Tipperary senior footballers’ season begins in earnest on Sunday next with a visit to the Athletic Grounds in Armagh to take on Division 3 promotion favourites, Armagh.
Following their promotion from the bottom division last season, Tipp couldn’t have picked a more difficult introduction to their new campaign than an away fixture against the Orchard County. But Peter Creedon’s side are ready for the challenge and hoping for a positive start to their new Division 3 campaign.
Team selector and Clonmel-based school principal, Michael O’Loughlin sees Sunday’s encounter as “a big challenge against one of the top teams every year in Ulster. You must remember that Armagh are an excellent side who had a great run in the All-Ireland qualifiers last season before losing by a single point to Donegal in the quarter-finals.”
Indeed, along that qualifying route, in parallel to Tipp’s great run, Armagh recorded wins over some top-ranking teams including Tyrone, Roscommon and Meath. There is no doubt that Armagh seem to be a misplaced side in Division 3 of the current league judging by championship performances but league tables never lie either.
According to Michael there is a lot of positivity in the Tipperary football camp ahead of the Armagh game. “These are the rewards you get when you are promoted, playing better teams at a higher level. We are focused for Sunday and we are looking forward to the challenge.”
“Any away game in the league is always difficult, no matter what division you are competing in. Look at the stats and you will see that results generally favour the home side so we know what we have ahead of us in Armagh. This will be a good test for the players. It will give us a good picture as to where we are at in terms of standards. We are taking on Armagh who are the favourites to win promotion out of the division,” added Michael.
“Every team in the division is particularly focused on their first two games because after the first two games there is a break of a few weeks. After Armagh we have a home game the following week against Limerick. It is vitally important that we come out of these opening two games with points on the board.”
Michael, who is part of Peter Creedon’s coaching/selection squad along with Michael McGeehan (coach), Tommy Toomey and Eoghan Cooney, went on to say that “this division is a very competitive one and every team in it will fancy taking points off each other on any given day. Sligo, Louth, Clare, Fermanagh will all fancy themselves for promotion but clearly Armagh would be outright favourites. They have been doing serious preparation since early November. The intensity of their training has been so serious that some established players have dropped off the panel. That is the kind of focus that Kieran McGeeney demands,” added Michael.
“For Tipp this year is about consolidating our position in Division 3 - it took Tipp two years to get out of Division 4 - and if we stay in Division 3 we will largely see it as a successful year for Tipperary football,” he added.
“The panel - seniors and under 21s combined - have been working hard since Christmas. We are now hoping on delivering a good competitive performance against Armagh and if we do the result will look after itself.
“We had the McGrath Cup game in Clonmel against Cork and we were happy enough with the performance. It was a good competitive game which was exactly what we wanted and the main thing was that it also gave us the opportunity to try out other players,” added Michael.
“We will be going along the lines of last year’s championship team to start. Of course Paul Fitzgerald, our long-serving goalkeeper is now retired and Seamus Grogan is out with injury, but after that we have no real injury concerns at present. We will train away this week, Tuesday and Thursday, and probably name the team Tuesday night,” concluded Michael.
Division 3 this year is made up of eight teams - Tipperary, Armagh, Limerick, Fermanagh, Clare, Louth, Sligo and Wexford.
While Tipperary and Clare were being promoted from Division Four last April, Armagh and Louth were both coming in the other direction, being relegated down from Division 2.
After the opening two games against Armagh and Limerick, there will be a three week break before Tipp’s campaign moves on to Fermanagh on Sunday, 1st March. This will then be following on consecutive weeks with games at home to Clare and away to Louth.
If Tipperary are still in the promotion hunt at this stage they will have a nice finish to the league programme with two homes games. Tipp are down to play Sligo in Thurles on Sunday, 29th March followed by a home game v Wexford, provisionally fixed for Clonmel, on Sunday, 5th April. There is therefore the possibility that Wexford, now managed by former Tipperary All-Ireland minor winning manager, David Power, could be coming to Clonmel for an ultra-competitive division defining encounter.
But for now Tipperary’s only concern is Sunday’s visit to the fortress that is the Athletic Grounds in Armagh City. Let’s hope for a positive start.