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Saffrons knocking at back door in bid for Croke Park

By Declan Bogue

This weekend's clash in the Athletic Grounds against Galway has been described by Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney as the "toughest draw" they could have landed (Sunday, Athletic Grounds, 3pm).

McGeeney was speaking at an 8am press call at the Armagh City Hotel ahead of the game, which sees Armagh embarking on another journey through the back door as they seek to make it back to Croke Park and August football.

Such a scenario appeared unlikely in the aftermath of their Ulster Championship first round clash with Donegal, which ended in a nine-point defeat at the hands of last year's All-Ireland finalists.

The 2002 All-Ireland-winning captain admitted that building belief in the squad is a process that takes time after a defeat such as that.

"We have a good bunch of fellas there," he said. "Morale ... obviously the Donegal game was disappointing but they didn't do themselves justice. It's always hard to get back to where you were the day before the Donegal game.

"You need a couple of games to do that in the qualifiers. We are still on that path."

In his time as Kildare manager, McGeeney was forced to embrace the back door route with some early exits in Leinster. Despite that, when asked if he prefers the format of the qualifiers, he answers with a flat "no," explaining: "It's just what you have to deal with at the time. It depends on injuries and the draws that you get each year. Each year the names of the teams could be different in terms of where that particular teams' confidence is at.

"One year people might say it is an easy draw, the next year it could be seen as a difficult draw. It just depends on where you get them and the position they were in before that."

He added: "The qualifier route is a very uneven route. You don't get as much time to prepare for other teams and sometimes that can be a blessing in that all you are doing is preparing your own team and getting from week to week. Whereas other teams going through the front door they have a couple of weeks and a bit more time to recover and look into the opposition."

Although the format of the All-Ireland football Championship is one of those 'old reliable' topics for debate, McGeeney does not go along with the perceived knowledge that this back door system is in some way tired or jaded. Men who began their careers in the killing fields of the early '90s Ulster Championship rarely are given to criticise any system that affords a second chance.

"I think it is a whole lot better than what was there before," McGeeney said.

"That's the way you have to look at it. If you look at results over the past 14 years, how many players would have won All-Irelands if it wasn't for it?

"There would have definitely been a lot of fellas retiring, north and south, with a lot less All-Ireland medals. I think it has been a success. It has got people more games."

As he tends to do, he broadened out the debate, adding: "Again, we try to look at it in terms of 'unless you win an All-Ireland, it's not a success.'

"But players play for big games and big days and that's what you are basically playing for.

"The ultimate goal is to win medals and trophies but the reality of the situation in any sport is that there is only going to be one winner."

As with any team left in the All-Ireland series, a reasonable target has to be 'playing football in August', which is accepted shorthand for reaching the All-Ireland quarter-finals. With Armagh on the 'B' side of the draw, that would leave them rolling up to headquarters on August 8.

"I have said this before, but it's very difficult to get there from Division Three," McGeeney said. "That's just a reality, it's not a cliché to take pressure off myself.

"No matter who I am in with, people expect us to do reasonably well. We are looking to play football in August, so we have to have a dose of reality with it as well."

Armagh have a number of players who are aiming to be fully fit and ready for selection against Kevin Walsh's Tribesmen outfit, including Aaron Findon, their captain Ciaran McKeever and Mark Shields.

McGeeney said: "They are all back training. Whether we have enough time to get them right for the game, we have to make the decision on the Wednesday whether they can be in the 26 or not."

One man who will not be in contention for this weekend's fixture, it appears, is Kevin Dyas who continues to recover from a minor knee operation.

Belfast Telegraph


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