Allianz Football League Division 2, round 4: Armagh v Tipperary (tomorrow, the Athletic Grounds, 2pm)
IF recent history is anything to go by, the fans at the Athletic Grounds will be on the edge of their seats right to the final whistle tomorrow because League meetings between these counties tend to be thrillers.
Go back to 2015 and Kieran McGeeney’s first League game as Armagh manager was a grab-and-go win over Tipperary at the Athletic Grounds.
The Tipp players and management must have been shaking their heads all the way back to Thurles because they looked to have the two points in the bag before a sprinkle of Jamie Clarke magic got Armagh over the line by a point.
Armagh were promoted that year but they were back in Division Three a couple of seasons later and this time the sides met in the last round of fixtures. The Orchardmen had been the best team in the division but they lacked the ruthless edge that would have wrapped up promotion with a game to go and it all boiled down to a straight shoot-out with the Premier county.
This time Armagh had the game in the bag but Michael Quinlivan’s late goal (he finished with 3-1) denied them promotion and meant Tipp went up instead and they’ve been in Division Two ever since. Since then Armagh travelled to Thurles and deservedly won a Qualifier by two points and tomorrow’s clash is another intriguing tussle between two footballing outfits who will look to attack from start to finish.
The Armagh defence won’t have to worry about Quinlivan tomorrow, he was ruled out of action for six weeks after a knee operation and isn’t expected to return until the middle of next month, and Robbie Kiely, Bill Maher, Evan Comerford, Shane O’Connell and Josh Keane all missed Tipp’s last game which saw them throw a spanner into the Division Two works by beating Donegal.
That victory has made the second tier a claustrophobic battle. Armagh are second-from-bottom but just two points off top spot while Tipp are fifth on three points - they could go top with a victory or end up in the drop zone if they lose heavily.
Liam Kearns’ men have moved through the gears smoothly since they lost to Meath in their opener. Dogged Fermanagh held them to a draw but they clinched victory against Donegal in round three.
That victory, like so many, was underwritten by their potent goal-scoring threat. So far this season, Tipp have hit the back of the opposition’s next six times (the best record in the division) and they are on course to better their totals of 2018 (13 goals), 2017 (12) and 2016 (12).
The Armagh defence will be tested tomorrow and the Orchard forwards will have to show the same ruthless touch in front of goal as their opponents if the home side are to win this game.
The Tipp footballers don’t have the reputation of their hurlers but they are a good side – don’t forget it took a last-minute point from Cavan to deny them a place in Division One this year – and manager Kearns says they had a point to prove against Donegal after letting victory slip against Fermanagh in their previous game.
The Premier County had to settle for a draw after the Erne County were awarded a controversial late free and this spurred them to a superb 3-9 to 0-13 victory over the reigning Ulster champions in Semple Stadium.
“We felt we didn’t perform well in front of goal, so we went out to redeem ourselves,” he said after the win.
“All the credit goes to the players. They are the ones who decided ‘We are going to stand up and show what we’re about today’ and they went out and did that.”
He added: “Our backs were to the wall with 10 players missing. There are huge players missing for us and to be able to come and win a game against that kind of opposition says it all about the players.”
Armagh have their injury problems too. Jamie Clarke has been missed. The Crossmaglen forward was sent off in the first half against Clare and suspended for the loss to Meath – absences that arguably cost Armagh two wins – but he returns tomorrow and it is understood that Ethan Rafferty and Brendan Donaghy have both returned to training. Oisin O’Neill and Andrew Murnin remain on the sidelines.
Forwards tend to flourish in these games and the Tipperary stats prove that they are a dangerous side who could be a match for Armagh tomorrow. The Orchardmen have blown hot and cold this year – they are capable of superb spells of football but can also go off the boil undo a lot of their good work and there echoes of Quinlivan's goal two years ago when Clare's David Tubridy found the Armagh net at the death of the round two clash in Newry three weeks' ago.
McGeeney will need the full 70 minutes out of his charges and if he gets it, and taking Tipp’s injury problems into account, he should get the two points too.