Armagh in fine fettle ahead of bid for league redemption, says Clarke
The notion that Armagh are going into the Ulster Championship this weekend at a serious disadvantage following their failure to gain promotion to Division Two of the Allianz League is strongly refuted by ace forward Jamie Clarke.
The Orchard County travel to face neighbours Down at Pairc Esler, Newry on Sunday knowing that they need to re-build their status as a football force yet clearly fortified by a belief that they are a better team than their league position might suggest.
And Clarke, a veteran of Championship encounters who still possesses a towering desire to see the team mount the provincial throne - something they have not done since 2008 - has lost no time in firing a broadside at his county's critics.
"I think there is always a level of expectation surrounding Armagh in the Championship," insisted Clarke. "Even from an outsider's perspective, the quality we have is well-known and regardless of what happens in the early part of the year they know where Armagh should be at when Championship time comes round.
"Obviously there was a sense of disappointment within the squad when we did not make it into Division Two but there has never been a really negative feel within the camp. I think we know we have made a lot of progress, we have put in a lot of hard work this year and really Sunday is what it is all about.
"I can't emphasise enough just how good the feeling is within the camp. It's the best I have experienced since coming into the side. Everyone is getting on well with everyone else. We are all just really excited about the game and we know it's all about putting in a performance on the day.
"People may think what they like, they are entitled to their views, but the fact of the matter is that our preparation has been immaculate and I see us as being in a good place."
While admitting that Armagh have not quite featured as strongly as they would like to have done in the scoring stakes in recent years, Clarke reveals that this is something that the players have been working on.
"It has taken until now for us to be getting the scoring returns we are achieving," he admitted. "It doesn't matter who gets the scores as long as they are going in or over, the whole issue is about players accepting their responsibility and that's what they have been doing and will do against Down."
Clarke has been viewed as the Armagh talisman almost since he came into the side given his precocious talents and his track record of success with Crossmaglen Rangers but he recognises that Sunday will be a big challenge for several of the more recent recruits to the side.
"There are a number of players who will be getting their first taste of Ulster Championship football but we are going into this as a team," insisted Clarke. "I recognise that I have a job to do for my team and my team-mates and that's the spirit we will be bringing to the table.
"I think we all learned a lot from the league that we can maybe turn to good account in the Ulster Championship. We have worked a lot on how we should be closing out games and other elements for the past number of weeks. But at the end of the day it's what happens over the 70-odd minutes that really matters."
Far from bruising Clarke's morale, his team's league campaign is sending him into the Championship determined to help his side reach the next level.
"The truth of the matter is that every year I have played with Armagh, the football has always been good. I have always enjoyed it and that's the way it is now," he added.
Manager Kieran McGeeney is expected to finalise his side tonight with speculation still surrounding several positions.
Brendan Donaghy, Gavin McParland and Ciaran MacIomhair did not start the last league game against Tipperary when defeat meant that Armagh were consigned to Division Three for another year but are understood to be back in the reckoning.
Veteran Ciaran McKeever is pushing for a place in the attack while Blaine Hughes is likely to get the nod as goalkeeper even though Paddy Morrison is fully fit again.
Ben Crealy looks set to start at midfield although there is conjecture as to who his partner might be with Stephen Sheridan, Aaron Findon and Aidan Forker all potential candidates.
Down boss Eamonn Burns, meanwhile, is also expected to rubber-stamp his line-up for the weekend clash tonight.