By James McMahon
Westmeath lead the way in the second tier, but won’t get anything easy when they travel to Wexford on Bank Holiday Monday.
Saturday 16 March
ARMAGH v LOUTH, Athletic Grounds, 7pm
Such is the tight nature of current standings in Division 2 that a win for either side this weekend will leave them well placed for a promotion push. On the other hand, a defeat is likely to offer a relegation scrap as we head towards longer days and hopefully sunnier skies.
Grit and determination have underlined Armagh’s performances in the last three weeks, as exemplified by a stirring comeback against Wexford; a hard fought win over Longford and creditable draw away to Derry. Manager Paul Grimley will hope that this is a sign that things are about to bloom in the Orchard County again. Armagh, All-Ireland champions in the last decade, in a period where they won Ulster titles for fun, would like to dine again at football’s top table.
Their performance at Celtic Park last weekend was their best of the spring campaign so far, with nine players getting on the scoresheet. Kevin Dyas excelled in the half-forward line and overall the side played with a high tempo.
Jamie Clarke’s decision to take a break from football and see some of the world, while flagged up for some time, is nevertheless a blow. Ciaran McKeever picked up an ankle injury against the Oak Leafers and his participation against the Wee County is in doubt.
Louth have played some good football in their four matches to date, but only have three points on the board. Against Wexford the last day, they failed to kick on after scoring a crucial second half goal, and let their rivals dictate the play thereafter. A similar scenario was the case against Laois, though on that occasion Aidan O’Rourke’s charges managed a draw.
O’Rourke, a native of Armagh, should not find it difficult to pick his side up for the Athletic Grounds encounter. Whether they can produce a consistent performance over the 70 minutes is the question? The ability of their midfield to exert a telling influence has also been highlighted in this campaign.
Defenders Dessie Finnegan and Conor McGuinness picked up shin and wrist injuries against Wexford and their progress will be monitored, while Derek Maguire, Jim McEneaney and Colm Judge are all in line to feature at some point on Saturday evening
The last few seasons have shown us that Louth can dig out results when least expected, but Armagh have built up a nice momentum in recent weeks and they will be confident of maintaining that on their home patch.
DERRY v LONGFORD, Celtic Park, 7pm
Derry recovered from a shaky start to force a draw with Armagh last weekend and currently lie second in the table. Longford are still without a point after their latest defeat in this campaign at the hands of Galway. Relegation looks odds on now for Glen Ryan’s side.
Those who believe in the glass half-full theory will point out that if the midlanders win their remaining three games they very well could escape the clutches of the trap door. A life line that involves a trip to Celtic Park is not what Ryan’s troops would have wanted as a start to that recovery mission.
Derry will feel they could have bagged all points against Armagh as they finished the game strongly after chasing shadows for periods in the first half. After picking up a hamstring strain in the warm-up last Saturday, Barry McGoldrick will not feature against Longford and is also a doubt for the upcoming clash with Louth.
Boss Brian McIver has recalled goalkeeper Eoin McNicholl to the starting line-up, with Thomas Mallon making way. The forward division sees Daniel Heavron switching to No 13 in place of Benny Heron, while Aidan McAlynn fills the slot on the half-forward line, vacated by Heavron.
While Longford have not been beaten out the gate in any of their games this spring, the concession of 10 goals so far has not helped their cause. Shoring up their defence is vital in their last three games, and while Glen Ryan has indicated that survival is now beyond them – a win of any sort is would do.
Over the last year, Longford have come out on the wrong side of tight battles, most notably in their Leinster championship replay against Wexford and later on to Limerick in the qualifiers. Sandwiched in between those games was a back-door victory over a Derry side shorn of confidence.
Winning, as they say is a habit, and losing saps confidence. Longford do need a pick up before they head to Aughrim for a tricky championship opener against Wicklow.
Derry have their sights set on a promotion push, and are playing with renewed vigour under McIver. They have enough to ensure that the quest to play in the top flight in 2014 remains on track after this weekend’s assignment.
LAOIS v GALWAY, 7pm
Two of the favourites for promotion, before a ball was kicked, clash at O’Moore Park. Predictions can often leave you stranded in the terrain of the foolhardy, as neither of these sides have lived up to expectations so far. That assessment may be hard on Galway, who battled to a deserved win against Longford last Sunday. Yet they let a decent lead slip after having wind advantage for the second half against Westmeath, and found no rhythm at all in their away defeat to Louth.
As for Laois, the possibility of relegation looms if they fail to get a win this weekend. Three points from eight is their return so far and after their loss to Westmeath last Sunday, manager Justin McNulty told a press conference that he accepted full responsibility for the defeat. He went to question whether the tactics he is employing are working and that a new approach is needed.
For the meeting with the westerners, the Armagh native has kept faith with the six forwards that started the last day. The rearguard sees changes with Kieran Lillis replacing Kieran Lillis at No 4. Padraig McMahon and Darren Strong join John O’Loughlin in the half-back line, with the latter switching from midfield. Conor Boyle will now partner Brendan Quigley in the middle.
Galway manager Alan Mullholland opts for two changes from last weekend with Manus Breathnach replacing John Egan in goal and Sean Denvir taking over from Michael Boyle at No 12. Michael Meehan again starts at full-forward and has the impressive duo of Eoin Concannon and Michael Martin alongside him.
Both sides have talent in the forward division and the battle between Niall Coleman and Brendan Quigley in the middle will be keenly fought.
A tight battle is in prospect and it will be interesting to see what new tactics are adopted by Justin McNulty in his efforts to revive his charges.
Monday 18 March
WEXFORD v WESTMEATH, Wexford Park, 2pm
Not many people would have predicted Westmeath to be leading the way as the business end approaches in the division. Yet, they are out in front on merit after notching up hard fought wins that says much about their resolve and tenacity.
Wexford regained the winning thread last week against Louth and will be keen to end the Lake County’s unbeaten run on their own patch.
After the departure of Jason Ryan, new boss Aidan O’Brien, a native of Westmeath, has been entrusted with keeping the Slaneysiders competitive. Ryan’s record in the championship was impressive, with appearances in Leinster finals and an All-Ireland semi-final the notable highlights.
Promotion to top flight would be a feather in the new manager’s hat and he will have taken great heart by the manner in which they surged past Louth to claim the points. Shane Roche was the star man, ably assisted by the likes of Redmond Barry and PJ Banvillle.
Westmeath’s John Heslin is certainly making his mark this spring and stood tall in their latest victory over Laois, contributing 1-7 of their tally of 1-10. To underline the confidence surrounding the midlanders at present, boss Pat Flanagan has named an unchanged side for the trip to the South East. Dessie Doaln will again start on the bench.
A competitive tussle awaits and while Westmeath are slight favourites, a win for the home side would really throw open the promotion race!