Winner-takes-all, expect the winners might not want what they get
Dr McKenna Cup section B: Armagh v Derry (Sunday, 2pm, Athletic Grounds)
AN hour from the proposed throw-in time last Sunday, the majority of the Derry squad and a small handful of Armagh players were mingling in their own small groups on the Athletic Grounds surface.
Each square yard of the pitch seemed harder, denser and more unplayable than the last. The goalmouth to the left of the stand put the tin hat on it, the mud frozen so solid that it had sharp edges that would have split a man had he fallen wrong.
Players giggled at the prospect of the game ever going ahead before it was finally postponed 20 minutes before the original throw-in time, just before the fans could begin to skate through the turnstiles.
The postponement was the only natural outcome in the circumstances but what it has done is made the next couple of weeks that bit trickier for whoever wins tomorrow.
It’s winner-takes-all but you suspect they both might prefer not to collect their winnings. A semi-final would beckon on Wednesday night against the best runner-up, which would take them into the realm of three games in seven days.
The scenario is that a win or a draw for Derry takes them through to the last four as group winners, but defeat will eliminate them.
A victory for Armagh would see them jump to the head of section B and into a meeting with the best runner-up, which will be the winners of Monaghan’s tie with Donegal (in the event of a draw in Clones, the Tír Chonaill men will advance).
With two minutes to go in both games three days ago, the group had a very different shape to it. Down were hanging on in Celtic Park and the Orchard were half-beaten by Ulster University.
But late recoveries occurred on both ends, with Kieran McGeeney’s men hitting the last four points to salvage a draw, and Niall Toner’s goal snatching a win for Damian McErlain’s troops.
It leaves the latter in pole position and, speaking after that win in Celtic Park, the Magherafelt man admitted the lack of rest that victory would create ahead of the start of the NFL was a concern.
“How do we approach it? We just go out and play. Armagh might want to win, they might not.
“I said last week we probably needed a lot of football in the McKenna Cup but the game being postponed has pushed us into the dates zone where we don’t want to be, in a sense of getting up towards the league.
“We have only got one infinite group of players, so there is nobody getting any real rest here.”
His group of players is bare without the Slaughtneil and university contingents, which tally 10 between them.
Their inexperience has been disguised well enough in their two wins but in fleeting moments, you can see the job they have to meet the pace of league football.
They’d just gone up a point up on Down and won the ball back on the kickout with only injury-time left to play. Yet they were careering forward in huge numbers and carrying the ball into traffic when a more seasoned side would have taken the sting completely out of it.
Early on they’d been wide to the world defensively and got no pressure on the ball in the middle third, and Down could have made enough of a harvest to have downed their tools.
Once Conor Doherty dropped into a sweeping position, and the workrate lifted further out, Down stopped penetrating the Oak Leaf defence and carried nowhere near the same threat in the final 45 minutes.
Enda Lynn has been as immune to the winter turf as he usually is. His tendency to hit the ground running has been a strong feature in Derry’s recent McKenna Cup runs, and with one man-of-the-match and another near miss already this campaign, Armagh will have an eye on curtailing him.
That could mean a changed half-back line, with Mark Shields’ impressive cameo on Wednesday night from wing-forward making him a prime candidate for a recall.
Their willingness to kick the ball early will provide a similar challenge for the Oak Leaf defence to the one they faced in midweek.
But their finishing left a lot to be desired, with McGeeney admitting the grit in their late recovery somewhat masked those deficiencies.
”They showed some character definitely in the second half, they kept pegging away, but we had one success from eight shots inside 13 metres which is poor, no matter which way you dress it up. You would expect the players to score those chances.”
Both camps are very much in experimental mode and had the circumstances been as planned before the frost hit, they might well both have been mad to win.
Neither of them might be so keen, though, to land themselves with another game 10 days in advance of their league opener.