Kicking Out: Armagh could be the men in the long grass
THE first time I saw Armagh this season, it was still last year.
December 29, to be exact. They annihilated Cavan in a McKenna Cup game, weeks before doing the same in the league.
There were subtle differences on the field from the year previous, but the most significant change wasn’t on view that day.
James Morgan wasn’t togged but when he emerged from the changing rooms into the narrow corridor beneath the stand, I had to do a double-take. He was barely recognisable.
He had this big chest and round shoulders. His legs were like tree trunks.
He looked at least a stone heavier. It was as though he’d spent six solid months just eating and lifting.
This was not your traditional December weight. It was muscle.
During lockdown, Stefan Campbell went the other way.
He signed up with Newry-based online fitness coach Tony McAleavey during lockdown and over the course of a few weeks, he shed 6kg and went from solid to shredded.
Campbell’s ability to time a run and do it at pace has shone through in the last 18 months.
It’s just doing it more often enough across 70 minutes of high-octane championship football.
Shedding that little bit of timber could make the world of difference to a man who has everything else he needs.
Since Kieran McGeeney took over, he has spoken about the physical deficiencies that needed corrected before his team could challenge.
Changing a team’s physical make-up is not an overnight process.
But they, and he, have had to improve tactically too.
No better case in point than their All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Tyrone in 2017.
They were overpowered and they were naive.
They’d reached the last eight playing a thrilling, expansive kicking game.
Tyrone swallowed it whole. They shut off the space, turned the runners back and when the white shirts broke to go the other way, Armagh’s beleaguered chasing bodies had steam coming out of them.
Mickey Harte’s team literally ran out over the top of them in a 3-17 to 0-8 win.
That was year three under McGeeney. This is year six.
If Armagh lose their opener to Derry in November, their supporters will be entitled to ask questions.
The Oak Leafers are in year one under Rory Gallagher, who has spoken of the same obvious physical flaw in his new charges.
Derry are a very young team. They are physically very light.
A team in year one of its physical development should not be beating a team in year six.
Yet the game will tell us a lot.
Rory Gallagher loves packed defences.
Armagh do not do well against packed defences.
Defeats by Donegal (2015), Cavan (2016) and Fermanagh (2018) all emphasise the point.
Armagh scored 0-8, 0-12 and 0-7 respectively.
There was also the second half against Down in 2017, when they managed just three points (one from play) once their neighbours clammed up.
Four different teams all using the same template of strangling the Orchard’s will to play a traditional game.
By 2018, they’d gone too much for physicality and not enough for pace.
Their half-forward line was full of big men who could help them dominate around the middle. So even though they dominated the ball, they hadn’t the pace to break the Ernemen down. They ended up shooting from distance or getting turned over.
It’s a different story now. Jemar Hall has quietly emerged as a key player. He was outstanding last year.
Aidan Nugent has earned a spot in the team. Ryan McShane is an option. Mark Shields seems to have to work incredibly hard to get a place, but each time he plays, he gives them something very different from half-back.
Jarlath Óg Burns is a fearless running machine, brave to the point that you’d worry about him if he keeps taking the beatings he took when he went straight at teams last year.
All of that gives them a pacier, more balanced look.
Rian O’Neill is a natural scorer. Jamie Clarke is going well, Stefan Campbell is going better than ever. When you have a scoring machine like Conor Turbitt and Andy Murnin, a brilliant full-forward when he’s fit, and you can’t see where you’d fit them in, you’re in a good position.
They showed signs of learning to deal with the blanket last year, largely down to the emergence of Burns and Rian O’Neill.
Yet when it looked laid out on a plate for them last year, they lost after a draw, extra-time and a replay to a Cavan side whose limitations were brutally exposed by Donegal in the Ulster final.
Their league campaign pre-lockdown suggested their ability to take the head staggers remains an internal danger.
Defeat in Laois and a high-scoring draw in Westmeath, both of them off the back of impressive results the week previous, were all too typical.
Yet in a shortened knockout format, where tactics will not be so well-formed and could be trumped by ability, this winter could represent a great chance for Armagh.
They have bridged the physical gap. They have footballers. They have ability. They have a perfect age profile. And they have options.
Look at the graphic at the top of this page.
If Kieran McGeeney started the 15 players at the head of each position, look at the strength of his bench.
Patrick Burns, Aaron McKay, Joe McElroy, Stephen Sheridan, Ethan Rafferty, Aidan Nugent, Conor Turbitt, Andy Murnin.
That can turn a game in any area.
If they beat Derry, they will face the winners of Tyrone and Donegal. Those two have been eyeing other for months and no matter who wins, they’ll face a battle to get up again psychologically so quickly after such a big knockout game.
An All-Ireland contender will be gone, but Armagh could be the men in the long grass.