ARMAGH MUST KEEP PROGRESSING
Skipper Kelly Mallon insists Armagh must prove themselves all over again this season as the Ulster champions prepare to face a Tyrone backlash at Healy Park in Sunday’s National League opener (2pm).
This Omagh match is the first of three tough Ulster derby battles on consecutive weekends in Division Two’s northern regional group which Armagh must negotiate as they seek to secure promotion back to the top flight after a four-season absence.
Armagh trounced Tyrone twice within a fortnight last October, the commanding margin of 13 points in the Ulster semi-final in Crossmaglen being followed by another convincing 6-16 to 3-13 victory in the opening All Ireland group game at Healy Park.
The Orchard crew went on to achieve a first ever victory over Mayo to reach the All Ireland last four, push holders Dublin to the limit in a pulsating semi-final and then claim a first Ulster title since 2014 by beating Monaghan in December’s Clones showpiece.
Prolific forward Aimee Mackin won All Ireland Player of the Year, her sibling Blaithin and full back Clodagh McCambridge made the Team of the Senior Championship and 11 Armagh players picked up Irish News Ulster All Stars.
With the matches televised, Armagh gained many new admirers both within and beyond the Orchard county and were showered with plaudits. but now, with a new season starting, is the time to back up last autumn’s impressive progress.
Consolidation and consistency are key watchwords for the ambitious but pragmatic Mallon who knows that Armagh, having raised the bar for themselves, must live up to the high standards set some months ago in a forthcoming campaign which will have no easy games.
In this season’s pandemic-delayed, condensed National League, each division is split into two sections of four sides on a geographical basis with the top two teams in both qualifying for cross-over semi-finals.
Kerry, who had won all five fixtures before last season’s National League was abandoned in the wake of the first coronavirus shutdown, and All Ireland Intermediate champions Meath are tipped to emerge from the southern section of Division Two.
So if Armagh reach the Dublin decider at the end of next month, they will have had five games against fellow Senior Championship sides, with an Ulster quarter-final against Monaghan also scheduled for the weekend between a possible league semi and final.
“Armagh got a lot of praise for our performances last autumn when we were probably the surprise package of the championship in a lot of people’s eyes in getting to the All Ireland semis and really running Dublin close,” says Mallon.
“We hadn’t done well in the National League back in the spring so I’m sure the external expectations of us weren’t high, but our hard work was rewarded with pleasing progress and the bonus of a trophy to show for our efforts.
“It was a very encouraging campaign which we were proud of and can take confidence from going forward. There has been a very positive vibe these past few weeks since we’ve been back training together again.
“But what we did then won’t actually count for anything now unless we keep performing and raising our game. If, for example, we were to let those previous victories over Tyrone lull us into a false sense of security next weekend, we’ll be left licking our wounds in Healy Park.
“This is a fresh season, so we’ve everything to prove all over again. There’s no guarantee a successful side can just pick up where they left off and other teams may make massive strides like we showed last year. Our mindset must be right, rather than us just turning up.
“We absolutely believe in our ability now and are ambitious, but buying into the hype would be dangerous. We’re under no illusions about the challenges ahead and know we will fall flat if we haven’t hunger and humility and keep putting in the hard work.
“Although we will need to be better than last autumn if we are to achieve our ultimate goal of winning the All Ireland, we can’t just assume to start with that we’ll be as good . Just standing still in relative terms will require improvement because the standard is rising.
“Armagh must earn the right to challenge again and, especially when you’ve done better than people expected, consolidation is important in the first instance to prove the previous campaign wasn’t some flash in the pan. Other teams will want to burst our bubble.
“It’s probably no bad thing that our first fixture is against Tyrone in their own backyard because we know they’ll come hard at us, with the hurt from last autumn and wanting to put their best foot forward under new management.
“We were narrowly beaten by Tyrone in Silverbridge last February and they’re a much stronger team than last October’s results suggest. There will be some very competitive matches over the next few weeks, which will be perfect preparation for Championship.
“Along with trying to live up to the standards set last autumn and aiming to build momentum, Armagh have a point to prove in the league after failing to get out of Division Two the past three years but the main thing is that we grow with every game over the next few weeks.
“It’s important that we don’t get carried away with our relative success last autumn or get ahead of ourselves because we’re far from the finished article. We’ve established firm foundations to build upon but there’s also plenty we can improve upon with hard work.
“We have shown that, at our best, we’re a team to be reckoned with who can beat anybody but a lack of consistency has really let us down in recent years, so that’s something we want to address.
“I want us to be humble but believe in ourselves and not shy away from the enhanced expectations people have of us now. We moved the bar higher last autumn and now we must keep clearing it. Everyone’s looking forward to getting going,” concludes Mallon.
The experienced Harps player’s inspirational leadership has been a significant factor in Armagh’s recent rise so the 31-year-old’s retention as captain is no surprise, while manager Murphy has former Kildare goalkeeper Shane McCormack as his new number two.
All of those 15 regulars remain on board for 2021 while Armagh welcome back three further heavyweights in former county captain and All Star Mairead Tennyson, Harps skipper Fionnuala McKenna and Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville.
Silverbridge veteran Tennyson has come out of presumed retirement at the age of 37, McKenna had opted out of Orchard duty last autumn due to coronavirus safety fears for her family while McConville was away in Australia for the past couple of years.
All three established stars were always first choice players for Armagh when available before so their return will increase competition for places and, with such an intense schedule, crucially bolster squad depth.
Speaking of remarkably long service, the Carrickdale Hotel has extended their sponsorship of the Orchard county ladies by another year and will be the main name on the Armagh jersey for a 17th season out of the past 18.