GAA Football

Mayo's veterans to shut Armagh's summer down

The evergreen Andy Moran could well be faced up to by Aidan Forker, who has found a new role as a man-marker for Armagh. Picture by Philip Walsh

All-Ireland SFC round three qualifier: Mayo v Armagh (Saturday, 7pm, Castlebar, live on Sky Sports Arena)

NOTHING paints the qualifiers in a better light than a game like this.

It might not have been what was initially in mind when Sean McCague sat at the top table of Congress as it voted them in coming up on two decades ago.

The original intention of fostering the weak has long been displaced by the reality that the back door is an opening for the strong.

But every so often, we get a weekend like the one standing before us. While Tyrone must navigate the waters that drowned Mayo at this very stage last year, the westerners have another battle to fight on their own patch.

It’s remarkable given the paths Mayo and Armagh trod in the 2000s that this is a first championship meeting in 69 years, when Mayo waded confidently past the Ulster champions in an All-Ireland semi-final, en-route to the first of their back-to-back successes.

What they’ve endured since has been a cruelty that the other 31 counties have peered through their fingers at, grimacing a little harder when September’s come.

Their loyal fanbase travelled to Newry in huge numbers last weekend, but if any county can be their match in that regard, it’s Armagh.

The visiting support is set to travel in huge numbers. MacHale Park will be awash with green and orange.

The peace white might be needed in the middle of the field during the final 20 minutes if this game conforms to expectations.

Just as neither side is prone to taking a backward step physically, the two of them are keen on playing a bit of ball as well.

Yet there is something of a naïve impression that this is set to be the ultimate in old-fashioned shootouts, with both playing three up top and kicking loads of ball.

It won’t be that, but that takes nothing away from the intrigue of what it will be.

Psychologically, Armagh must feel that this is a huge opportunity.

Mayo’s performance against Down last week can be broken into two parts. For the 50 minutes they played with a sweeper, they were pedestrian in attack and largely reliant on frees, yet seldom extended defensively.

The other 20 minutes, the ones just the far side of half-time, they pushed man-for-man. Their attacking play in that period was infinitely better. They kicked and worked off Andy Moran, who was responsible for setting up 1-2 in that spell.

It also left them hugely exposed at the back. Keith Higgins picked up a man rather than sweeping, and that allowed Down to start dropping a few bombs in. They also got some joy running at Mayo’s centre.

But despite the extra threat Paddy Tally’s men carried in that spell, Mayo increased their lead from three points to six points. It was only when they went back to having a spare man that they invited Down back into the game.

That leaves James Horan with a quandary. If they go for the methodical approach, they’ll be hoping Armagh continue to display one of their more concerning traits.

In four games so far this summer, they’ve conceded 0-23 from frees - an average of almost 0-6 per game.

The trick from there is for Mayo to score them. It’s been a major issue in Cillian O’Connor’s absence. Jason Doherty was taken off them at the end of the league, and Evan Regan lasted two games. Robbie Hennelly’s long-range efforts against Roscommon were a disaster. Conor Loftus was better, but not flawless, last weekend.

Mayo might be best advised to shut the game down. A battle of brawn would suit them, and while Armagh have put up a few great attacking displays, there remain question marks when a team blocks off the corridor down the middle of their goal.

A trio of Jamie Clarke, Rian O’Neill and Stefan Campbell is not a trio you want to leave with space in front of them.

Clarke’s last two displays have been excellent, while O’Neill has already hit 2-19 this summer. Campbell’s regained his place on merit.

Brendan Harrison and Chris Barrett will take Clarke and O’Neill between them, but that leaves Horan either with Keith Higgins or Donal Vaughan at corner-back – neither of which you suspect he really wants.

On the other end, Aidan Forker did a fine job on Conor McManus last weekend and looks the most likely man to pick up Andy Moran, something we never thought we’d say even a month ago.

Rory Grugan is the most obvious inductee to the attack if, as expected, Andy Murnin doesn’t recover in time. Grugan will go to 11, where he’ll meet Michael Plunkett, restored to the Mayo side in place of Colm Boyle.

That’s one of four changes from last week, with Mikey Murray the biggest surprise in attack. Vaughan comes in for Diarmuid O’Connor, whose broken wrist in training was their second bad injury in a fortnight to occur at Bekan.

