While our senior footballers have got their Allianz league off to a good start with a home win against Tipperary, our senior hurlers are continuing their preparations for a tough opening game of their national league campaign, away to Down on 15 February.
Although the sides have already met this year in the inaugural Conor McGurk Tournament at Queen’s, a game which Armagh won comfortably enough, the league game is a whole different prospect, as Armagh cornerback Connor Devlin explained. “Down had a very young side out the night we played them at Queen’s with many of their Under 21s joining a few of their regulars. We realise that they will have a much stronger team available to them for the opening league game and we are expecting a tough encounter. Michael Johnston, who is the Down manager this year, has taken us in the past and he will have a good idea about Armagh hurling. We’ve came up against Down on a number of occasions over the last few years and both sides will know what to expect. But all of the boys in the Armagh camp are focusing now on this game and we are looking forward to the challenge.”
With the two neighbouring counties playing so often in the past few years, they have become familiar adversaries and apart from January’s game in the Conor McGurk Tournament, it’s the Down men who have had the upper hand on most of the occasions. Connor continued, “Last year we ran a lot of teams very close and competed well, maybe fading away a bit in the last five or ten minutes, possibly due to the fact that we weren’t together as a panel until later on in the year. We lost a few matches by four or five points, but the games against Down have maybe seen a bigger margin and it is something that we would certainly want to put right this year. The panel has been together from November and everyone is working hard so we have the belief that we can compete for the full 70 minutes now against the likes of Down. As a panel, we maybe looked to the likes of last year and those losing margins against Down and we have refocused our energies to reach a higher level this year and try and reverse some of those results.”
Following on from the Down game, Armagh will host Donegal and Kildare, before travelling to Meath and Mayo, in what is a very tough division. Connor is under no illusions as to the challenge of competing against these counties, “We have a lot of big games ahead of us in the league. Take Kildare for example. My county senior debut was against Kildare in a game all Armagh people would want to forget. They racked up a huge score against us, but that’s something we would like to prove this year. We want to show Kildare that we’re not as bad a side as that scoreline would have shown. Armagh is capable of producing good hurling and this year more than ever, we’ve been putting in huge work on the training field so it’s time for us to bring that work-rate and intensity into our performances on the field.”
With a new management team of Sylvester McConnell and Pádraig O’Connor in this year, they have brought in a number of others to help out. Gabriel O’Kane and John Crossey are highly-rated coaches and Connor feels that Armagh is lucky to have them. The Armagh hurling set-up is also fortunate to benefit from the expertise of strength and conditioning coach and Cork dual star Eoin Cadogan. “Training is going very well at the minute and we’ve been together as a panel for a good while now. This time last year, we were only coming together and credit to John Lennon; he came in and did a very good job when nobody else was interested. We’ve gelled together very well and I don’t know if you can put that down to being together longer or the fact that its two Armagh men at the helm, but all the boys feel the same; it’s been a good while from we’ve all felt such a close bond.
The sessions are tough, but there’s no doubt that we are enjoying our hurling at the moment. It’s a great place to be and all of the players would be in agreement with that. We are very fortunate to have men of the calibre of Gabriel O’Kane in there. Just speaking to a few of the lads and we were all saying it’s great to be involved.”
“I suppose it’s a big lift for Armagh hurling to have Eoin Cadogan involved. He brings a huge amount of experience and he has played at the top level and against the top teams. As well as the hurling background, he also has an All-Ireland football medal so he’s definitely a fella worth listening to. His knowledge of strength and conditioning is incredible and he’s very meticulous and even when we’re not together, he’ll be sending advice and tips, checking up to make sure everyone is happy with their plans. We’re delighted to have him on board and all of the boys have responded very positively to him. When you think of the set-up and the backing that we’ve got from the county board, it makes us more determined to repay that commitment to us with results on the field.”
With a Division 2B league campaign and a Nicky Rackard campaign, of which many would regard Armagh as favourites to win, does Connor feel that Armagh hurling is heading in the right direction? “It is unfortunate that we have been regarded to the Nicky Rackard cup this year as we competed well last year against some of the teams who would be Christy Ring standard. But when you look at the results, Armagh is in no place to feel over-confident going up against any of the teams in the Nicky Rackard competition. We will have the utmost respect for every team we come up against this year, whether that be Down or Mayo in the league or Louth in the opening Nicky Rackard game. There’s maybe a few questions to be asked with grading. If you look at the fixture list, you see six days after the Nicky Rackard Cup final which is an All-Ireland final, the winners are being asked to play in a promotion/relegation playoff. The six day turnaround is one thing but to demean an All-Ireland competition and All-Ireland winning county is another. Maybe it is something that should be looked at if we want hurling to be developed on an equal basis throughout the entire country and not just the hurling strongholds. But all in all Armagh is on the right track. There’s uniformity in place there between Senior, Under 21 and Minor that maybe wasn’t as apparent in previous years. Everyone involved in Armagh hurling at the minute have the sole aim of improving hurling in the county. There is plenty of hurling talent across the county and if we can hone in on that talent, there is no reason why Armagh can’t compete with the likes of Kerry, Kildare and Wicklow”
While the county has traditionally been looked upon as a footballing county, it is clear from Connor’s passion for the small ball game that the Orchard county is making great strides to bring hurling to the next level in Armagh. And with a good management team of Sylvester McConnell who brought his club Middletown to the All-Ireland Intermediate final a few years ago, Pádraig O’Connor, Gabriel O’Kane, Eoin Cadogan and John Crossey, it looks like Armagh hurling has a bright future ahead of it. Beidh an chéad chluiche sraithe ag Ard Mhacha in eadán an Dúin ar 2pm Dé Domhnaigh 15 Feabhra i mBaile Crann. Armagh open up their Allianz League campaign against Down, at 2pm on Sunday 15 February in Ballycran. With the Orchard support the envy of many counties across Ireland, why not get out this year and support our hurlers. Ard Mhacha abú.