Two crucial league points are on offer when Clare make the trip to Newry this Sunday to face Armagh in the second game of their Allianz National Football League Division Two campaign.
The Banner make the trip over the border after an encouraging performance against Donegal last weekend, while the Orchard men left Newbridge with a share of the spoils against Kildare.
The venue for this game has created plenty talking points, with Armagh being forced to give up home advantage in the Athletic Grounds after breaching a training ban.
Former All-Ireland winner with the Ulster men Oisín McConville feels they will be aggrieved at how the sanction was imposed.
“The thing about Armagh is that they do tend to play really well in the Athletic Grounds, they’re comfortable there in their own surroundings, but at the same time, Newry isn’t particularly out of the way. The reason why Armagh are so annoyed about it is because the same punishment hasn’t been doled out to other teams, at least that’s the sense I am getting from them. Having it in Newry isn’t a major disadvantage though, a lot of the Armagh players would have experience of playing there whether at colleges or club level so it shouldn’t hold any major fear for Armagh” he said.
The last time these sides met was in the All-Ireland qualifiers last year, when a late rally from Kieran McGeeney’s outfit saw them end Clare’s championship season. McConville feels while they’ll be braced for a Banner backlash, Armagh have some scores to settle too.
He said: “The strange thing about this weekend is that you have two sides who will feel they are in the wounded animal role. Clare will want revenge for last year’s qualifier defeat, but Armagh are sick to not have brought both points away from Newbridge against Kildare. I think that means that both teams will come into this game feeling they have something of a point to prove and both will have grievances about their opening league games, so I think it will be a titanic battle”.
Sunday will be the first of four games on the road for Clare, with trips to Enniskillen, Newbridge and Thurles also on the horizon in the coming weeks. McConville feels the fact that Armagh have already gotten a point on the board from one of their away trips means there is added pressure on the Banner to get off the mark this weekend.
“I think the fact that Armagh picked up that point away to Kildare means that it’s more important for Clare to get the win than it is for Armagh. I think when they met last year, Armagh would have felt they had a good opportunity to win, but this time there’s almost an expectation. This is probably the strongest Armagh squad that Kieran McGeeney has had to work with, everyone he wants to have is there, and I think they will feel they are on a pretty firm footing, and that they really should be winning this game. In 2018, it wasn’t as clear cut but this time around, Armagh have built up a really strong squad and I think the depth of the panel is now a cut above what we have had in recent years” he noted.
Armagh, Donegal and Kildare are seen as the front-runners to battle it out for promotion to the top tier this season. Donegal and Kildare are only newly relegated from Division One, while Armagh came up from Division Three. McConville admits while promotion would be a huge bonus, the squad will be focused on making sure they hold onto their status at the very least.
“I’m not sure promotion would even be the right thing for Armagh, but the next two weeks will be key in determining that. If they can pick up wins against Clare and Meath, then it might be on the cards. Division Two is a tough place to be, and that was never more evident than last year when there was so little between the sides in the final standings. You look then at the teams that went up to Division One, and while Cavan and Roscommon didn’t lose by much last weekend, they were still beaten, and life is only going to get harder for them as the year rolls on. At the very minimum, Armagh need consolidation, and that’s the very least of their aspirations. There’s nothing between finding yourself in relegation or vying for promotion. I think the next few weeks will be vital for all teams to see where they will stand before the break week comes into play, but I think on Sunday, it’s Clare who really need to be picking up the points” said the former All-Star.
It will be Ulster opposition for the second week in a row for Clare, but McConville feels it will be a very different game from the Banner’s last outing.
“I think Clare will come up against a team that will give the likes of Keelan Sexton, David Tubridy and these guys an opportunity to express themselves and play a little bit more. Donegal have a tendency to be a little bit more defensive and try to suck the life out of games. I think while Clare will look at Armagh as a northern team, they’re certainly not as defensive as some of the other teams in the province. They will feel this weekend they will have more of an opportunity to play ball and express themselves a bit more too” he concluded.
Clare v Armagh gets underway in Pairc Elser in Newry this afternoon at 2pm.