GAA Football

Armagh will win if they start with the right team

Kieran McGeeney, heading into his fifth summer in charge, is still awaiting his first Ulster Championship win as Armagh boss. 

Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Down v Armagh (tomorrow, Páirc Esler, 4pm; deferred coverage on BBC2 NI, 7pm)

IF you want to know who will win this game, the best indicator will be a look at the Armagh team that lines up behind the Mayobridge band in Páirc Esler.

Disregard the team they have named. In his four goes at it in Ulster, Kieran McGeeney hasn’t started with the team he’s named publically. He’s made an average of two pre-match changes.

The starting 15 that was released on Thursday night lends itself to the idea that there has been a change of attacking approach by the Orchard boss, whose record in the province plays like a broken record at this time of year.

Look at the physical make-up of this forward line compared to the one that tallied 0-7 in Brewster Park last year. Last year it was McShane, Forker, Grimley, Rafferty, Murnin, McParland. Barring McShane they’re big men all, but there’s not an awful pile of the kind of mobility that will find a way around men that just as big and strong.

His tendency over a period of time is to have two physically imposing wing-forwards, thus creating a wall on the opposition kickouts that allows Armagh to swallow up the lion’s share of possession.

This time it’s Nugent, Rafferty, Hall, Grugan, O’Neill, Clarke. You can argue over whether it’s better, but it’s certainly smaller and livelier.

It had to be that, but if he goes with the team named, McGeeney seems to have made two mistakes already.

Throughout this year’s National League, there has been a definable and concerted effort to arrest their difficulties against massed defences. There have been massive changes in the way they’ve used the ball in attack.

Two of the key personnel behind their ability to work the ball much closer to goal before taking a shot have been Mark Shields and Stefan Campbell. Assuming that the pair of them are fit, then they must start.

If those two are not marching behind the band, then the margin that could exist between the sides on paper dissolves.

Because as it is, the Armagh team looks built for the 100m sprint rather than the 110m hurdles. Give them a straight line and they’ll burn you up. Put obstacles in their way, as Down will, and matters become more complicated.

By the way in which Paddy Tally sets his teams up to play, Down will be sticking quite close to the defensive template that shut Armagh down so effectively in the second half two years ago, keeping them to a single point from play.

They have all the individual attacking talent in the world, but ever since McGeeney’s first game in 2015 when they ran into Donegal’s wall and got outfoxed at the back by the high ball, there’s been a glaring deficiency in terms of their actual attacking play.

Just as against Fermanagh last year, the Orchard’s decision-making and shot selection were both terrible. They were shooting from the wing, from the corners and from out around the 45’.

In their last three halves of Ulster Championship football put together, Armagh have scored 0-3 from play.

That's what they've spent the league working on. When they overcame Fermanagh in Crossmaglen, they did so by getting inside the Erne cover. It took patience, but they waited it out.

Crucially, they didn't make the mistakes of old. In Brewster Park last year, 16 of their 23 shots came from outside a 25m arc in front of goal. In this year's league game, nine of their 10 scores came from inside it.

That’s what it will boil down to, because if Armagh can find a way to get to 15 or 16 points, it’s hard to see Down matching them.

If Conor Maginn isn’t selected to start, which on the basis of evidence from the league seems probable, the Mournemen will be down 10 of the starting 15 that won this game two years ago.

Mickey Cunningham, Anthony Doherty, Gerard McGovern, Darragh O’Hanlon, Conaill McGovern, Niall Donnelly, Peter Turley, Shay Millar and Ryan Johnston will all be absent.

Jamie Clarke will start for Armagh in Newry, but whether Conor Maginn (left) is in the Down team could have a big impact on the Mourne side's attacking game. Picture by Philip Walsh

Coming from a base of Division Three football, it’s hard to yet properly gauge the quality of those that have replaced them.

There are also the two major structural issues that undermined them in the spring, namely the ability to retain the ball from their own kickouts, and their effectiveness in attack.

While they averaged 1-11 in the league, the change in style was best emphasised by the scoring returns of Donal O’Hare and Connaire Harrison.

The former was largely a fringe player under Eamonn Burns but hit 4-22 this spring, 4-7 of it from play. Harrison, the focal point of their attack the last two years, was late back into the fold but cut a frustrated figure as he adapted to a lack of early supply. He scored just a single point from 184 minutes of football.

It wasn’t so much that they didn’t use him right as they didn’t use him at all. They kicked him no ball to work with, the by-product of which is that they became wholly predictable to play against.

Harrison may not even start tomorrow, with Pat Havern having impressed in his game-time in challenge games against Sligo, Donegal and Galway. Either way, if Down don’t carry the threat of an occasional kick inside, Armagh will have enough to shut them out.

