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Rising stars can thrive on pressure: Paul Grimley

By John Campbell

Armagh's Jamie Clarke is steeled for one of the biggest challenges of his career to date today. The Crossmaglen Rangers ace will lead his county against Meath in a vital Round 4B qualifier tie at Croke Park aware that his motivational rhetoric has never been in such demand.

The absence of experienced duo Ciaran McKeever and Kieran Toner strips the Orchard County of considerable power and authority and 24-year-old Clarke, one of the most gifted forwards in the country, will now step into the leadership breach.

And there could be a further amendment to the line-up with Aaron Kernan pressing strongly for a starting place having proved a revelation after bursting into action from the substitutes' bench in recent games.

Along with the emerging Michael Murray and the more seasoned Finian Moriarty, Kernan is a candidate for the defensive vacancy caused by skipper McKeever's absence because of a heel injury with the relatively raw pairing of Stephen Harold and Aaron Findon set to resume their midfield alliance.

The wily Toner, still Armagh's most experienced midfielder, is likely to start on the bench.

The 11th-hour upheaval has not, however, impacted on morale within the Armagh camp as the players eye a quarter-final spot – something that would have been deemed beyond their compass not so very long ago.

And rather than wring his hands and lament the fact that he has been forced into late alterations, manager Paul Grimley is urging the less experienced to rise to the occasion in what will be their first major inter-county outing at Croke Park.

"We have a number of players who have considerable experience of playing at Croke Park but then again we have other players who will be unfamiliar with just how testing this can be and I am urging them to put their best foot forward," says Grimley.

"Let's be honest, the loss of Ciaran McKeever is a blow.

"We are fortunate in that we have players strongly contesting the defensive vacancy that ensues from his absence. While Kieran Toner is back to fitness, we will only use him if necessary."

The fact that Kernan has not made the starting line-up of late has caused raised eyebrows in Armagh given his composure on the ball, experience and ability to drive forward to telling effect.

But it has to be stated, too, that Grimley's policy of holding him in reserve has paid dividends as he has made a huge impact in each game in which he has been summoned into action from the bench.

Today he could enjoy a much more generous ration of action against a Meath outfit that just two weeks ago lost the Leinster final to Dublin at Headquarters so they will be back treading familiar ground.

That, however, does not particularly perturb Grimley who points to the solid core of experience within his side.

Players such as Aaron Kernan, Kyle Carragher, Jamie Clarke, Tony Kernan and James Morgan have sampled All-Ireland club success with Crossmaglen Rangers at Headquarters while veterans Brendan Donaghy, Andy Mallon, Charlie Vernon, Kevin Dyas, and Moriarty have performed there with distinction in the past.

In their two qualifiers against Tyrone and Roscommon to date, the Orchard County were quickly out of the blocks and then relied on their rigid defensive mechanism to thwart the opposition.

If that formula repeats itself today, manager Grimley will have no complaints although he is relieved that he has defensive options open to him.

Meath, despite that poor performance against Dublin in the Leinster championship final, still possess some quality forwards.

Chief among these are Stephen Bray and Michael Newman.

Newman's pace may discomfit the Orchard County rearguard although their rigid formation meant that neither Tyrone nor Roscommon could unveil their full attacking potential.

Should Meath encounter a similar problem today, Armagh could find themselves in the last eight by tea-time.

Belfast Telegraph

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