It’s backs to the wall in survival bid for Armagh
When Armagh drew with Cork and then beat Kerry in their first two matches in the Allianz Football League, a groundswell of optimism prevailed in the belief that manager Paddy O’Rourke had unearthed a seam of fresh talent capable of maintaining the county’s status as a leading force.
But successive defeats by Mayo, Dublin and Laois have not so much deflated that optimism as spawned the belief that there could be extremely difficult times ahead.
Nor is the Orchard county likely to garner any short-term solace from the visit of Down to the Morgan Athletic Grounds tonight.
In contrast to their hosts’ travails, James McCartan’s side have bounded to emphatic wins over Mayo and Dublin that have thrust them into contention for a quarter-final place.
McCartan though believes that the hurt which Armagh suffered against Laois last Sunday will if anything provide them with an additional spur for this contest.
“Armagh will want to bounce back,” says McCartan.
“They need the points but then we ourselves want to push on. There is a lot at stake and our couple of late wins will count for nothing in the context of this game.”
Down certainly have cause to remember their last visit to Armagh in June 2011.
On that occasion they were ambushed in the Ulster championship — a result that sent shock waves through the province.
The controversial red-carding of Ciaran McKeever against Laois and the fact that Aidan Forker incurred a similar penalty in the U21 championship against Cavan on Wednesday night means that Armagh will be denied the services of two more key players at a time when their resources have seldom been more limited.
McKeever has been a steadying influence at the heart of the defence for the greater part of the league and Armagh can ill-afford to lose his combative qualities at this juncture particularly as Mark Poland, Aidan Carr and Conor Laverty are peaking in the Mourne attack.
Poland indeed has emerged as a shrewd playmaker who not only can create chances but who is proving a potent finisher, imbued as he is with a very sharp turn of pace.
The ongoing absence of the Crossmaglen contingent, recent injuries to Charlie Vernon, James Lavery and Brendan Donaghy,
Steven McDonnell’s protracted sabbatical and now McKeever’s proposed suspension means that Armagh are down to the bare bones for what is a must-win game for them.
Just as McKeever’s authority will be missed from the heart of the defence, Forker’s ability to poach points and convert frees will deprive Armagh of vital fire-power up front.
Manager O’Rourke will look to youthful players such as Caolan Rafferty, Stefan Campbell and Gavin McParland to form his side’s attacking arsenal against a Down defence that marked tightly and broke quickly in that fine win over Dublin.
Firmly rooted at the foot of the Division One table with just three points from five outings, defeat tomorrow night would almost certainly consign Paddy O’Rourke’s boys to life in Division Two.
They were perhaps fortunate to maintain their spot in the top bracket for this year — the outcome of their meeting with Monaghan in last year’s league proved crucial in this context when Andy Mallon scored a late winning point to secure their survival.
How manager O’Rourke must yearn for a slice of luck right now.
The odds have been stacked against him to date this year, although that opening salvo in the league hinted at a productive campaign.
Things have not turned out that way and it is difficult to see the Orchard county remaining among the top tier elite after tomorrow night’s contest.