‘Teams have been relegated on four points’ - Armagh not getting complacent

‘It didn’t happen overnight. There were a lot of highs, a lot of lows, and we worked hard’

The sensible punters took once glance at Division 1 and put their money on Armagh being in trouble after the opening two rounds. A wounded Dublin in Croke Park, followed by a visit from All-Ireland champions Tyrone, would take swift care of that early business in the Allianz Football League.

This being the same Armagh team that only survived their long-awaited return to the top tier last year by winning a relegation play-off against Roscommon, then conceded four goals to Monaghan when exiting the Ulster championship at the semi-final stage. It’s increasingly tough at the top, as Armagh were about to discover.

Instead, Armagh are currently top of that stock, the only team with a perfect record in the division. A third win - or draw even - against Monaghan back at the Athletic Grounds this Saturday will likely ensure they retain that top flight status.

Kieran McGeeney’s insistence that nobody is getting carried away - the Armagh manager said it after beating Dublin, and repeated it after beating Tyrone - may hold substance, only there’s no denying their meanness in shutting both teams out. They kept Dublin to 1-13, replacement Lorcan O’Dell only finding the net late on thanks to a deflection from Ciaran Mackin, before Tyrone only managed 0-14, also finishing that game with 11 men.


It can be enjoyable one week, and maybe not so enjoyable the next week... but it's good because it's so competitive

Armagh’s two game tally of 4-29 might be substantially greater too, given their number of other goal chances, including at least four against Dublin, and a couple more against Tyrone. It means they’re the two teams in trouble right now, another defeat for Dublin against Mayo later on Saturday will probably mean big-time trouble.


Ask some of the Armagh players to explain their positive start to 2022 and two things emerge: competition for places is at its healthiest in many years, and there’s an enjoyment about the place that perhaps wasn’t so strong in other years.

“It can be enjoyable one week, and maybe not so enjoyable the next week” says defender Aaron McKay, who started at full back against Tyrone, “but it’s good because it’s so competitive, boys starting one day that probably won’t the next.

“But it’s great when you’re winning, the atmosphere is a lot better when you’re going training on a wet, windy February night.”

McKay also points to Armagh’s appetite to start well: they were nine points up on Dublin at half-time in Croke Park in round one, and 10 points up on Tyrone last in Round two. “It is about getting good starts too. For the Monaghan championship game last year, we were 12 points down at one stage, if you’re doing that against division one teams, you’re not going to get away with it.”

If you want to take your foot off the gas in training, somebody will come in and take your spot

Armagh did rally hard against Monaghan last summer, with that game finishing 4-17 to 2-12. On a scorching hot day last July at the Athletic Grounds, Monaghan were inspired in no small part by the spirit of Brendan Óg Duffy, the Monaghan Under-20 captain killed the previous Friday night returning after beating Donegal in the Ulster semi-final.

Stephen Sheridan also made a start against Tyrone, a late replacement for defender Paddy Burns, illustrating their versatility too by promptly slotting in around midfield. Sheridan also forced an excellent save from Niall Morgan in the first half, and believes the Armagh midfield is now promising considerable strength and depth.

“If you look back at the McKenna Cup, we were struggling for midfielders and put Ciaran Mackin in there, and he’s probably been our best player in every game since then,” says Sheridan. “The competition is ferocious at the minute. We’ve key personnel coming back in around the middle.

“If you want to take your foot off the gas in training, somebody will come in and take your spot. That’s what we’re trying to build, and if you’re not up to the task, it’s the next man in to do the job. We’re trying to build a good team culture. The strength-in-depth is something we’ve really pushed over the last 12 to 18 months, and we’re in a good place on that now. We’re still in the early stages of the year and there’s a lot to go yet. We’re happy with four points on the board.”

Among those set to come back around midfield are Oisin O’Neill, older brother of star forward Rian, plus Ben Crealey, who retired early with a hamstring injury against Dublin.

“We set out a long time ago to get back playing at the top table,” adds Sheridan, “It didn’t happen overnight. There were a lot of highs, a lot of lows, and we worked hard to get there.

“That was our big aim this year, to consolidate our spot in Division 1. That’s our target and we want to be sitting in Division 1 at the end of it. Four points is good but there’s been teams relegated on four points, we can’t get complacent.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics