Shane McCormack’s reign as Armagh manager will get underway with a trip to Ulster rivals Cavan on January 22 for their opening game in NFL Division Two as the Orchard crew launch their latest bid to return to the top flight.
The former Kildare goalkeeper has replaced previous boss Ronan Murphy at the helm of provincial champions Armagh, who were beaten by Kerry in last season’s second division showpiece in their first appearance at Croke Park in almost a decade.
So the forthcoming campaign will be Armagh’s sixth attempt to gain promotion since suffering relegation from Division One in 2017 and, unlike in the men’s game, the LGFA is stubbornly sticking with having only one team going up or down.
The 2023 National League will largely revert to the traditional format of all eight teams in each division playing each other in a round robin rather being broken into two groups of four on a geographical basis.
So it will be back to seven rounds of regular league games in the top three tiers, though one difference from before is that the semi-finals have been scrapped so the teams finishing first and second will meet in a divisional decider.
The exception is Division Four, which due to Kilkenny being able to field and the inclusion of London, has nine teams and these are split into two groups with the top pair in each qualifying for semi-finals.
With the 2021 inter-county season not getting underway until late May due to another coronavirus shutdown and a desire to limit travel during the pandemic, regionalised groups were adopted for each division.
That formula was surprisingly retained for 2022, possibly because the window for inter-county football had been reduced by the All Ireland final being brought forward from its traditional late September slot to the last Sunday in July.
In both years, the Orchard outfit found themselves competing in an all-Ulster section which also contained Tyrone, Monaghan and Cavan but in the coming season they will also face four teams from outside their own province.
Westmeath have dropped down from Division One to replace promoted Kerry, last year’s Division Three title winners Roscommon are up at the expense of relegated Clare while Laois and Tipperary remain.
Armagh are away to divisional newcomers Roscommon in the second round of fixtures at the end of January so won’t have home comfort until entertaining neighbours Monaghan the first Sunday in February, the weekend the National League normally starts.
After a blank Sunday, McCormack’s women will have a shot trip to take on Tyrone before rounding off February by hosting Laois and then, after two weekends off, will host Westmeath before making their longest journey to tackle Tipperary on March 26.
Westmeath, Tipperary and all four Ulster teams may harbour hopes of reaching the final, listed for April 15, while Laois will be buoyed by winning this year’s All Ireland Intermediate title so it should be a very competitive first phase of the season for Armagh.
With McCormack not new to the set-up and a fairly settled squad full of experienced players at his disposal, Armagh appear well-equipped to hit the ground running and pick up some silverware before starting the defence of their provincial crown.
Leinster champions Dublin will host All Ireland and National League title holders Meath in the opening round of fixtures in Division One, which also includes Cork, Mayo, Galway and Waterford along with one Ulster side, Donegal, and newly-promoted Kerry.
Down, with Camlough man Peter Lynch back at the helm, are the only Ulster representatives in Division Three, where they will be up against Clare, Kildare, Longford, Louth, Offaly, Sligo and Wexford.
This year’s All Ireland Junior finalists Antrim and Fermanagh are in Group A of Division Four with Carlow and London, while Derry join Leitrim, Limerick, Wicklow and Kilkenny in the corresponding section.
Fermanagh are managed by former Armagh gaffer James Daly and retired Orchard county captain Caoimhe Morgan, who will be delivering a series of webinars on behalf of the LGFA over the next couple of months.
Called ‘Accelerate Your Journey – preparation as a Minor county player’, the webinars, which are sponsored by ZuCar, are billed as an opportunity to ‘interact with and learn from current stars of the game’ and the first of three takes place this Thursday (December 8).
The first session is titled ‘Emotional and physical preparation as a county player’ and Morgan, who has also established herself as a respected pundit since hanging up her boots, being joined by Meath’s Emma Duggan and Laura Ahearne of Galway.
The second session, on January 10, is ‘Communication and creating a support network’ and will feature Clare’s Laurie Ryan and Eabha Rutledge of Dublin in conversation with Morgan, while the third webinar is scheduled for February 6.
It is called ‘Your lifestyle as a county player’ and will have double Armagh representation as current Orchard footballer Tiarna Grimes is appearing alongside host Morgan and Kildare’s Mary Huglraine. All sessions, which will be delivered via Zoom, take place at 7.30pm.