Cahair O'Kane: Kieran McGeeney's right to play to Armagh's strengths - but they can't win Ulster doing it
“To be honest, if we lost against Down and got to the Super 8s, I’d settle for that.”
Kieran McGeeney in January
WHEN an enthused Joe Brolly two summers ago described Armagh as having a “Division One forward line”, there was the inescapable sense that he was setting them up for a fall.
They were heading to Newry later that week to face a Down side that wasn’t receiving much acclaim, having needed a last-minute score in Cork to survive in Division Two.
Armagh had been playing some great stuff in the third tier but saw their promotion single-handedly snatched away by a Michael Quinlivan hat-trick on the last day.
Winners write history. Down won that day in Páirc Esler, yet it was the ultimate game of two halves.
Armagh’s forward line got space in the first half and they threatened to rip their rivals apart at times. Mark Shields and Andy Murnin raised green flags, and for 15 minutes they looked like scoring a goal every time they came forward.
Only for Anthony Doherty getting fingertips on a Murnin shot just before half-time to turn it on to the post, Down would never have had the day out at an Ulster final they ended up with.
They were playing right into Armagh’s hands in that first half. Had the second period continued in the same fashion, Armagh would have won the game comfortably.
But from the half-time dressing room emerged Armagh’s kryptonite. Down completely shut the space in front of their goal off. They forced Armagh to the wings.
From 19 scoring chances, the favourites scored just three times – twice from frees (one of them in the 82nd minute) and once with an Anto Duffy effort that looked suspiciously like it’d gone wide.
And that, more than the first half, has been the tale for Armagh in Ulster under Kieran McGeeney.
Their basic win-loss record gets brought up each summer, as it will again this year. They are four-and-oh, as the Yanks would say.
And yet in the last two seasons, they’ve ended up coming through the back door and reaching the last eight (2017) and last 12 (2018) of the All-Ireland series.
The reason is quite simple. The qualifiers offer a more natural, looser brand of football.
That suits Armagh down to the ground. Because while you can question other elements of their make-up, you cannot question their ability to play heads-up football.
Had their game with Roscommon last summer not been banished to the RTÉ News Now channel, it would be regarded as a bona-fide classic.
It went almost to the point of being cruel on the two full-back lines. Both defences were drowning under the weight of space and the quality of the delivery. By half-time it was 1-11 to 0-12. It finished a hurling score, 2-22 to 1-19.
But there is little evidence to suggest Armagh would have met any different a fate than their conquerors had they been the ones to have reached the Super 8s.
The way Tyrone ripped Roscommon to shreds a week later was frighteningly reminiscent of what they’d done to their Blackwater rivals the previous summer at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.
What way do Tyrone play? Bodies back and ruthless on the break.
And what way did Donegal play in 2015, in McGeeney’s first Ulster Championship game in charge? Bodies back and ruthless on the break.
The former, you can forgive. Armagh felt they’d worked the Tír Chonaill men out in the previous autumn’s last-eight encounter at Croke Park, but Rory Gallagher completely outfoxed them with his rotating full-forward line and long-ball tactic that exposed Armagh’s lack of height.
For a game that was so eagerly anticipated, to see it over after 30 minutes was demoralising for everyone. But it was as much about the fact that Armagh scored a single point, a fisted effort off a dropping shot, as it was about Donegal’s 1-7 in the same spell.
Armagh came with nothing that would break down the mass yellow ranks. They basically ran up to the wall and either turned back or bounced off it.
What’s more concerning is that it was no different to what they did three years on in Brewster Park, when Fermanagh beat them holding them to 0-7, having done the same defensive job in their league meeting two months previous.
That really is the crux of it for Armagh. If a team lets them play, they will play. That’s why they’ve thrived in the qualifiers.
Ulster is a different battleground. They’re not short in the physicality stakes, but it’s simply that there’s a lack of refinement about how they try to prise teams apart.
That comes from the fact that they’re just not set up for the running game. Their natural inclination is to kick. Their inside forwards make runs which reflect that.
But it’s not built for the slick, hard-running, counter-attacking play that will really expose teams. The kind of play that we routinely see from the top eight, ten teams.
Much of the above implies a criticism of Armagh and McGeeney. But what’s he to do?
The players at his disposal are what they are. There are very few players in Armagh not in the current setup that you’d think would walk into the team.
His better footballers are natural footballers. There are pockets of pace in the squad but to use them, he’d be sacrificing more than he’d gain.
So instead of trying to put a square peg in a round hole by attempting to manufacture a running game that doesn’t suit them, he’s worked on what they’re good at.
That’s led them up through the clutch of teams that aren’t top tier material. They are, in championship terms, a top-12 side.
Realistically, the Super 8s is their absolute ceiling. And that could make you wonder if they’d be better prioritising an Ulster title over a run through the qualifiers.
That, though, would require a tactical sea change that would turn them against their strengths as footballers, and that would probably leave them worse off rather than better.
Unless we see something drastically different this weekend in Crossmaglen from what we witnessed in Brewster last summer, it would be safe to rule Armagh out of contention for a provincial title.
Lose to Down but make the Super 8s? Don’t bet against it.