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Armagh must get priorities in order amid fixture woe: Marsden


By Declan Bogue

As deep as the criticism is for the Dr McKenna Cup right now - chiefly being staged in inhospitable conditions, multiple fixture cancellations and the whole exercise being mere shadow boxing for most teams - imagine how it was almost a quarter of a century ago when Armagh won their last title in 1994.

That was an era when county teams would revert to some old, long-sleeve jerseys that were always a little more plain than the flashy outfits of the summer, with a couple of rounds played in the early part of the year and a final shoehorned into late April.

Diarmuid Marsden, the man who started the move for the Armagh goal that propelled them to victory in the 2002 All-Ireland final, maintains that the medal he has from the '94 victory takes equal billing as his Celtic Cross from 2002.

"There is a lot of negative press about the McKenna Cup. Players want to win that no matter who they are," maintained the Lurgan man.

"I have a McKenna Cup medal sitting on the mantelpiece. Ultimately, you want to be successful and you want to achieve.

"Tyrone certainly have taken the McKenna Cup seriously. Because of the squad they have and their number of players, it has helped them come through successful league campaigns and taken them on in the Championship in recent seasons."

After several of this year's games fell victim to the weather, Armagh are set to face Donegal in the McKenna Cup semi-final today ahead of their league opener against Sligo next Sunday.

Given that a refixed McKenna Cup final would slot into the February 17-18 weekend, which would leave Armagh with eight games in nine weeks, then there is a valid belief that they might be slightly reluctant to win today's tie in Ballybofey.

After considering that manager Kieran McGeeney is entering the fourth year of his five-year agreement in Division Three, Marsden believes that nothing should distract the Orchard County from their chief aims.

"With him the priority might be to get out of Division Three so maybe it might supersede anything to do with the McKenna Cup," Marsden reasoned.

"There's players on the edge of coming back from injury. Will they be risked for the McKenna Cup, or saved for what might be an important league game the following week?

"Those are the priorities that management have to consider.

"As a player, though, if you are fit and able, you want to be playing every game. You want to be playing games rather than training.

"But it's condensed into a time of year when the weather is not great, which doesn't make things that pleasant. But certainly it is better to be playing games than the hard slog of training."

Some years ago, former county team-mates Paul McGrane and Denis Hollywood established the 'Orchard Academy', to create a pathway for players through under-age to represent Armagh at senior level.

Marsden has helped out in a casual sense but sees the necessity of making big efforts such as this, especially given such practice is almost universal in other counties.

Marsden, who coached an Under-15 representative team from north Armagh a couple of years ago, explained: "It is about talent identification. You are trying to identify players that potentially could make it to senior inter-county level and give them help and guidance.

"That's the whole idea of academies and development squads. There will be players who through their own different stages of development might miss out on some of those squads, but a county manager will always tell you the door is always open."

The same theory must apply for the senior team, who are looking threadbare at present.

With Ciaran McKeever retiring at the end of last season, they are also without Jamie Clarke, who has resumed his wanderlust expeditions, Stefan Campbell, who has opted to play soccer for Lurgan Celtic, and their best defender James Morgan and promising attackers Ciaron O'Hanlon and Oisin O'Neill will not feature.

From the team that beat Kildare in their most impressive Championship outing last year, half a dozen players are now gone.

"The door is always open for anybody who wants to play for Armagh and is good enough,"was Marsden's diplomatic answer to a question that has to trouble Armagh fans.

"At certain stages in the year they might have other priorities which seems to be the case, but I don't think any county manager wants to shut the door or keep it closed on anything.

"If the desire is there to put the shoulder to the wheel and contribute to the county, and they are good enough, the managers might see them as good enough to assist the team. That door is always going to be left open."

If all the reasons for wanting breaks and opting out of inter-county life are genuine, then surely Marsden's former captain McGeeney has to be seen as an unlucky general.

"Last year during the league you would have to say that. But the Championship was great, bar the first and last match," he reasoned.

"But that run they got in June and July was great for Armagh. The Kildare game was fantastic and it brought Armagh people back into Croke Park and they could see them playing at a good, high level.

"You want to play against the Dublins and Mayos, but that is part of the process of getting back to that stage."

Ultimately, two poor finishes to games in the opening two rounds of the league - when they conceded a penalty in the last play of their opener which snatched a draw for visitors Sligo, followed by a Laois blitz at the finish which helped them to full points in the Athletic Grounds - not to mention Tipperary's last-play goal that saw them leapfrog the Orchard County into the promotion spot on the last day of the league, left McGeeney and his team wondering about their true worth.

Meek Championship exits followed by a player exodus is never a promising winter for any team or manager. Even an All-Ireland-winning captain.

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