John McEntee: Armagh are no forlorn hope against Mayo

As Armagh and Tyrone moved into round three of the Qualifiers, Down made their exit to Mayo, but the progress of Caolan Mooney is one of many positives that Paddy Tally's side will take from 2019 Picture by Philip Walsh

LIFE can be cruel, says my ‘glass half empty’ friend as he contemplated the draw for round three of the All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers.

He describes the scenario as if it were a question in the transfer test: “There are eight teams in a hat in which Mayo are the first team drawn. What are the chances of the next team chosen being Armagh?”

As it happens the answer is a one in seven chance that Armagh would be chosen, which they were.

Coincidentally, it might also be the odds on Armagh winning some would consider fair.

Armagh didn’t need a tough game against Mayo after laying their heart and soul bare in front of 10,000 people in St Tiernach’s Park, Clones barely seven days previous. Maintaining that momentum with a diminishing squad is an onerous task.

As it happens, I have a ‘glass half full’ friend who is ever the optimist. “Mayo, that’s brilliant, sure we are in really good form and are a match for anyone. We will beat them, let’s get the room booked and make a weekend out of it.”

There is an infectious appeal to this psyche and a review of Mayo’s game against Down strengthens this way of thinking.

Down people will say they left that game behind them and, had they taken some of their chances, they’d have won the game.

As we know, one thing Down people don’t lack is confidence so, when faced with such statements, it is wise to hold your counsel and examine the evidence – and there was plenty of evidence.

To Paddy Tally’s credit, he has improved this Down team. Had there been cool heads while in front of goals and a reliable long-range free-taker, perhaps the outcome could have been different.

He’s the first manager to click with Caolan Mooney to help him unlock his potential. We’ve seen in their three Championship matches just how good Mooney is.

His God-given pace, coupled with an endless appetite for work, has reminded supporters of his prodigious talents while a pupil at St Colman’s College, Newry.

He was so good that Mayo assigned their finest, Lee Keegan, to man mark him – a job reserved only for the best opponents such as Dublin’s Ciarán Kilkenny or Diarmuid Connolly.

To paraphrase a verse from Ecclesiastes: For everything there is a season. For Armagh, now is the time to embrace the opportunity presented and a time to throw away the doubts.

Mayo’s record in Castlebar is terrible. Even when they win, they win playing poorly. It is an unhappy hunting ground as a home venue, perhaps one of the worst among the top teams in Ireland. This could be Armagh’s time.

The other Ulster team in this round of the Qualifiers is Tyrone. As one of the top teams, they were laughing when Mayo and Armagh were drawn against each other. Why so?

Well, the remaining teams haven’t a mission of beating Tyrone. As it happens, they were drawn against the best of the rest, Kildare, and, to toughen their task, they have to travel to Newbridge, which is a tight pitch and an intimidating venue.

They will meet almost a year to the day that Kildare shocked the football world by beating Mayo in Newbridge.

The significance of that day won’t be lost on either manager and it will form the key topic of discussion between management and players as Mickey Harte reminds his troops of the perils of complacency.

On that day, Kildare were a team who had a bigger reason to fight – it was the ‘Newbridge or nowhere’ saga which drove them to victory.

Regrettably, Kildare have not progressed in line with expectations in 2019. They remain a mid-table Division Two team who lack bite or a killer instinct. What makes them tick is one of the great mysteries of the GAA, which has evaded all their managers since the great Mick O’Dwyer at the turn of the century.

This stage of the Qualifiers is about being disciplined, controlled and grinding out a result. It requires teams hitting scoring returns of 75 per cent or more and limiting scorable frees to five or fewer. No-one does this better than Tyrone.

This game is a perfect match for Tyrone if they prepare properly. It provides sufficient resistance to stress test their system and blood new players.

It is a stepping stone to a final Qualifier game which is their gateway to the Super 8 series. Tyrone knows they need to be in the Super 8s to redeem credibility.

Anything less would be a failure, so they’ve got an ideal opportunity to rekindle their challenge for honours.

At this stage of the Championship, half the teams are out. For those that remain in the Qualifiers, there are degrees of optimism they might steer through a tricky tie and get the one shot at entering the Super 8 series they are all craving.

The smart money is on Tyrone, the gambler will punt on Armagh. I’ll drink to that.

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