NFL Preview: Cross-border battle on the Banks of the Boyne
Allianz National Football League Division Three:
Louth vs Armagh
By Caoimhín Reilly
While a game with Armagh is not hyped in a typical derby fashion, in comparison to when Louth face Meath, there will still be a jagged edge to Sunday’s meeting between Colin Kelly’s table-toppers and the Orchard men at the Gaelic Grounds.
There is a fierce rivalry, almost exclusive to those living along the border, between the counties and with the teams heading the division, the game takes on an added significance.
Louth play host to Armagh tomorrow for the third time in five years, holding a three-point advantage over the third-placed, pre-league favourites.
While the Reds have been ultra-consistent, both at and away from Drogheda, with four wins, Armagh have suffered from indifferent form, although it does appear as if they are stumbling across a winning formula like the one which saw them claim the third-tier crown two seasons ago.
Having lost a considerable lead to Sligo in round one to draw before seeing Laois win at the Athletic Grounds for the second season consecutively, the Ulstermen were in a spot of bother.
However, recent wins over Leinster opposition in Longford and Offaly, who they demolished by 30-points, have reinvigorated hopes of an immediate return to Division Two and if Stefan Campbell can continue his recent exploits in front of the posts a title tilt could be within their capabilities.
Campbell, who got 1-4 against the Faithful, is a big, robust full-forward who, although nimble on his feet, looks tailor-made for Patrick Reilly, with the St. Brides defender always seeming to do better against players of Campbell’s physical ilk.
Alongside him is Jamie Clarke, a player who needs no introduction. As diminutive as he is deadly, the Crossmaglen Ranger has returned to the county set-up recently after a spell away and Kelly must plot carefully for Armagh’s most influential player.
Pádraig Rath has picked up Clarke in the past, and done so reasonably well, but one mustn’t forget that it was the former Armagh captain who started his side’s famous comeback in their last visit to the Gaelic Grounds.
Clarke’s goal with 10 second-half minutes left was the inspiration as Armagh came from nine in arears to rescue an opening day draw with Aidan O’Rourke’s Wee County in 2014, despite Rath having curtailed his influence for the previous hour or so.
Indeed, the outcome of tomorrow could rest on how effective Rath is in shackling Armagh’s curly-haired genius.
Opinions on McGeeney’s tenure in charge of his native county are mixed, in contrast with Kelly who after a rocky start has seen results on a continually upward curve, with a promotion and relegation placing Armagh back at ‘square one’.
The 2002 All-Ireland winning captain has however integrated a lot of newer, younger blood into the panel, despite the likes of Clarke, Ciaran McKeever, Charlie Vernon and Brendan Donaghy still playing vibrant roles.
Óisín O’Neill, son of former Louth and Armagh defender Gareth, has played a fine part for McGeeney is his maiden year with the senior panel, although he is expected to miss Sunday’s tussle through injury, having been absent from last Wednesday night’s Ulster u21 championship win over Down.
For their part, Louth aren’t officially able to boast a full bill of health themselves. Jim McEneaney is expected to be available following an ankle injury, although it remains to be seen if Andy McDonnell (knee) will make the cut in time.
Even if the duo are fit, though, it’s hard to see how Kelly can drop Eoin O’Connor and Declan Byrne, both of whom stepped in in the absence of McEneaney and McDonnell and hit 1-8 between them across the last two outings.
Despite Louth’s impeccable start which has seen them concede only 1-44, the third lowest across all four divisions, Armagh look their toughest test to date.
A home win would continue a remarkable start to 2017 for the Reds. However, the gut instinct suggests otherwise.
Verdict: Armagh, just.
Venue: Gaelic Grounds, Drogheda
Referee: Ciaran Branagan
Last year was the first time in three seasons that Louth and Armagh didn’t clash in a league fixture. Those three meetings, between 2013-2015, saw Louth win one and draw once, both in Division Two, with the Orchard County prevailing in the most recent clash in 2015.
Ciaran Branagan is the second referee from Down to officiate at the Gaelic Grounds this Spring, with Paul Faloon having been the man in the middle when Louth faced Antrim two weeks’ ago.
Louth and Armagh have never faced each other in championship football, although they have met five times since 2002 in the league with Armagh winning three, Louth one and the other ending in a draw.