Balance issues can tip scales towards Monaghan in Ulster semi showdown
Ulster SFC semi-final: Armagh v Monaghan (today, Pairc Esler, 4pm – live on Sky Sports Arena, deferred coverage on BBC NI from 8pm)
IN Championship terms, it is time for Armagh to put up or shut up. Making the short trip to Newry this afternoon, there can be no more hard luck stories, no more if onlys, no more near misses.
Kieran McGeeney has never been one for what-might-have-beens and he, more than anybody else, will not want to be leaving Pairc Esler this evening with another for the collection as the quest for a first Ulster final appearance since 2008 stretches into another summer.
A fortnight ago they made hard work of an Antrim side gamely bidding to bridge the gap between the bottom division and the top. It was a game Armagh were expected to win comfortably, and they did in the end, but with little learned that they didn’t already know.
Today’s date with Monaghan is a true test of where they stand, and whether Armagh are capable of matching their own lofty ambitions – of justifying the hype that continues to follow them, despite the disappointment of semi-final replay defeat to Cavan in 2019 and the last November’s last four destruction by Donegal.
There’s no doubt the hurt from the lesson handed out that day was used as fuel through the darkest of winters, but has it made a difference to their approach? Or could Monaghan cut loose and punish any defensive frailties today, in the same way the Tir Chonaill effectively ended that game before half-time had even rolled around?
The indications through a truncated Division One North campaign are that subtle changes have been made. Armagh remain a front foot side, as they should given the wealth of attacking options at their disposal.
It was at the other end where mistakes, and the concession of too many easy frees, would take a toll. This year, they haven’t been engaging opponents as high up the pitch, leaving their contact area inside their own 45 and focusing on protecting the central channel rather than worrying too much about the wings.
This was no doubt a harsh lesson learned from that Donegal defeat nine months ago, when Armagh players were repeatedly dragged out towards the sideline, leaving the freedom of Kingspan Breffni to exploit.
Roscommon went for width in the Division One relegation play-off between the counties last month, and got great joy courtesy of some accurate shooting from out wide by Ciaran and Diarmuid Murtagh during a first quarter purple patch.
However, when those shots started to creep outside the post instead of in, the Rossies had no answer. Any time they turned inside, Armagh were ready, and eventually the Connacht men ran out of ideas before running out of steam completely.
With the level of protection offered by the likes of Jemar Hall, Greg McCabe and Connaire Mackin, a makeshift full-back line of James Morgan and Ross Finn is unlikely to be as exposed as it might have been in the past.
That said, the loss of experienced campaigners like Aidan Forker and Ryan Kennedy, as well as the absence of goalkeeper Blaine Hughes – replaced by Shea Magill for today’s clash – will surely have Monaghan boss Seamus McEnaney rubbing his hands.
Since being converted into a man-marker, Forker has earned his stripes by faring well on the deadly Conor McManus. The suggestions are that the Clontibret ace will start today, despite leaving Clones on crutches a fortnight ago. How fit he is, how mobile he is, those questions remain – but it will still be a huge ask for most likely Finn to stop him catching fire at some stage.
Armagh won all but one of Blaine Hughes’s kick-outs against Antrim, while the Carrickcruppen man also made an excellent first half save, so how Magill performs in the face of the Farney’s educated pressure will have a huge bearing on who goes on to face Donegal or Tyrone in the decider.
And while big things are always expected of this Orchard crew, Monaghan too are men on a mission. Falling to neighbours Cavan two years in-a-row hurt like hell, and getting over the line against Fermanagh last time was a mental hurdle hopped.
But, similar to Armagh against Antrim, how much that game will stand to them today remains to be seen. The Ernemen, for all their endeavour, were extremely passive. They didn’t play like they believed they could win, thus Monaghan never felt that Championship pressure.
Yet the Farney, who welcome Seamus McEnaney back to the line after suspension for a breach of the GAA’s Covid-19 training regulations, showed that for all the focus on McManus, Jack McCarron and McCarthy, they also offer serious danger from deep.
Faced with a wall of green, it was Monaghan’s line breakers who helped swing the game in their favour. Kieran Duffy’s forward run led to the game’s only goal while Conor Boyle, Ryan Wylie, Dessie Ward, Karl O’Connell and Ryan McAnespie all broke forward to spread panic in the Fermanagh ranks.
