Kevin Madden: ‘I believe Armagh can win but to do so they must show a little more courage’

How Armagh handle Donegal’s kick-out strategy will be key

Armagh's Kieran McGeeney at the start of the Ulster GAA Senior Football Championship Quarter Final between Fermanagh and Armagh at Brewster Park, Fermanagh on 04-14-2024. Pic Philip Walsh
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney

IN the League decider between Armagh and Donegal back at the end of March, Jim McGuinness’s side looked to have a bit more about them, despite missing quality players like Ryan McHugh, Michael Langan and Brendan McCole. There was also no cameo role from Paddy McBrearty required.

Armagh didn’t start with Rian O’Neill or Stefan Campbell that day, while Jason Duffy and Oisin O’Neill weren’t used at all.

Little did we know at the time, but this was merely a dress rehearsal for an Ulster final pairing later in the year.

No full hands were on display and the Division Two showpiece was only settled by a stoppage-time point from Aaron Doherty.

Make no mistake – these are two very evenly-matched sides and we can’t really look to that result for any chinks of what could happen on Sunday.

Yet, from an Armagh perspective, what will they have learned about Donegal in the Championship to date and how might that influence how they approach this decider?

It might sound simple and, at the same time, a broad brush statement, but not allowing Donegal to dictate the game on their terms will be key for McGeeney’s men.

Let’s delve a little deeper and reflect on how both Derry and Tyrone fell exactly into that trap against them, particularly on kick-outs.

The continued and reckless full press on the Shaun Patton kick-out by Derry was destructive and allowed the game to develop into a helter-skelter contest of anarchy that cost the Oak Leafers three goals.

This was exactly what McGuinness had planned for, albeit he could never have imagined it would work as emphatically.

Next day out, with Patton injured, the Red Hands offered up the kick-out and invited Donegal onto them. Tyrone missed an opportunity to test a rookie goalkeeper making his full Championship debut.

The net result was that Donegal had 13 more shots at goal than their opponents. A completely different game, but again played on their terms.

At this stage it is unclear whether Patton will have recovered in time from injury to regain his place from Gavin Mulreany – but if he is fit he will start.

Shaun Patton
Will Donegal's first choice goalkeeper Shaun Patton start in the Ulster final? Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN PHOTOGRAPHY )

This uncertainty will have added a little more stress to the Armagh preparations as a plan for Mulreany will look very different from the one for Patton.

If the latter is in goal, Armagh still need to pick their moments to exercise a press of sorts, but it would be a guarded one that will involve at least one spare man out the back and lots of scrambling when the ball is mid-flight.

Ben Crealey, Rian O’Neill, Shane McPartlan, and perhaps Andrew Murnin, will be a quartet used to match the towering quartet of Jason McGee, Michael Langan, Ciaran Thompson and Caolan McGonigle to ensure the ball breaks the favourable side of their midfield.

Possession gained from any long deliveries can be oxygen to the Armagh attacking game.

How they set up defensively and press the ball is also going to be hugely important. While Derry offered meadows of green grass for Donegal to run into, Tyrone did the opposite and set up a very low-block defence.

Armagh should look for balance in the first phase of their defending by getting a little more pressure on the ball between the two 50s.

Tyrone didn’t have a counter-attacking game because they didn’t force any turnovers in the tackle.

Armagh need to be less cagey and go for the kill when the chance is there. Counter-attacks will be necessary and that can be another string to the Armagh bow.

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney also faces a tough dilemma this weekend, with first-choice goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty now fully fit again after recovering from an ankle injury.

His replacement, Blaine Hughes, has been in fine form though, conceding just two goals in nine League and Championship matches in 2024. I expect Hughes to start, but don’t rule out a cameo appearance from Rafferty, which could be a massive injection to the Armagh attack come the last 20 minutes.

In the same way Donegal wanted the Derry game to be fast, furious and manic, Armagh have to find a way for the tempo to be high at stages.

If it’s pedestrian, attritional, and methodical then McGuinness will be rubbing his hands – and I’d expect Donegal to win.

The facts are that Donegal are unbeaten in nine games through the course of 2024 says plenty. Jimmy’s winning matches.

The form would point to a likely Donegal victory as question marks remain over Armagh being able to take out a formidable opponent whenever they need to.

Former Donegal star John Gildea pulled no punches in yesterday’s edition when he told us that very fact.

In his 10th season in charge, the pressure is being heaped on McGeeney to finally deliver an Ulster title.

I believe Armagh can win – but to do so they must show a little more courage and a little less caution.

They must dictate the terms.