Armagh are back in Division 1 of the Allianz Football League for the first time since 2012.
And after years of bouncing between the second and third tiers, the Orchard County are reluctant for it to be a brief visit.
Kieran McGeeney took charge of his native county in 2015, and under his leadership it has been a six-year battle to reach the top table.
“It’s taken us six years to bounce up there,” he said. “We would see it as paramount [to be there] because in the past when the pressure has come on, we haven’t responded the way we would like.
“Having those types of games, when there’s pressure coming on all the time, it’s something we badly need, in terms of being able to react well to it. I think we’ve got big players and a good squad but it’s like everything else – you have to learn to win these battles if you’re going to win wars. We’ve failed in a couple of those. So being in the first division is going to be paramount to the development of this particular squad.”
Their lack of exposure to the top teams was a telling factor in their Ulster Championship exit at the hands of Donegal last year.
“When you look back at the first quarter, we should have been probably ahead. But that’s the difference between the lower-ranked teams and the top teams. You make one or two mistakes and a team like that will punish you,” the 2002 All-Ireland winning captain noted.
“We made a few bad decisions and suddenly it was a goal and three points bang and from being two points behind, you’re eight behind and the heads drop.
“I think the hardest thing was that because of the pandemic, everyone just got up and went home. Normally, you can stay together, you can win an All-Ireland over a pint, maybe lessen the blow. But that was hard for teams to go their own separate way after what was a long, difficult year for everybody. Although it ended on a bad note, it was a decent year.
“We’re back at it now, we’re facing them in a couple of weeks so we’re going to have to get over it fairly quickly.”
Armagh are braced for the Division 1 clashes with Monaghan, Tyrone and Donegal in the coming weeks. And there will be no love lost between the northern neighbours.
“Monaghan and Armagh will look at each other as a way of getting a good start and try and getting two points on the board,” said McGeeney.
“I’m sure the other two teams will look at us as the two lesser teams in it. Trying to get a good start will be at the top of both our lists, to get going and give us a foothold to move on maybe get another win.
“There’ll be very little shadow-boxing, it’ll be both teams going hell for leather to see can they get two points on the board. All other games – although they’re in the very near future – will seem like a good distance away when we line out on Sunday.”
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The Orchard County will face into the 2021 campaign without the services of Jamie Clarke.
The Crossmaglen man, who previously spent time in New York, is currently in Paris and will not be part of the Armagh squad this year.
“Jamie’s in Paris, someone was telling me so unless we’re starting an international team, he’s not going to be in it for this year,” McGeeney said.
However, the former Kildare boss was keen to point out that football is more enjoyable than ever, and players opting out sometimes gets blown out of proportion.
“We tend to focus in on the three/four players [who don’t commit] of the 3000 who are involved with inter-county, I think it’s a small percentage,” he noted.
“Everyone has a personal choice. Jamie is an exceptionally good fella, I have a lot of time for him personally and he was always straight up when he goes. Some people just have different passions.
“I don’t really think it’s got to do with the football or the commitment. They just tend to give commitment to other things, I suppose it depends where your cards are aligning on your particular journey.
“I think football nowadays is far more enjoyable, you have to remember that when we were going back training/travelling home, we were going back to run on a pitch. We did a pre-season in September, another one in January and another one in April/May, and all we did was run. That’s all we did, run! The summer months were great but you still ran until a week or two before championship when you got to sharpen up with a few sprints!
“Now it’s just all football, outside of pre-season, game scenarios. Definitely, at the tail end of my career, it was coming a bit like that but at the beginning, I could have went with a 400/800m runner. That’s how Martin McQuillan and those boys were killing me. You were going home depressed after running down sand-dunes and up hills.
“I think it’s a great time to be involved in football. I genuinely do. I think it’s moved on exponentially, in terms of what they’re doing for their players, and even just to be able to access the different things that you can there as a footballer.
“It’s not for everybody, especially when you’re not getting first-team hurling/football, it’s easy to get disgruntled because in everything like that, people are going to have different opinions, mine might not be right and a manager might pick different players but I think in general, players are enjoying football and hurling.”
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