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Steven McDonnell: Armagh and Derry should soak up Croke Park experience but there is still a job to be done

'You can ask who will pick up Shane Walsh and Damien Comer but the same dilemma will be there for Joyce, deciding on who picks up Rian O’Neill and Stefan Campbell (pictured)'.
Picture: Philip Walsh.
Steven McDonnell

THIS weekend is no doubt, the biggest weekend for Derry and Armagh in quite a while. Both counties with great footballing tradition have been starved of playing in Croke Park in meaningful Championship games for too long and this is now an opportunity that they must grab with both hands.

In light of recent performances and results for Armagh, the buzz around the county has really kicked into gear and I’m sure the exact same can be said in Derry, as current Ulster champions.

The feelgood factor has got to be enjoyed by all supporters, particularly the kids as they have never experienced this before and sometimes when the spirits are high, when your county team are doing well, it takes some pressure off every day living for some people.

Times like this have to be enjoyed, and while not getting carried away with the situation we find ourselves in, there is certainly now an air of expectation for this Armagh team to produce high level performances more consistently.

Armagh, Galway, Derry and Clare will all feel that there is an opportunity in front of them to reach an All-Ireland final, so for all four counties, entering unchartered territory will present its own challenges.

Which team has the capability of turning up and producing a level of performance to make their way to a semi-final first of all? Playing in Croke Park often brings out the best in some players, but sometimes it also brings out the worst, and it can be a lonely place for someone if they aren’t on their game, even in a packed stadium.

I know this as I’ve been there myself. I always look back on my first time starting in Croke Park in the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry and that was a game when I played the occasion, and not the match.

I was too caught up in playing in Croke Park. It was a childhood ambition for me to do so, so why wouldn’t it eat me up when I forgot the main reason I was there? To play the match and to try and help my team get over the line.

Inevitably, I was taken off and was dropped for the replay before redeeming myself, and coming on and scoring three points. I learnt a lot about myself and about playing in Croke Park that day.

Never again did I play the occasion, and never again was I taken off for Armagh in a Championship match.

Derry are huge favourites going into their game but Clare will present them with a lot of questions Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.

Confidence has got to be high in the Armagh camp after knocking both Tyrone and Donegal out of the Championship, but the reality of knock-out football is that the wind can soon be taken from you and Armagh have a fresh challenge ahead of them, and it's against a team that have the capability and firepower of causing a lot of damage if allowed to.

Back in late January, Croke Park was a pitch that suited Armagh’s style of play in their League match against Dublin, but you can be guaranteed it will also suit this current Galway team.

Any team that has quality like Shane Walsh, Damien Comer, Johnny Heaney and Paul Conroy in it must be closely watched and with the intelligence and know-how of Padraic Joyce and his backroom team on the sideline, you can be sure that this will indeed be Armagh’s toughest challenge to date.

Galway scored 1-14 against a very experienced Mayo side and that total will win most games, Armagh must try to establish a foothold in the game early on to allow them to play on their terms.

We know the quality that Armagh have, though, and the damage they can cause, but it's their game and not that of Galway’s that they must focus on to be at their best.

You can ask who will pick up Shane Walsh and Damien Comer but the same dilemma will be there for Joyce, deciding on who picks up Rian O’Neill and Stefan Campbell. These calls will be massive and will tilt the scales if nailed on. It’s a contest that I can’t wait for, and one that I hope sees Armagh reach their first semi-final since 2005.

Derry are huge favourites going into their game with Clare, and both teams are familiar with each other. Even though Derry will be high in confidence and overall, looking at both teams, they have the better quality, Clare will present them with a lot of questions and they will have to respond like they have done throughout their Ulster campaign.

I don’t think it will be as easy as some may predict, but I do expect Derry to have enough in their locker and get to the semi-final.

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