Winner takes it all as Armagh and Tipperary meet in promotion play-off battle

Jamie Clarke inspired Armagh to victory when these sides last met at The Athletic Grounds
Jamie Clarke inspired Armagh to victory when these sides last met at The Athletic Grounds

Allianz Football League Division Three: Armagh v Tipperary (Sunday, the Athletic Grounds, 2pm)

IT TOOK a Jamie Clarke-inspired Houdini act to get Armagh out of a desperate situation when these sides met in Division Three two years ago.

Clarke’s late show inspired the Orchardmen to a one-point win at the death and Tipperary’s players and management must have been shaking their heads in disbelief all the way home.

As they boarded their bus Kieran McGeeney reflected that “the best team always wins” and if that’s the case, his side should wrap up the victory they need tomorrow.

Tipp reached the All-Ireland semi-finals last season, but Armagh have been the outstanding team in Division Three this year and should secure promotion tomorrow while booking a place in the final against Louth.

Antrim held them to two points last Saturday night but the Orchardmen laid siege to the Saffrons’ posts for most of the 70 minutes. Yes, the determined visitors missed a second half penalty, but it was Armagh’s poor shooting – 15 missed opportunities in the first half - that allowed them to stay in the game.

Clarke scored one point that game and is one of only five of the Armagh side that started against Tipp for McGeeney’s managerial debut named to take the field tomorrow. Meanwhile, the Munstermen are a pale shadow of the side that reached the last four in the race for the Sam Maguire.

Manager Liam Kearns has lost Peter Acheson, who has gone to Dubai, and Ciaran McDonald (injured) – “two of the best players who ever played for Tipperary” – as well as George Hannigan (groin), Bill Maher (hamstring) corner-back Colm O’Shaughnessy (hamstring), Liam Fahey, Jason Lonergan and Diarmuid Foley. Kearns hopes to have them all back for the Championship bar Acheson, the star of the side last summer.

“It is hugely disappointing to get to an All-Ireland semi-final and then lose your star player,” he said.

“Peter Acheson was nearly an Allstar last year and Ciaran McDonald has been the best defender in Tipperary for the last 10 years. To lose Peter was a particularly bad bodyblow and with George out we’ve had a new midfield throughout the campaign.

“You can’t bring in marquee players to replace marquee players like Peter. I don’t expect him to be back, but seven of them should be back for Championship and then you factor in that we’ve brought 17 new players into our panel, which is too many but we had to strengthen our panel.

“Our main goal is the Munster semi-final against Cork in early June. That is what we’re building towards and Sunday is another stepping stone towards that win, lose or draw.”

After a shaky start to their campaign, four wins on-the-trot means a draw would be enough to send Armagh back to Division Two. Tipp need to win and Kearns says he is happy to still be in the shake-up after disappointing home losses against Sligo and Louth.

“We’re delighted to have the opportunity to play what is effectively a League semi-final,” he said.

“We’ve had two poor performances at home and normally that would put you out of the competition. We had a very poor performance against Sligo and we had a poor second half against Louth last Sunday.

“Armagh hammered Louth in Drogheda and Louth beat us at home so if you’re going on that form line you’d say that Armagh would be overwhelming favourites and you’d expect them to win easily. But we’ll be going there with a positive attitude.”

Kearns observed that: “Armagh are certainly going in the right direction.”

“They’ve got some excellent forwards - Rory Grugan, Stefan Campbell, Jamie Clarke… I see Ciaran McKeever is making a big contribution up front as well,” he added.

“They have some very good young players like (Ben) Crealey and Oisin O’Neill coming and they have Charlie Vernon at full-back and their two corner-backs are good players.

“They are definitely hitting form at the right time, so it will be very difficult for us on Sunday.”

You can expect Tipp to make it difficult for their hosts too.

While Armagh deserved their victory against Antrim, the game illustrated that they still have work to do and they’ll need to produce better to win tomorrow.

The Saffrons stopped the supply to Armagh’s best finishers Clarke and Stefan Campbell who landed a point between them while their team-mates lashed wide after wide as they tried their luck with low-percentage shots.

Another cause for concern for the Orchardmen was how easily Antrim exploited a lack of pace in their defence last week to force a penalty.

With forwards like Conor Sweeney, Michael Quinlivan , Kevin O’Halloran and Brian Fox in their ranks, Tipp pack an attacking punch so Armagh won’t get it all their own way.

The Orchardmen don’t always respond well to the favourites’ tag, but if they handle it tomorrow they should clinch the promotion they deserve.

Armagh: B Hughes; P Hughes, C Vernon, J Morgan; A McKay, B Donaghy, N Rowland; A Forker, B Crealey; R Grugan, G McParland, N Grimley; C McKeever, S Campbell, J Clarke