Despite the toll for Mayo, you might read it as an indication of the ruthlessness of those training sessions.

Physically, Armagh have a chance in certain areas but they recognise that they’re still behind the top teams in that regard. Where they can match Mayo is for football.

Armagh changed things up at half-time in Clones as the game went from a shootout to them picking Monaghan off brilliantly on the break. But no top-level team could possibly leave themselves so exposed as Monaghan did.

The Orchard have the better attack on paper. That’s backed up by their stats this year. The Mayo attack that’s named to start has 4-60 between it this year. Armagh’s likely six have racked up 4-99 between them.

Jamie Clarke's last two displays have been excellent. Picture by Philip Walsh.

That makes it imperative for Mayo to close off the space in front of them. Because ultimately, there are reasons why Mayo have been competing for All-Irelands in recent years and Armagh have been swimming in much shallower waters.

For experience and conditioning and cool heads, Mayo will have the edge. They’ll at least break even at midfield. Their methodical attacking play will suck Armagh, whose tackling can be needlessly forceful at times, into conceding frees.

If James Horan backs his team to win a shootout, it could well be the end of their summer.

But if Mayo take the more cautious approach and Conor Loftus finds his range from the frees, they will squeeze over the line.

Armagh’s fearlessness will cause tremors in Castlebar, but Mayo’s veterans can take the early punishment, steady themselves and defend all the way to a two-point win.

* * * * * * * * *

Man of the moment
Aidan Forker

THIS is not the Aidan Forker we used to know. Renowned as a ball-playing half-forward, Kieran McGeeney first morphed him into a deep-lying playmaker from wing-back. But over recent weeks, the Maghery man has taken on a different role altogether. He was given the job of marshalling Martin Reilly over the two games against Cavan, and the experiment went so well that he was asked to shackle Conor McManus in Clones last weekend. There’s a fair chance that, off the back of that, he’ll be asked to pick up Andy Moran this evening. That would represent evidence of a more permanent departure, one that he’s shown the fledgling signs of settling nicely into.

Team talk
Mayo: D Clarke; C Barrett, B Harrison, K Higgins; L Keegan, M Plunkett, P Durcan; D Vaughan, A O’Shea; F McDonagh, C Loftus, M Murray; K McLoughlin, A Moran, F Boland
WITH the news that Diarmuid O’Connor became their latest midfielder to suffer a serious injury, Donal Vaughan might have mixed feelings about being handed the number 8 shirt. It will be his first start in more than three months, but his inclusion ahead of potential options like Stephen Coen suggests that Mayo feel they can impose a physical superiority on Armagh.
Michael Plunkett comes back in at centre-back, retaking Colm Boyle’s spot, Mikey Murray, who was only added to their extended panel before the start of the championship after a good run in club games, makes his first start at wing-forward in place of their top scorer for the year, Jason Doherty.
The final change sees Fergal Boland named to start ahead of Darren Coen, whose early black card in Newry seems to have cost him in more ways than one.

Armagh (probable): B Hughes; A McKay, P Burns, P Hughes; A Forker, B Donaghy, M Shields; J Óg Burns, C Vernon; A Nugent, R Grugan, J Hall; J Clarke, R O’Neill, S Campbell
ARMAGH aren’t expected to name their team in advance of throw-in, but it seems probable that both Niall Grimley and Andy Murnin will miss out because of the injuries they picked up in the win over Monaghan.
Grimley’s elbow injury at the end was a cruel blow given he’d come into a great run of form, while Murnin’s hamstring issues have persisted all year. The manner in which he pulled up in Clones makes a return here seem very unlikely.
Rory Grugan is almost certain to come in for Murnin, taking up the centre-forward berth with Stefan Campbell moving back to the inside division.
Stephen Sheridan isn’t expected to be fit as he recovers from a knee injury. Given that he’s most physically suited to Aidan O’Shea, Charlie Vernon is likely to be the man to replace Grimley.

