a more generous seam of talent available to him than had been thought up until now.
It’s against this fascinating backcloth that the teams will lock horns in an all-ticket Division Two tussle at Pairc Esler, Newry tomorrow night (7.30) which is expected to severely tax the capacity of the refurbished stadium.
All-ticket matches are not quite de rigeur in March but such is the importance, appeal and intrigue surrounding this meeting of neighbours that it has become a must-see event rather than just another league tie.
In handing out a second successive defeat to previously high-flying Donegal at the weekend, Down, with Daniel Hughes back in their attack and the Clarke brothers Martin and John again pulling the strings, fired out a message that promotion to the top bracket is well within their gambit.
And Armagh, despite having been stripped of the services of Malachy Mackin and James Lavery at the 11th hour because of injury, not only humbled Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare on Sunday but laid down a firm marker that the “work in progress” to which manager O’Rourke has alluded from time to time is proceeding very satisfactorily indeed.
If the Orchard County’s unexpected seven-point triumph (0-12 to 0-5) over the Lily Whites afforded O’Rourke considerable satisfaction, then the stunning contribution of Stefan Forker (0-4) in attack and the imposing performance of Ronan Austin in midfield in particular have provid
ed the 1991 Down All Ireland winning captain with rich options for tomorrow’s meeting of minds with his former Mourne county colleague.
Last week a cloud of gloom engulfed Armagh when it was revealed that Ronan Clarke and Kevin Dyas would be out for some weeks and the depression deepened when it was discovered that Mackin, Lavery and Charlie Vernon were also ruled out of the Kildare clash.
But the intensity, quality and pride that O’Rourke’s men brought to the table have now fermented optimism for their confrontation with a Down side that have given every indication to date that Division One is their goal.
Like McCartan, O’Rourke is anxious to tread cautiously and has reiterated that his main aim is to build a side capable of making progress in the Championship.
“Our target is to try and win each match in the league as it comes along. We are meeting a Down team that is unbeaten so far and playing at home. I think the ingredients are there for what will be a great game of football. I am pleased that some players have now come into this Armagh team and acquitted themselves well – it could be difficult to leave them off,” said O’Rourke pointedly.
McCartan, meanwhile, now has more resources at midfield where Ambrose Rogers, Calum King, Peter Fitzpatrick and Paul Greenan are in contention while Stephen Kearney can also provide cover there. And the Down boss has seen James Colgan settle in at centre-half-back with Conor Garvey now at wing-back.
“Obviously there is keen competition for places in the side and that’s a good thing. A manager can only accommodate fifteen players in his starting line-up. There is a lot to play for tomorrow night and it should be quite an occasion,” said McCartan.
It will be an even better occasion indeed should his side extend their unbeaten run.