Armagh have waited 16 long years to host a major championship match at their Athletic Grounds headquarters but now the eagerly-awaited visit by Down at the end of this month is being somewhat overshadowed by what one county board official described as “various external factors”.
As the debate continues about the merits of adhering to the original date and timing — Saturday, May 28 with a 7.30pm throw-in — given that this will coincide with the live screening of the Champions League Final, there are now two added concerns for Ulster Council officials.
A major resurfacing scheme has just commenced on the main Newry to Armagh road which is expected to take five weeks to complete, while it is understood that a big outdoor event is also planned for Markethill on the evening of the championship tie.
This could lead to serious traffic difficulties since the Armagh v Down tie will be a sell-out all-ticket game — certainly the most attractive match by far in the first round.
While Ulster Council secretary Danny Murphy has reiterated that the arrangements for the fixture will stand, it is expected that the various ‘external factors’ will be monitored in the interim with a view to ensuring minimum inconvenience for the travelling Down support in particular.
But a sizeable proportion of Armagh’s normally huge support is based in the south of the county and uses the main Newry to Armagh road to reach the Athletic Grounds.
“Obviously we will have a full house for this game and while the Champions League Final is undoubtedly a big counter-attraction our match is part of the overall Ulster Championship fixtures programme which was arranged some time ago and we have to go with this,” said an Armagh spokesman.
“The road works on the main Newry to Armagh road commenced at the start of this week and we will have to see how things go.
“I’m sure Down would be expecting to have something like 10,000 fans at this game so there is certainly going to be a lot of traffic on the road that night,” he added.
Since the mid-90s Armagh have played all their Ulster and All-Ireland championship matches away from their own base with St Tiernach’s Park, Clones having become something of a home from home for their followers.
Now that they have the opportunity to host last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists at their own superbly refurbished headquarters, Armagh officials are understandably anxious to ensure that the fixture goes off without a hitch.
But the logistics of staging the game and the ‘external factors’ involved are certainly providing additional food for thought.
Meanwhile, Down manager James McCartan has been offered further options in defence now that Paul Murphy has returned to the squad.
The Ballyholland clubman had been working in Dublin for some time but has committed himself to the county cause again.
As well as being a capable defender, Murphy can also play in midfield and may bring an added steely edge to the Mourne County’s make-up.
Aidan Carr is still commuting from London, where he works as a physiotherapist, and is also understood to be challenging for a place in Down’s championship line-up.