Mayo tactical take
WHILE they held the lead for pretty much the whole game in Newry, their best spell from a footballing point of view was in the 20 minutes after half-time. That was when they looked most like the Mayo we know. It was no coincidence that it was also the spell when they played without a designated sweeper. It left them a bit more exposed at the back and they rode their luck at times, but the improvement in their own attacking play, especially in the form of using the kickpass during that period, was marked. David Clarke was more than happy to go long to Aidan O’Shea all evening, but they didn’t do much to break Down’s man-to-man press on kickouts. Armagh could target that.

Armagh tactical take
IT’S funny how the modern game works. With a gutsy, man-to-man approach in the first half against Monaghan, Armagh scored 0-11. Then playing against the wind, they changed it up and dropped bodies back, hitting on the counter. They scored 2-6 in the second half. The former is the approach that they’re most comfortable with and this is not Ulster. Mayo will give them opportunities to use their forward line. Armagh are likely to press up, but they will be keen to retain Brendan Donaghy as a sweeper rather than on a man. That will mean giving Mayo a sweeper too, but there’s an argument that Armagh will use theirs better. They’ll play with six forwards most of the time and look to go straight at Mayo’s centre.

Key battle
Lee Keegan v Jarlath Óg Burns
THE naming of Donal Vaughan at midfield for Mayo could put a spanner in the works of this duel, but it seems likely that James Horan will drop Vaughan into the half-back line and send Lee Keegan in to curtail Jarlath Óg Burns. The powerful running of the Silverbridge man has been a huge feature of Armagh’s play this summer, not least in their excellent win in St Tiernach’s Park seven days ago. You’d expect the way Mayo play that they will give Armagh space to run into, but Keegan is a specialist in not only tailing such players, but putting them on the back foot. The latest in a long list of examples was in Newry last week, when he moved on to Caolan Mooney, who scored one first half goal and could have had another. Keegan scored 0-3 in the second half and shut the Rostrevor man down.

Lee Keegan is the likely candidate to play at midfield and pick up Armagh dangerman Jarlath Og Burns. Picture by Philip Walsh

Weather watch
IT’LL be taps aff and windows down (or air-con on for those with flashy motors) on the long jaunt out west for the Armagh fans, but the evening is set to change a bit by the time they arrive. It’ll still be a very mild 18 degrees but a dash of rain is set to sweep in.

Last championship meeting
1950 All-Ireland SFC semi-final: Mayo 3-9 Armagh 0-6
Taken from The Irish News report, Monday August 14, 1950
MAYO’S victory over Armagh at Croke Park was decisive and convincing. To be precise, the Connacht champions were superior in speed, overhead catching and retaining possession.
Armagh, from start to finish, failed to justify the high hopes entertained not only by their own followers, but GAA supporters around Ulster. At no point did the team reveal the incisive form that had seen them beat Cavan in the Ulster final.
Mayo’s victory was secure just 10 minutes into the second half, when their third goal came. It was a replica of the first. Mayo’s attack were in a class of their own, with Langan and Solan opportunistic experts in ramming home their chances.
Langan’s two first-half goals virtually settled the issue, both lightning-like drives past McVeigh in goals for Armagh, who had no earthly chance of saving.
Mayo led by 2-3 to 0-1 at half-time, by which stage a spectator had rushed the field in an attempt to accost the referee, who blew the first half up two minutes early.
The westerners maintained their domination throughout, while Armagh never gave up. Pat O’Neill put in a manful effort, while Sean Quinn and Gene Morgan were bright early on.

Who’s the ref?
Maurice Deegan
HARDLY needs an introduction at this stage. The three-time All-Ireland final referee was in the middle for Mayo’s 2012 decider loss to Donegal, with the 2008 final (Tyrone v Kerry) and the drawn 2016 game between Dublin and Mayo his others. Seems to get an eternally bad rap from the public, perhaps more than any other official, which seems exceptionally harsh. Probably based around the fact that he tends to favour the forward when it comes to physical contact. Capable of letting a game flow but does it too seldom.

Betting box
Mayo 2/5
Draw 8/1
Armagh 11/4
Mayo (-3) 11/10
Draw (-3) 9/1
Armagh (+3) 10/11
First goalscorer
Andy Moran 15/2
No goalscorer 15/2
Jamie Clarke 8/1
Rian O’Neill 8/1
Worth a punt
Man-of-the-match, Brendan Harrison 40/1

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