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Armagh trio provide key New Year bonus for McGeeney

 

By John Campbell

He may have undertaken a mental roll-call of those who have exited his squad even before a ball is kicked in the 2018 campaign, but Kieran McGeeney still has considerable grounds for belief that, in a league context, his Armagh side may be destined for the road to redemption.

The absence of such familiar faces like Jamie Clarke, Paul Hughes, James Morgan, Ciaron O'Hanlon, Stefan Campbell and Ciaran McKeever is not calculated to help the cause. But rather than curse the darkness, the orchard county boss can light a candle that will illuminate reasons why he can adopt an upbeat demeanour.

Armagh reached the quarter-finals of the All-Ireland championship this year, saw promotion wrenched from their grasp when Tipperary's Michael Quinlivan thundered in the last of his three goals in that now infamous Athletic Grounds clash, and flattered to deceive in the Ulster Championship when neighbours Down proved their masters on their spectacular surge into the provincial decider.

Over the next fortnight, however, McGeeney is likely to be offered a ration of encouragement that could fan the flame of ambition once again.

If the exit door has been swinging open too freely, then Ethan Rafferty, Patrick Morrison and Ben Crealey in particular are intent on proving that the shoes of those who have slipped into the shadows can be adequately filled.

Rafferty spent the greater part of this year recovering from a shoulder injury, Morrison's litany of injuries would cause most players to call time on their careers rather than commit to the cause with even greater fervour, and Crealey's desire to recapture a midfield berth will help convince McGeeney that competition for places will be much more intense than anticipated.

Rafferty, who has just graduated with a BSc honours degree in sports science, not only brings versatility to the table - he can play at midfield, wing-forward or full-forward - but his long-range free-kicking from the right-hand side of the pitch can prove an enormous bonus.

"I just want to get back into the team, that's all. It was frustrating to have to battle against injury this year but now that I have completed my studies and obtained my degree, I would like to focus on my career with Armagh and hopefully share in success with the side," states Grange clubman Rafferty whose father Peter gave outstanding service to the county for many years.

If anything, Morrison's hunger to recapture the No 1 shirt is even more intense. A bowel illness, a broken finger and staved hand contrived to disrupt his season to such an extent that his appearances in the county colours were limited, although his performances for Armagh Harps in their first championship title triumph in 29 years saw him engulfed in late-season plaudits.

"Injuries and illness certainly took their toll but the year ended on a high for me and now I just want to get back into the Armagh side again," insists Morrison, whose father John formerly managed several county teams in tandem with current Slaughtneil boss Mickey Moran.

Crealey, however, is set to miss Armagh's opening McKenna Cup game against Down on Wednesday night as he will still be on holiday in Bulgaria.

The 20-year-old Maghery clubman, though, has vowed to make a strong challenge for a starting berth this year.

"I will be back home at the weekend after this and it will be straight into training again," maintains Crealey.

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