Armagh up for one last shot at redemption
When Armagh galloped to a surprise victory over Kerry and a draw against Cork in their opening two games in the Allianz League, the notion that they might be fighting for survival in the concluding stages of the competition appeared fanciful in the extreme.
Yet Paddy O’Rourke’s side will confront Donegal in Ballybofey on Sunday knowing that a draw at least, and preferably a win, will be required to ensure their tenancy in the top tier next year.
Successive defeats to Mayo, Dublin and Laois doused Armagh’s previously feisty challenge for a semi-final place and instead plunged them into the relegation quicksand.
Indeed, had it not been for a splendid 1-14 to 0-16 victory over Down in their last outing, Armagh’s fate might well have been all but sealed by now.
Instead, they will go to Donegal fortified by the tremendous character they showed against warm favourites Down and the fact that their skipper Ciaran McKeever has escaped a two-match ban and will once again be at the heart of their defence.
It had been thought that when the Central Competitions Control Committee re-visited the circumstances surrounding McKeever’s dismissal against Laois, a two-match ban which it originally imposed might be activated but instead the St Patrick’s clubman was cleared of all infractions.
No-one is more pleased than manager O’Rourke that a line appears to have been drawn in the sand under the incidents which marred the defeat in Portlaoise a fortnight ago.
“Our whole focus now will be on staying in Division One. That’s where we want to be so that we can keep testing ourselves,” asserts O’Rourke.
On Sunday he will look to experienced quintet McKeever, Brendan Donaghy, Charlie Vernon, Brian Mallon and Paul Duffy for inspiration while Michael Stevenson gets another opportunity to unleash his considerable free-taking skills.
Injuries and unavailability have taken a heavy toll on Armagh’s first-choice resources since the start of the year but O’Rourke and his assistant Paul Grimley
are far from wallowing in self-pity as they ponder a vibrant finale to the league.
But O’Rourke, whose team have five points, one more than Donegal, nonetheless makes no bones about the pressure under which his side will operate.
“Our future is in our own hands. We have to show that we are up for it. There’s a lot at stake and this brings its own demands,” insists O’Rourke.
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness will be without his most prized asset Michael Murphy.
The consistently brilliant full-forward is recovering from knee surgery while Colm McFadden, who turned out for his club last Sunday, could be operating at less than full throttle.
And with exciting teenager Patrick McBrearty understood to be re-joining the squad tomorrow after a week-long Australian Rules Football camp in London, it can be clearly seen that Donegal’s preparations have been less than encouraging for what is their most important match of the year.
McGuinness will place his faith in a resilient defence which includes long-serving keeper Paul Durcan, the durable Neil McGee, the versatile Karl Lacey and the dependable Anthony Thompson.
“The injury to Michael Murphy is a blow to us but we have to get on with it,” says McGuinness.