Boyle, in particular, was allowed to rampage up the field at will – and he is expected to try and run the legs off Stefan Campbell today. The Armagh captain spent much of the Antrim game chasing Eoghan McCabe, but the Orchard need his pace and power doing damage at the other end.
The full court press turned the tide against Antrim, but will Armagh risk it with Rory Beggan capable of launching rockets deep into their own terrain?
Monaghan will be determined to limit the influence of Rian O’Neill too, with the Crossmaglen man likely to drift in and out of the full-forward line. You wouldn’t put it past ‘Banty’ handing somebody like Miceal Bannigan that job, or maybe even starting Kieran Hughes for that express reason.
Whoever gets the nod will have their work cut out, that’s for sure, while the respective benches can also have a huge say if the game is still up for grabs heading down the straight. In that respect, the experience Monaghan have in reserve could just tip the scales.
For Armagh, it has always been about finding a balance between their natural attacking inclination and keeping the back door shut. Monaghan look to have that balance and the potentially unsettling loss of Blaine Hughes, allied to Forker’s continued absence, could swing it in the Farney’s favour.
COVID CASE IN ARMAGH CAMP
ARMAGH have confirmed they are dealing with a Covid-19 case within the senior football squad ahead of today’s Ulster Championship clash with Monaghan.
After wishing the unnamed player involved a speedy recovery, the Armagh County Board said preparations were continuing as normal ahead for this afternoon’s semi-final showdown.
The statement read: "A player of our senior football team has tested positive for Covid-19. We can confirm after strictly following the public health advice and with the support of our experienced medical team, this is an isolated case.
"We wish the player a full and speedy recovery, and we extend our best wishes to the team and management in their preparations for the USFC semi-final against Monaghan.
"There will no further comment at this time."
Conor Boyle (Monaghan) v Stefan Campbell (Armagh)
CAPTAIN Campbell has energy to burn, but Boyle is a forward’s nightmare in that he can attack just as well as he can defend. Against Fermanagh the last day, Sean Quigley was all too often left isolated in the Erne attack, giving the Clontibret full-back license to burst forward at will. He finished up with a point and the Star Man award.
Campbell, meanwhile, found the runs of Antrim’s Eoghan McCabe taking him away from the Antrim goal far too often a fortnight ago. Boyle, who picked up Campbell in the counties’ National League encounter in May, will be planning to do exactly the same.
It is up to Campbell, and Kieran McGeeney, to find a way to pin Boyle back or exploit the space left behind.
SECOND guessing Kieran McGeeney and Seamus McEnaney, returning to the line after suspension, is a nightmare.
The Armagh boss has drafted in Killeavy’s Shea Magill in place of regular number one Blaine Hughes – and the loss of the Carrickcruppen man is a tough one, given how he impressed against Antrim.
McGeeney also ended speculation about his defensive situation by keeping faith with James Morgan and Ross Finn. For now, there is still no sign of Aidan Forker and Ryan Kennedy in this year’s Championship.
With Aaron McKay likely to be detailed Conor McCarthy, it looks as though Ross Finn might pick up Conor McManus – presuming the Clontibret ace has shaken off a suspected dead leg - with James Morgan on Jack McCarron.
James Morgan Ross Finn
Jack McCarron Conor McManus
Connaire Mackin Aaron McKay Ciaron O’Hanlon
Miceal Bannigan Conor McCarthy Aaron Mulligan
Niall Grimley Oisin O’Neill Jarlath Og Burns
Darren Hughes Killian Lavelle Niall Kearns
Jemar Hall Rian O’Neill Rory Grugan
Ryan McAnespie Dessie Ward Ryan Wylie
Andrew Murnin Stefan Campbell
Kieran Duffy Conor Boyle
THE BUILD-UP IN QUOTES
“Even before the Ulster Championship threw in, people were telling you that this was the easiest opportunity for Armagh to get an Ulster final. A bit like England in the Euros, it was a failure if Armagh didn't get to the final”
Aaron McKay on whether the Ulster Championship would be coming home this year
“We want to build on the momentum that winning in the first round of the Championship gives us, it’s not something we’ve experienced for a few years, so we’re hoping it’ll give us a bounce”
Monaghan selector David McCague after the Farney ended two years of Ulster SFC hurt to defeat Fermanagh
David Coldrick (Meath)
WHERE TO WATCH
Sky Sports Arena, coverage from 3.30pm
BBC2 NI, deferred coverage from 8pm