National League: Armagh must raise the bar to beat Dublin
Armagh manager Paddy O’Rourke is still waiting to see his side really catch fire this year — and he is hoping that his wait will end tomorrow night.
In the three tepid matches they have played to date in the Dr McKenna Cup, the Orchard County’s performances have ranged from adequate to abysmal.
But when Dublin come calling for the Allianz League opener at the magnificently refurbished Athletic Grounds tomorrow night, O’Rourke’s men will need to unleash their physicality, skill and staying power that have largely lain dormant to date.
This will be a contest on a different planet — the Dubs, fresh from their O’Byrne Shield triumph and anxious to lend substance to the belief that they can win the league crown for the first time since 1993, will be shooting from the hip in what will be a bid to lay down an early marker in the competition.
And their hosts, making their debut in Division One, know that an opening round defeat could prove the possible precursor to a relegation battle — that’s a reflection of the pressure that all sides in the top bracket in particular will be under from the word go.
No wonder that manager O’Rourke is placing particular emphasis on his formation in the vital middle third of the park for a match he is so desperately keen to win.
Ciaran Toner has been playing at full-back recently but will now partner James Lavery in the engine-room and, crucially, Charlie Vernon will be asked to lend a helping hand here in order to curb the Dubs’ machinery.
Vernon’s ability to win breaking ball and to launch solo surges deep into Dublin territory is certain to be a key component of Armagh’s overall strategy.
Dublin manager Pat Gilroy has been lamenting the fact that 17 of his players from last year have been unavailable to him so far because of injury, being out of the country or being involved in Kilmacud Crokes’ All-Ireland Club semi-final preparations — they are due to meet Crossmaglen Rangers on February 27 in Navan.
Yet the Dublin attack contains quality finishers in Kevin McManamon, Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan and accurate free-taker Tómas Quinn while David Bastick is a particularly combative midfielder alongside the more elegant Michael Dara McAuley while Paul Casey, Michael Fitzsimmons and consistently outstanding goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton shore up their defence.
Armagh welcome back defenders Andy Mallon, Ciaran McKeever and Finian Moriarty while Stevie McDonnell and Rory Grugan are key figures in an attack that will still be missing the considerable scoring expertise of Jamie Clarke and Ronan Clarke.
This infusion of experience into the home side’s rearguard is certainly timely — Brogan, the 2010 Footballer of the Year, will require special policing while McMenamon’s creativity and finishing of late have been of the very highest quality.
There will be razzmatazz, music from the Artane Boys Band, spectacle and a carnival atmosphere to mark the re-opening of the 20,000-capacity Athletic Grounds — but all Armagh want is two precious points in the bag.