Orchard captain Caoimhe Morgan readily admits that pre-season under the new Armagh management has been brutally hard work but this stalwart warrior wouldn’t have it any other way.
Morgan is one of those who very much train to play and, fresh from a challenge game against Louth in absolutely atrocious conditions on an awful winter afternoon in Silverbridge, she’s fully fired up for the forthcoming campaign when interviewed at Armagh’s National League launch.
There are a fair few formidable rivals lining up to spoil the script but Armagh are making no bones about their ambition to bounce back from relegation last spring and regain their place in the NFL’s top flight.
Division Two will be fiercely competitive and securing the sole promotion place on offer won’t be easy but Morgan, now 34 and a mum of two young children, wouldn’t be back giving her typically whole-hearted commitment to the county cause for what is an astonishing 18th season since her Orchard debut unless she felt that Armagh meant business.
A very significant factor in her electing to keep playing for at least another year has been the appointment of Fionnuala McAtamney and Lorraine McCaffrey as the new Armagh management.
Back in 2006, the then 23-year-old corner back Caoimhe Marley won an All Star in an Orchard county team jointly managed by Fermanagh woman McCaffrey, with McAtamney behind her in the Armagh goals.
Now Armagh’s longest-serving squad member and one of three remaining players who were on the field for that agonising single-point All Ireland decider defeat to Cork in Croke Park, St Catherine’s College teacher Caoimhe has been confirmed as skipper for the new season.
A natural leader who originally captained Armagh in 2009 and 2010, she did the job again under Sean O’Kane last season and keeping her in the role at this time makes absolute sense even though the new managers are also keen to develop leaders for the future.
Morgan is a tremendous mentor for that emerging generation and, along with the likes of fellow All Star veterans and captaincy predecessors Caroline O’Hanlon and Mairead Tennyson, represents a very experienced core in the Orchard ranks.
Last season was frustrating for Morgan who was sidelined for three months with a significant knee injury and battled back to fitness before cruel luck saw her miss the All Ireland quarter-final defeat to Kerry due to a bad stomach bug.
“I’d told myself that I wouldn’t be back but the appointment of these two women was a big game-changer. I knew what they’d bring to Armagh and also wanted to be there for them if they felt I’d something to offer,” she explains.
“There are no guarantees of success but it feels like a good decision so far. Pre-season has been hard, very hard, but brilliant. Lorraine and Fionnuala work really well together and everybody’s bought into what they’re trying to do.
“Obviously some of us have worked with them before but it’s a new world – it’s a decade since Lorraine was involved in the Armagh management – and a fresh start for everyone. They treat everyone equally with no special perks for us oldies, believe me!
“On the other hand I think their familiarity with Armagh football is a positive, particularly when we’ve had such changes in management over the past few seasons. They know what’s what here and how we want to be pushed hard.
“I don’t tend to think of how many years I’ve played or count it up, just treat each season as a bonus at this stage of my career. But I’m feeling good, genuinely enjoyed getting out on the field against Louth today and am really looking forward to the competitive matches starting.”
As always in recent years the National League is of great importance to Armagh in its own right as they try to regain the top flight status seen as so beneficial for teams with serious All Ireland aspirations.
Following James Daly’s appointment six years ago, the team took three seasons to fight their way out of Division Three and then won Division Two at the first attempt. In 2016 they had to put their best foot forward on their return to Division One and last year was always set to be a dog-fight given the unprecedented depth in the top flight.
So Armagh have had to hit the ground running in the early part of each season but the frustrating thing in the past two under Ronan Clarke and O’Kane is that they haven’t kept progressing as the year has gone on.
Morgan recognises that trend but doesn’t see any negatives in going hard during the National League, especially considering the importance of promotion and the number of teams who will fancy contending for the Division Two title in 2018.
“Armagh has always taken the National League very seriously and properly competitive matches at this stage of the season can only bring benefits for later on. We can’t blame lack of Championship success on having had to fight hard in Division One the past two years.
“Obviously you want to be playing Division One football, mixing it with the top teams in the country, but I think there’s a less significant gap now than might have been the case at times, which reflects rising standards, and I’ve no doubt this second division will be incredibly competitive.
“It was tight at the top of the table last season with Tyrone really unlucky to miss out on the play-offs, Waterford will be far better than they showed in the league a year ago and Tipperary are coming up with the wind in their sails not having lost a match since 2016!
“Our former manager James Daly will have Cavan well primed after they just lost out to Westmeath in a replay last season and don’t forget that Clare and Laois both made the top four last time. The trip to Sligo, who we often faced in the old days, won’t be easy either.
“So there are no straighforward games, no wins we can take for granted. So we’ll take it one match at a time but likewise we won’t shy away from stating our ambition to gain promotion. That’s the target for this first phase of the season, that’s what we’re working towards so why not embrace it.
“We’ll respect everybody but we mustn’t subconsciously go from beating Cork and Dublin last season to not backing ourselves against the teams we’ll be up against over the next couple of months.”
Last time Armagh were in Division Two in 2015 they had several very easy victories including destroying Down by the obscene scoreline of 10-24 to 0-0 having hammered Meath 6-16 to 1-0 two weeks earlier.
That rout of Down was actually Armagh’s most recent match at Silverbridge and, in their next game, they thrashed a troubled Tipperary 9-15 to 0-2 in their league semi-final in Dublin, but that will have zero relevance this Sunday.
“There was some disupte which meant Tipp were without most of their top team that day and every other time we’ve played them it has been an absolute battle including our narrow win in Silverbridge five years ago,” reflects Morgan.
“This Tipperary team are reigning All Ireland Intermediate champions who will have a spring in their step after winning every single game they played last year. They have good players as we saw in Croke Park last September and it’s always a very physical contest so we’ll need to be on our game and fully up for it.”
Armagh learned nothing running up cricket scores in those league games three years ago so the silver lining of a much deeper Division Two this time is that Armagh shouldn’t suffer from lack of sharpness or intensity coming into their Championship campaign.