There’s also whether, in championship football, they have enough spring about their running game. Caolan Mooney is the most dangerous outlet, but Down were at times heavily reliant on Darren O’Hagan for the rest of the energy from deep.

O’Hagan, as good a defender as there is in Ulster, shut Jamie Clarke down two years ago but the big call now is whether he plays at corner-back to do that same job, or they take a chance on Clarke and move O’Hagan to wing-back where he can affect the attacking side of the game more.

Kevin McKernan is likely, but not certain, to operate as the sweeper. They have been trying him at centre-back since the league ended.

Really, the attacking key is in the half-forward line. Shay Millar is a huge loss in terms of their counter-attacking threat,

With Daniel Guinness likely to start on one wing and Jerome Johnston to pull out and fill up another half-forward slot, the big call is at 11. Paul Devlin is a reliable source of scores from frees, but Conor Maginn is the man that will get his head up, spot a pass and drop it in to perfection.

But regardless of what Down do, Armagh will win the game - provided they start with the right team.

* * * * * * * * * * 

Man of the moment: Jarlath Óg Burns
IN almost every word that’s spoken or written about him, he’s his father’s son. And yet in the space of a few short months, Jarlath Óg Burns has put his feet out from beneath a shadow that shortens by the day. If he continues on this path, time will come when the Óg will lighten. Perhaps even disappear. The Silverbridge man was the chief propellant as St Mary’s reached the Sigerson final and stepped straight into the inter-county scene with ease. Set to make his championship debut in the middle, his ability to hurt teams when he runs at them that will in time come to be recognised as his greatest strength.

Jarlath Óg Burns makes his championship debut for Armagh at midfield.

Team talk
Down (probable): R Burns; R McAleenan, R Wells, G Collins; D O’Hagan, K McKernan, C Flanagan, C Mooney; J Flynn, C Poland; P Devlin, D Guinness, J Johnston; C Harrison, D O’Hare

DOWN’S team seemed a lot harder to take a blind stab at than Armagh’s, at least until the Orchard sprung a couple of surprises. Paddy Tally has mixed and matched through the league, with the net result being a somewhat unsettled look. Ruairi Wells is likely to continue at full-back despite a tough day against Louth. Johnny Flynn and Conor Poland seem likely to play at midfield, while Ryan Johnston’s absence means a probable start for Paul Devlin ahead of the out-of-favour Conor Maginn. Pat Havern has done well in the recent challenge games and could edge ahead of Connaire Harrison for a start, while James Guinness has also done well as a post-league addition to the squad and could feature.

Armagh: B Hughes; P Burns, A McKay, P Hughes; R Kennedy, B Donaghy, A Forker; C Vernon, J Óg Burns; A Nugent, E Rafferty, J Hall; R Grugan, R O’Neill, J Clarke
NOT the Armagh team that most expected, but then given their track record we’ll only believe it when we see it. Kieran McGeeney’s never started the team he’s named publically in an Ulster Championship match, making an average of two changes over the four years. Niall Grimley and Andy Murnin are both injured, although neither is a million miles away. As it stands, Patrick Burns, Paul Hughes and Ryan Kennedy have won the tight calls in defence, while Aidan Nugent is the big surprise in attack having played just 23 minutes of football in the league. Stefan Campbell is the most notable exclusion. But all might not be what it seems.

Down tactical take
WHATEVER about the five games in-a-row they won to put themselves in a good position during the league, the one that you analyse is the one that mattered. Defeat by Louth was a tough one to take but if they learn all from it that they might then it might be a major blessing in disguise. There were three key elements. The first was their kickout strategy, which has been an issue that long backdates Tally’s reign. Down haven’t been able to consistently win their own ball for years. There was also the contrast in how well Louth used the kick compared to how Down did. That’s been another constant issue, underlined by the fact that Connaire Harrison just a single point in the league. He may lose out to Pat Havern. They have to throw a few bombs his direction to keep the Armagh defence honest if nothing else. The other was the pace of their running game. It’s been too laborious on the way out, to the point where a harmless tactical foul can be enough to make life very difficult for them. Unless they improve on all three fronts, they’ll lose.

Armagh tactical take
ON the basis of the team they’ve named, this is a different approach from Armagh. Niall Grimley’s absence is enforced but the fact Stephen Sheridan isn’t named creates the look of a side that’s built less around just winning the ball and more around what to do when they have it. That has been their downfall in Ulster. Aidan Nugent and Jemar Hall will be asked to carry ball, but with Stefan Campbell their attack perhaps lacks the incision in terms of finding space in the traffic that Down will create in front of their own goal. Mark Shields is also a miss under the same umbrella, given that he’s the best line-breaker Armagh have. Ultimately that’s where the tactical challenge lies. If they can’t find a way to get inside Down’s cover, they will lose again.

