Enda McGinley: It's hard to believe how bad Armagh were
THERE is nothing like the defeat of your own county to suddenly change your interest level in the Ulster Championship. After Tyrone’s reversal last week, my primary interest this weekend is in who else will join them in the first round Qualifier draw.
As much as there was widespread annoyance that the Tyrone versus Monaghan game was not shown on live TV, I imagine most within the Armagh camp would have preferred a complete media black-out of their own game.
I simply could not believe how poor Armagh were. Getting in silly digs was about the only thing they did well.
Fermanagh didn’t even have to reach top gear to be twice as good as the Orchardmen. When Rory Gallagher and Ryan McMenamin sit down and watch the tape, they will still be able to pick out many areas to improve, but they got their basic shape and match-ups spot on and could rely on a team ethic and determination that was inexplicably absent in their opponents.
A serial winner as a player in Ulster, Kieran McGeeney is faced with some very tough questions. Are his players actually good enough?
Plenty of occasional evidence suggests they are. Having had a number of relatively favourable Ulster Championship draws and the sort of financial backing few counties can enjoy, why can they not produce it when it matters?
This one is likely to be much more uncomfortable to answer. They set up defensively, but got it horribly wrong.
In some ways it was not unlike their previous horror show against Donegal in the Athletic Grounds in 2015. That day they sat too deep and allowed Michael Murphy and co to completely control the game in the middle third.
This time Ryan Jones, Declan McCusker and Eoin Donnelly handled so many balls and in so much space that they may as well have been playing a game on their own.
Yet, all day long Armagh failed to counter the gaping hole in the centre of the pitch left by Fermanagh’s wide men simply keeping wide.
The work done to learn from the League final and implement a defensive strategy that nullified Andrew Murnin must have been huge.
I am sure there has been no shortage of work put in behind the scenes in Armagh to have prepared the team for Sunday past, but unfortunately, given the complete absence of anything coming close to a performance, the La Manga trips and everything else appear to have been a waste of time.
The Tyrone and Monaghan clash was a different affair. While it had the occasional passages of slow, lateral and often backwards play that annoys advocates of the ‘traditional’ game, the general level of quality on display in both defence and attack was simply outstanding.
Obviously, there have been plenty of recriminations in Tyrone following the defeat, but I doubt anyone was levelling anything at them after 65 enthralling minutes when Tyrone had dragged themselves back level from being four down against the wind.
At this stage it was anyone’s game, while momentum and history suggested the Red Hands would prevail.
In the remaining time, Monaghan tore up that script and tore Tyrone to shreds. How?
Well, with hindsight, Monaghan at this stage had called their two rested starters Colin Walshe and Conor McCarthy into the fray, who along with Owen Duffy ensured they were arguably finishing with a stronger team than what they had started with.
Tyrone, on the other hand, having taken the risk of starting a number of returning players, were finishing without Colm Cavanagh, Tiernan McCann, Lee Brennan, Mark Bradley and Cathal McCarron, while Ronan O’Neill had already tried and failed to make an impact.
Tyrone’s strength in depth did not pass the test when held up against a full-strength Monaghan team.
At its most basic, Monaghan got very good performances out of at least 11 of their players, Tyrone only had about two men who managed to play towards the top of their game.
Even with this, it is stating the obvious that the game, strangely mimicking the League tie, was still decided by the talent of Conor McManus and Rory Beggan.
In different ways – Beggan throughout the game, McManus when it mattered most – both produced the moments of brilliance that, no matter how our game changes with tactics and systems, still proves the difference more often than not.
Monaghan march on with a growing swell of confidence that anything is possible. Tyrone will accept they underperformed on the day.
With luck, the early Qualifier rounds should be negotiated, but at some stage the likes of Mayo, Kildare and Donegal or Monaghan will all likely be in the hat so the Super 8s are not the foregone conclusion some seem to think.
Along with regular games, the back door might also provide a few home ties to rebuild some confidence in Healy Park, which could prove priceless given the importance of any home tie in the Super 8 format – should they make it that far.
Every cloud and all that...
DERRY versus Donegal and Down versus Antrim this weekend appear straightforward calls on paper, although after my tips last week I’m second guessing myself.
It is fair to say Derry have been strangely quiet for the past month. Maybe they are lying in the long grass or maybe there is simply little to be shouting about.
Certainly, Damian McErlain has a massive task in trying to gather an Oak Leaf team together and produce a decent performance against Donegal. Lack of pressure and being roundly written off can, however, do magical things to a team and Derry still have areas of definite quality from which to build.
Donegal, on other hand, have undoubtedly many talented players who can do beautiful things on a football pitch, however, when it is really put up to them– ie, not by Cavan – they have found the going tough.
If Derry channel what should be a burning desire to establish a bit of pride and really physically compete and outwork Donegal, they will stand a chance. Unfortunately, with Michael Murphy back on form and Paddy McBrearty (inset) likely keen to make up for his quiet first round, anything other than a Donegal win with a bit to spare would be a massive surprise.
Down and Antrim in Pairc Esler, meanwhile, should also be a foregone conclusion.
Reaching the Ulster final last year, having accounted for both Armagh and Monaghan, was a major statement of Down potential, but limp relegation from Division Two is probably the more accurate indicator.
For Pairc Esler, read Healy Park in terms of absence of home comforts, so no advantage there. Down are probably a match for Armagh in terms of their inconsistency and that is where Antrim have a chance.
Down, bereft of their famous swagger, are under pressure and their confidence will be egg-shell thin.
Antrim do not have the same quality at their disposal as they had in reaching the Ulster final back in 2009, but they have still produced spells of decent football this year.
They will have watched what Fermanagh did to Armagh.
The ‘size of the dog’ analogy is famous for a reason, so Down need to decide just how much fight is in them. The head thinks Down, the heart…, well that’s thinking of that Qualifier draw on Monday morning.