Armagh have the will but Donegal know the way in Ulster

(seamus loughran)

Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Armagh v Donegal (tomorrow, The Athletic Grounds, 2pm, live on RTE2 and BBC2)

THERE was a moment in last year’s game between Armagh and Donegal when Aaron Kernan could have kicked his county into an All-Ireland semi-final.

The sides were level at 1-11 apiece when Kernan took a ball on the right wing in front of Hill 16. Kernan was playing superbly. He had already landed a point and this late chance was well within his range. The Crossmaglen man clearly considered the option. But rather than take a punt, Kernan chose to retain possession. He passed the ball. For a player of lesser ability, Kernan made a sensible decision. An ordinary player would probably have missed the shot. Kernan would probably have scored. Kernan’s decision to play the percentages backfired. The move came to nothing. In the end, it was Donegal who engineered the match-winning point as Patrick McBrearty fired his team into the last four.

Games of huge magnitude can be won and lost on such tiny moments. Armagh really were that close to causing an colossal upset.

The foundations for Armagh’s accomplished performance came from three key factors.

When Donegal neutralise the threat of the opposition’s man marksman, that’s normally enough to win the game. Those conditions didn’t apply to Armagh. While the Donegal blanket held Jamie Clarke scoreless, the Orchard men were able to manufacture scores from elsewhere. From defence, corner-back Andy Mallon (0-1) and wing-back Aaron Kernan (0-1) landed two points. Four forwards (Tony Kernan, Aidan Forker, Kyle Carragher and Stefan Campbell) got on the scoresheet as did substitute Michael Murray. In their three games in the Ulster Championship, Donegal conceded approximately 12 points per game. Armagh hit 1-11.

Armagh’s physical prowess and tactical acumen were the other reasons why they were able to knock Donegal out of their comfort zone.

In Charlie Vernon, Aidan Forker and Aaron Findon they had players who had serious power and strength. Perhaps, more importantly again, Armagh’s side was brimming with pace.

In terms of tactics, the Orchard County had their homework done. Realising that Donegal would concede territory, they wasted no time in working the ball to the boundary of the opposition’s defence. Tony Kernan caught Donegal off guard by shooting from distance. No Donegal player laid a hand on Kernan when he scored his first point from the 45-metre line.

Of course, Donegal assume that teams will register the occasional long range score. That is factored into the equation. Where Armagh enjoyed even greater success was in their ability to infiltrate and stretch Donegal’s defence. Aaron Kernan in particular tormented them.

Defensively, Armagh were also solid. Dublin were torn apart by Donegal’s strategy of isolating and targeting Neil Gallagher from kick-outs. Armagh kept a sweeper behind Gallagher, thereby reducing the risk of a goal chance being created from a broken ball.

Looking at both teams’ performances, Armagh looked like a side that had given microscopic attention to every detail of Donegal’s gameplan. That’s the problem with being on television all the time. It allows teams to gather a lot of intelligence. Donegal didn’t appear to know the same amount about Armagh. There also seemed to be a measure of complacency about them.

The worry for Armagh is that the balance has changed. Jim McGuinness had less than a week to gather intelligence on Armagh. (After beating Meath on August 2, Armagh met Donegal the following week on August 9).

This time around, Rory Gallagher has had ample time to study his rivals. A full month has passed since Donegal beat Tyrone in Ballybofey. For the past four weeks, Donegal will have been preparing specifically for the challenge which awaits them in The Athletic Grounds.

When Gallagher reviews last year’s game in Croke Park, it will be easy for him to identify the areas of the game where his players failed to perform. Donegal surrendered too much territory when they retreated into defence. This allowed Tony Kernan and Kevin Dyas to pull Donegal’s defenders out of position. Donegal’s tackling also lacked its usual intensity and crispness.

Donegal’s last match against Tyrone will also serve a useful purpose for Gallagher.

Darren McCurry’s goal was a rare example of a serious breakdown in communication in Donegal’s defence. Paddy McGrath ran back to protect the central channel, failing to realise that no one had picked up McCurry who was running from the wing. Tyrone’s ploy of tackling high up the field also caught Donegal off guard. While Armagh might try to mimic the tactic, it’s safe to assume that Donegal will be prepared for it.

When analysing the game in MacCumhaill Park for his newspaper column, Jim McGuinness argued that Michael Murphy was under utilised at full forward. It was a valid point. Now that Murphy’s marker will be under fierce scrutiny, it’s safe to assume that Donegal will direct a greater volume of passes towards their talisman.

Both teams have indulged in pre-match propaganda. Donegal have shifted the spotlight onto whoever will be marking Michael Murphy. In a bid to reduce the damage caused by poor tackling, Armagh have tried to create the conditions for a maelstrom.

It certainly promises to be a stormy encounter. And yes, the referee will have a huge bearing on the outcome.

The question remains if Armagh can replicate or improve on last year’s display. Aaron Kernan is a huge loss. Stefan Campbell was on fire last August, but the Clan na Gael man hasn’t played much football this year and he’ll struggle to reach those heights.

But Armagh should do well. Their preparations have been intensive. They have been on several training weekends, which included a challenge match against Cork. A recent fund-raiser generated a six figure sum. The mood in the company is positive. Playing at home will be a huge advantage.

In a game that will decided by very fine margins, it will be no shock whatsoever if Armagh win. But the suspicion remains that Donegal can play at a higher level from last year’s flawed display in Croke Park. The visitors have more scope for improvement. Donegal to win.

Whistle Watch

One of the biggest difference between the teams lies in their ability to tackle without fouling. Donegal have excellent technique. Armagh are more ragged. In last year’s game, Armagh conceded six points from frees. In contrast, Armagh only managed two converted frees. Armagh’s tendency to foul was a feature of their peformance against Fermanagh in the League final and no doubt it’s an area which Gallagher will be keen to exploit. As ever, the referee’s interpretation of the tackle will have a huge bearing on the contest.