Key battle: Paddy Burns v Donal O’Hare
WHILE there has been a constant focus on the way in which Connaire Harrison has struggled to adapt to Tallyball, less has been said of the way in which Donal O’Hare has thrived. After a few inconsistent seasons at inter-county level in which he found himself coming largely in off the bench, O’Hare played every minute of Down’s last five league games and has scored 4-22, of which 4-7 came from play. Paddy Burns only made his first appearance of the year in the final day win over Cork but the fact he’s found the pace in time for summer is a big boost to Armagh. Chosen ahead of James Morgan, the Forkhill defender had a brilliant summer last year. If he’s clued in to O’Hare’s looped runs then Down will struggle to get enough scores to win.

Weather watch
THE early part of the week would have had fans hoping of a repeat of the conditions when the sides met in glorious sunshine two years ago, but Sunday is set to be a bit gloomier with a 50 per cent chance of rain falling in Newry during the game.

Last championship meeting
2017 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Down 0-15 Armagh 2-7

DOWN proved that pride, both parochial and personal, can still be a very powerful weapon as they ended a 25-year wait for Championship victory over an Armagh side that once more flattered to deceive.
A crowd of 16,168 flocked to Páirc Esler and they were treated to a first half that threatened to illuminate the summer, but they ended up scratching their eyes at an altogether different second period.
With the industry of debutant Shay Millar and Connaire Harrison causing enough bother inside, Down had an attacking edge that was missing through the League.
The Mournemen had to survive a few first-half scares, most notably at the death when Anthony Doherty’s fingertips turned Andy Murnin’s shot on to the inside of the post and clear.
Having played against the wind, Down trailed by just a point, 2-4 to 0-9, at the break.
Two scores from Darragh O’Hanlon and one each from Caolan Mooney and Conor Maginn pushed Down three ahead in the third quarter and, despite the volume of possession Armagh had between that and the final whistle, the result never looked in any serious doubt.
Down: M Cunningham (0-1f); A Doherty, G McGovern, D O’Hagan; D O’Hanlon (0-4, 0-2f), C McGovern, C Mooney (0-2); P Turley, N Donnelly; K McKernan, C Maginn (0-1), S Millar (0-1); J Johnston (0-1f), R Johnston (0-1), C Harrison (0-2)
Subs: B O’Hagan (0-1) for Harrison (52), D McKibbin for Donnelly (52), J Murphy for R Johnston (57), A Carr for Turley (71), M Poland for Maginn (71)
Black cards: A Doherty (56) replaced by N McParland; K McKernan (78) no replacement
Armagh: B Hughes; J Morgan, C Vernon, P Hughes (0-1); A McKay (0-1), B Donaghy, M Shields (1-0); S Sheridan (0-1), J McElroy; A Forker (0-1), O O’Neill, R Grugan; J Clarke (0-1f), S Campbell, A Murnin (1-0)
Subs: N Grimley for Vernon (42), A Duffy (0-1) for O’Neill (48), G McParland (0-1 free) for Grugan (57), N Rowland for Forker (65), C McKeever for Campbell (76), C O’Hanlon for Murnin (76)

Last 10 Championship meetings
2017 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Down 0-15 Armagh 2-7
2011 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Armagh 1-15 Down 1-10
2008 Ulster SFC semi-final: Armagh 1-12 Down 0-11
2001 All-Ireland SFC qualifiers round one: Down 2-4 Armagh 1-13
1999 Ulster SFC final: Armagh 3-12 Down 0-10
1998 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Down 0-11 Armagh 0-16
1992 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Armagh 0-9 Down 1-12
1991 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Down 1-7 Armagh 0-8
1990 Ulster SFC semi-final replay: Armagh 2-7 Down 0-12
1990 Ulster SFC semi-final: Down 0-16 Armagh 1-13

Who’s the ref: Anthony Nolan
THE biggest game of his inter-county career was last year’s All-Ireland semi-final meeting of Tyrone and Monaghan, where he wouldn’t have been adding himself to Malachy O’Rourke’s Christmas card list. He’d also done last year’s National League final. Nolan’s interpretation of what is a foul and what isn’t can be frustratingly inconsistent from incident to incident. Perhaps leans slightly towards the side of the defender on a lot of his calls. Given the derby nature and the minimal gap in quality between the sides, his decisions will have a big bearing. History suggests his performance will form part of the post-match conversation.

Betting box
Down 6/5
Draw 15/2
Armagh 5/6
Down (+1) 5/6
Draw (+1) 8/1
Armagh (-1) 6/5
First goalscorer
No goalscorer 11/2
Donal O’Hare 7/1
Connaire Harrison 15/2
Jamie Clarke 15/2
Worth a punt
Jarlath Óg Burns to score a goal and Armagh to win (14/1)

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