Armagh better suited to Croke Park environs
Allianz National Football League Division Three final: Armagh v Fermanagh (today, Croke Park, 5pm, live on TG4)
TAKE two. The script will feel a bit less dark, with a few lighter moments, but it’ll retain some weight because of the value of silverware.
To be precise, these two won one pot between them in decade since Armagh last won the Ulster title, and it was the Orchard’s at the expense of Fermanagh when they met at this exact stage three years ago.
That was one of three National League finals Fermanagh have lost in that time, beaten in the third tier in ’08 by Wexford down in Parnell Park, while also losing a Division Four decider to Wicklow in 2012.
There is that element of preciousness, and then there is the other side of it that says that no matter what they produce or how it pans out, it will have paled into insignificance by the middle of May.
The evidence of their Brewster Park meeting two weeks ago would suggest that, even though it finished a draw in which Fermanagh led almost the whole way, Armagh should wear the favourites’ tag.
For one, their gameplan will be more easily adapted to Croke Park, as they showed against Kildare last summer. They will look to try and prise Fermanagh apart as early as possible in a bid to force Rory Gallagher’s side out of their shell and create a bit more space for their forwards.
Part of that will be looking to pressurise Pat Cadden’s kickouts. With Stephen Sheridan, Charlie Vernon, Ben Crealey, Niall Grimley and Aaron Findon at his disposal, and at least four of those five likely to start, they dwarf Fermanagh’s middle third.
They found themselves on the back foot in Brewster on the back of playing into a strong wind and finding themselves 0-4 to 0-0 down after the first 15 minutes on a difficult day for scoring.
If Fermanagh are waiting for something to bring them out of their defensive shell then they won’t the win game any road. Trying to play such a deep-lying, counter-attacking game that involves a reticence to kick the ball to their inside forwards is very difficult to master in Croke Park.
Their one injury concern is over Paul McCusker’s thumb, and there is a settled look about their team that will stand them in good stead as the year goes on.
Given their style, the primary concerns for Rory Gallagher will be how his full-back line struggled two weeks ago, and how they struggled for punch when trying to break the lines in attack.
Andy Murnin had the beating of Ché Cullen in the air that day, albeit not to the level of impact it might have had on the game, with a few wrong decisions and a bit of misfortune preventing the St Paul’s man from doing scoreboard damage.
The return of Gavin McParland in Wexford – where he hit three points from play – will replenish their attacking options further and while Mickey Jones is likely to pick him up, Fermanagh have been having issues with their second corner-back slot.
The latest tryout Cian McManus was sent off against Westmeath and then struggled against Armagh, leading to a defensive reshuffle last weekend that saw Conor McGee introduced.
Up front, Tomás Corrigan got his first start last weekend but was whipped off at half-time. There could be a case that he might flourish on the bigger pitch and that Conall Jones could come out from full-forward to help redress the middle third imbalance, but it’s unlikely that they will change tact at this stage.
It means both Corrigan brothers and Sean Quigley will probably be held in reserve, which does give Fermanagh fair attacking clout should they wish to delve into their secondary resources.
And their chance in the game will ultimately hinge on whether they can manage to successfully bridge the gap between defence and attack.
There were times in the first half two weeks ago that Armagh left their full-back line man-for-man, but Fermanagh had no real inclination to kick and instead relied on running the ball.
Aaron McKay’s return may lead to a defensive reshuffle from Armagh. The Dromintee man could continue alongside Oisin Lappin in a two-man full-back line, with Paddy Burns following the third man out.
That would leave Brendan Donaghy free to sit as the spare man and Charlie Vernon to go to midfield again, but there is a fluidity about their defensive make-up that makes it more difficult to predict.
There is sufficient fluidity about their attack to seize the initiative early on. And if it forces Fermanagh to come out, it would be interesting to see the strength of their counter punch.
Based on what we know, all that space in the Croke Park echo chamber should be a better friend to Armagh. Kieran McGeeney’s side to win by four, but for it to count for not that much before the third act in seven weeks’ time.
PATHS TO THE FINAL
Armagh 2-17 Sligo 0-9
Armagh 2-17 Westmeath 1-11
Armagh 1-11 Longford 1-10
Armagh 1-15 Offaly 1-9
Armagh 1-15 Derry 0-14
Armagh 0-7 Fermanagh 0-7
Wexford 0-12 Armagh 1-8
Fermanagh 3-7 Wexford 2-5
Fermanagh 2-11 Offaly 1-6
Fermanagh 0-13 Sligo 0-8
Fermanagh 1-16 Derry 3-8
Westmeath 0-14 Fermanagh 1-9
Fermanagh 0-7 Armagh 0-7
Fermanagh 1-10 Longford 1-9