Armagh may have too much in attack for Donegal

Ulster rivals will have one eye on Championship dates

Andy Murnin and Michael Langan compete for a kickout during Armagh's draw with Donegal. Picture: John Merry
Andy Murnin and Michael Langan compete for a kickout during Armagh's draw with Donegal. Picture: John Merry

Allianz Football League Division Two final

Donegal v Armagh (Sunday, Croke Park, 1.45pm, live on TG4)

CALCULATING the significance of League finals is a complicated and varied equation. The League certainly matters more than it used to, with its link now to Sam Maguire Cup status. Winners get a ranking boost too.

However, the value of these final matches has been increasingly questioned in this era of the split season, with a packed Championship schedule following fast.

Factor in that this is the second tier of the secondary competition – or is it perhaps the third most important one for these two counties?

The next time Armagh and Donegal could meet after Sunday would be in the Ulster SFC final and there’s no doubt both would prefer to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup than the Division Two trophy.

Donegal may note that the last two times they won Division Two Finals they went on to be crowned Ulster champions – in 2011 and 2019.

Having said that, defeat didn’t do them any harm either. After they lost the 2014 Division Two decider – against Monaghan – that season still brought success anyway, winning the Ulster title, and reaching the All-Ireland senior final, albeit losing that to Kerry.

Armagh’s only previous Division Two success came in 2010; at least that was against old rivals Down, but the Orchard County’s most memorable Championship result that year (which finished with round three qualifier defeat by Dublin) ended up mattering much more in the history of Donegal.

After being well-beaten by Armagh in round one of the qualifiers in Crossmaglen, the Tir Chonaill county discarded John Joe Doherty and replaced him with Jim McGuinness.

Cue the most successful decade ever for Donegal.

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness watching his team against Cork during the National Football League Div 2 match played at Ballybofey on Sunday 28th January 2024. Picture Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )

With ‘the Messiah’ McGuinness back in charge, their sights have been raised again.

The Glenties man is a winner, of course – but are his eyes on bigger prizes, bigger battles?

An epic provincial clash looms with neighbours and back-to-back Ulster champions Derry.

In contrast, Armagh will be up against Fermanagh; win that and they’ll meet either Down or Antrim.

Armagh have more scope to go for it, while Donegal may be wary of further damage to their panel.

Armagh surely have an even greater hunger for this silverware too. Kieran McGeeney did bring them a trophy in his first campaign in charge, 2015 – but that was only from the Division Three Final. Another success at that same level four years later, also against Fermanagh, was not the addition to the trophy cabinet they wanted.

Kieran McGeeney's Armagh side welcome Meath to the Athletic Grounds on Saturday. Picture by Mark Marlow
Kieran McGeeney's Armagh side welcome Meath to the Athletic Grounds on Saturday. Picture by Mark Marlow (" ")

The expectation of finally being Ulster champs again, after a scarcely credible 17 years, is higher than ever given the lop-sided nature of the provincial draw.

Winning this final, beating Donegal, might only ramp up that pressure.

But it’s surely always better to head into Championship with a winning feeling.

This could be a classic contest but it still won’t live long in the memory.

Probably only county diehards and Scor quizzers could tell you who won previous Division Two deciders.

What’s your motivation?

A meeting of provincial rivals always has some added spice.

Appearing in Croke Park is never to be sniffed, and victory there even better.

Armagh must be slightly favoured, even though they finished second behind Donegal after drawing last time out away to Cork.

Donegal captain Paddy McBrearty has already been ruled out with a leg injury and another experienced man, Ryan McHugh, is doubtful with a shoulder problem.

Armagh seem set to be without defender Barry McCambridge, due to a lower leg injury, but going forward they have an array of attacking talent.

After the fairly low-scoring draw (1-9 to 0-12) at the Athletic Grounds in round four another tight tussle might be anticipated, but Croke Park tends to play more ‘open’ than most other grounds.

When it comes down to the final stretch the feeling is that Armagh will want it that bit more.