GAA Football

Maghery can take Armagh Harps to retain Armagh championship

Armagh Harps defender Charlie Vernon will be hoping to lead his club to their first championship title since 1991 against Maghery tomorrow

Armagh Senior Football Championship final: Sean McDermott’s, Maghery (holders) v Armagh Harps (tomorrow, The Athletic Grounds, 5pm)

AS in a few other counties around Ulster, there is a changing of the guard in Armagh.

After a 12-month hiatus most people in the Orchard County expected Crossmaglen Rangers to bounce back and relieve Maghery of their hard-earned Armagh senior football championship title of 2016.

But, the signs were there of a decisive power shift after Shane McConville’s Maghery side beat ’Cross in the early rounds of this year’s championship.

Although it wasn’t the knock-out stages, championship emancipation was within reach for the likes of Armagh Harps, St Patrick’s Cullyhanna and Ballymacnab.

Maghery and ‘Cross crossed swords again in the semi-finals a fortnight ago and the holders came through after an epic battle at The Athletic Grounds.

With ’Cross out of the picture, tomorrow’s finalists Maghery and Armagh Harps will want to seize their chance.

The Harps lust a first senior championship in 26 years. Between 1989 and 1991, they reached three finals in a row and mined two titles.

Their last success – in 1991 – they defeated tomorrow’s opponents by a point in a memorable final.

John Toner, now managing the Harps seniors, grabbed the winning point.

The ’91 decider is very much remembered as the John Corvan final.

Voted the club’s Player of the Millennium, Corvan had just returned from holidaying in Australia and there was much consternation whether the Harps management team should play him against Maghery.

He was thrust into the action in the second half and turned the game in Harps’ favour.

Crucially, Corvan set up several scores before Toner popped up with the winner.

They reached deciders in ’95 and in ’09 but lost them both.

They’ve been sitting on 20 championship titles since 1991.

During his four years at the helm, Toner guided the Harps to back-to-back finals in 2014 and ’15 but they were swept aside by Crossmaglen on both days.

Even though Maghery are big favourites to retain their title, Harps will fancy this challenge.

It’s unlikely Harps 'keeper Paddy Morrison will make the same mistake as Crossmaglen by launching his kick-outs down the throats of Maghery midfielders Ben Crealey and James Lavery.

Harps have the tools to play an effective running game.

With Charlie Vernon minding the house, Declan McKenna has been in brilliant attacking form at centre-back while the bustling Conor Whyte can break defensive lines.

And in Simon McCoy, Ryan McShane and free-taker Ultan Lennon, Armagh Harps have plenty of craft in attack.

Gareth Swift’s participation in tomorrow’s final is in doubt after his straight red card in their semi-final win over a weakened Ballymacnab side, but it is understood Harps are awaiting the outcome of their appeal.

Even with Swift available, Harps face a massive task to overcome the holders who are undoubtedly a better team than 12 months ago.

That first county crown in the club’s history has liberated this group of players and they have the confidence, personnel, tactical flexibility and running power to win back-to-back titles.

It’s a job in itself in trying to negotiate a way past Crealey, Lavery and the withdrawn Stefan Forker – and they have just as many canny runners from deep as Harps to make the difference.

Barring injury, Ciaran Higgins is a county wing-back in the making while the constant running from deep of Stephen Cusack belies his 34 years.

Aidan Forker, playing at full-forward for Maghery, will take some watching as the light fades in the Cathedral City tomorrow evening and his elder brother Stefan is a fine shooter from distance.

If the Maghery defence can close out Crossmaglen’s main men and deny them goalscoring chances, they will consider it equally plausible to do the same against the likes of Simon McCoy, Lennon and McShane.

Shane McConville’s biggest challenge over the last 14 days will have been to keep Maghery’s feet on the ground after the emotional high of toppling Crossmaglen.

If their heads are right, they can overcome this talented Harps side – and perhaps redeem themselves on the provincial stage after that.

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