Time is right for Armagh's return to top tier -- Kernan
Armagh will be seeking to reverse a depressing trend of league defeats on the road when they travel to Letterkenny for their NFL Division 2 promotion decider on Sunday.
Since winning the league in 2005 they have only won twice on their travels, including a successful visit to Portlaoise earlier in this campaign.
But Aaron Kernan, now one of the team's most experienced leaders, believes they are turning a corner in their redevelopment that has seen most of the cornerstones of the team that served them so well in the last decade fade away.
Kernan feels the "time is right" for Armagh to take their place in the top flight again, the prize for the winners in Letterkenny this weekend.
"There's a lot at stake for both teams. Division 1 is the place to be for any team with ambition and given the age profile of our team, it wouldn't do us any harm at all to be up there," he said.
Kernan readily agrees that their record on the road is poor, recalling wins in Wexford and Kildare in the 2009 league as their only other success in five years.
"It has led to a lot of problems with consistency. Last year was the first time in the league since we won it in 2005 that we put back-to-back wins together. This year we managed three consecutive wins (Laois, Westmeath and Kildare) before losing to Down.
"Winning in Letterkenny will be a challenge, but, to be honest, I don't think there could be a better way to prepare for the championship."
A league final against Down in Croke Park would be a bonus, but in the greater scheme of things returning to the top flight and getting in among the likes of Kerry, Cork and Dublin again is what Sunday is all about in Kernan's estimation. "The good thing about this league campaign is that we have been learning lessons. We've been grinding out results," he said.
"We beat Laois in Portlaoise and that's a game we probably would have lost last year. There's a good feeling in the camp, because of results, that probably hasn't been there since 2005," said Kernan.
"We'd win a game and then lose one badly and that continued to set us back in recent years.
"But I'd be encouraged by the way we have reacted to situations. Even when Tipperary pegged us back the last day, we were able to respond."
Kernan (left) feels expectations surrounding Armagh are more realistic now than they have been in recent years. The Crossmaglen man is also pleased that so many new leaders are emerging to fill the gaps left by a raft of recent departures.
Paul McGrane, Paddy McKeever and Francie Bellew all announced their retirements on the same night last year and Enda McNulty has not returned in 2010. That leaves just Stevie McDonnell and Ronan Clarke (currently injured) as the only survivors from the 2002 All-Ireland team, clearly a new era then for Armagh.
"Stevie is captain and he has been great for us. Ciaran McKeever, Andy Mallon, Brendan Donaghy, Charlie Vernon, everyone has stepped up and different players have done it for us on different days," said Kernan, who praised the impact Paddy O'Rourke has made since his arrival.
"There's no doubt that this is a new team and the management have been putting their own stamp on it."
Armagh have lost just twice in this league, to Meath on the opening night -- a game Kernan feels they should have got something out of -- and Down, which was much more clearcut.
That level of consistency has helped to mould a team that now needs to take that next step on Sunday.
A home win would set Donegal up for a league final and the first of two meetings with Down as they are due to clash in the Ulster championship in June.