Armagh and Donegal showdown game of the weekend

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness has changed football once before - can he do it again? Picture: Mark Marlow
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness is back for a second stint Picture: Mark Marlow
Allianz National Football League Division Two: Armagh v Donegal (Sunday, The Athletic Grounds, 3pm)

By Brendan Crossan

DUBLIN and Kerry may beg to differ – but the most intriguing game of the weekend is taking place at The Athletic Grounds tomorrow afternoon.

Armagh versus Donegal. Kieran McGeeney versus Jim McGuinness. A crowd that will undoubtedly be northwards of 10,000, the compact nature of the stadium adds a little bit more to this Division Two top-of-the-table clash.

Both boasting three wins out of three so far, this 70-plus minutes of football will be the best test Armagh and Donegal will get in the League this season, even better than if they qualify - as is highly likely - for a divisional final on March 30 which is far too close to Championship.

So, three games in, the timing of this mouthwatering showdown couldn’t be any better.

If anything, Armagh are moving at around 70 or 80 percent and still winning games in the division without, notably, goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty and marquee attacker Rian O’Neill, though the returning Blaine Hughes has been excellent in Rafferty’s absence and 20-year-old Oisin Conaty has compensated well for O’Neill’s absence in attack.

Fortunate to get past Louth by a point, the Orchard men beat other Leinster sides Meath and Kildare at a canter and have conceded just over nine points on average across their three games.

Armagh are a team comfortable in their own skin and hoping to peak when it matters in 2024.

With McGuinness back along the sidelines, Donegal have probably gone a little harder from the start of the year, evidenced by the teams they fielded against one another in the McKenna Cup encounter in Ballybofey.

Armagh ended up road-testing a host of U20s while Donegal had more than a few recognisable faces on their team sheet as they ran out 16-point winners at the beginning of January.

But there are times in the season teams want to lay down a marker. Both Armagh and Donegal are firmly on that territory this weekend.

It’s fair to say more eyes are on Donegal than Armagh because of the Jim McGuinness factor. Regarded as one of Gaelic football’s alchemists, what’s new about Donegal?

It’s been hard to get a read on them. For instance, last week they sat off Fermanagh in the first half before adopting an aggressive press that ended up pulverising the Ernemen in Letterkenny.

He may have taken a year away from the rigours of inter-county football, but Ryan McHugh’s footballing IQ hasn’t dimmed one iota and is doing well in that deep-lying playmaking role.

It’s hard to know if Caolan McGonagle is there to stay at number six for Donegal - but the Buncrana man is a player that is hugely effective the more grass he sees in front of him.

One of the most consistent footballers in club football, big things are expected of Glenties midfielder-cum-wing-forward Ciaran Thompson in 2024, while the team’s new totem Patrick McBrearty is working like a dog and sharing the attacking load is the mercurial Oisin Gallen who is brilliant in one-v-one situations.

It’ll be interesting to note the various match-ups and if Donegal resume their aggressive high press against an Armagh side who aren’t quite the hell-raisers of old, but would like to think they’ve gained in street smarts insofar as bolstering their defence and being able to unpick their opponents’ defensive assets.

Armagh have the attackers to do sufficient damage to Donegal and their bench is getting stronger by the week.

And if ever a packed-out main stand was worth a few points to a team, it’s the one in The Athletic Grounds.

Armagh to show they can win tight games against top opposition.