GAA Football

Kerry visit Athletic Grounds for high stakes battle against Armagh

Rian O'Neill has led the Armagh attack brilliantly this season. Pic Philip Walsh.

Allianz National Football League: Armagh v Kerry (tomorrow, The Athletic Grounds, 2pm, deferred coverage on TG4 from 5.35pm)

KERRY'S last trip to the Cathedral City was a fruitful one and at least one of their supporters. The day after the Munster giants had carved out a 1-13 to 1-9 victory at the Athletic Grounds in 2011, a lady from Tralee was confirmed as one of the winners in the Pearse Og club's lotto draw.

Exactly 11 years on, her £20 prize will be long since spent but perhaps she'll be back in the Cathedral City for tomorrow's high stakes clash.

The two most feared forwards in the country – David Clifford (3-16 this year) and Rian O'Neill (1-16) – are on opposite sides as unbeaten Kerry look to secure their place in the National League final in this round six clash. The Kingdom top the table with nine points from their five outings thus far but Armagh (two points behind) can turn the tables on them and move into the top two if Mayo lose points against Tyrone at Healy Park tonight.

Kerry have been NFL champions, joint-champions or runners-up in five out of the last half-dozen years while Armagh's only top flight title came back in 2005.

Reaching this year's decider would be valuable exposure for them and every game this season has been viewed as a building block towards Championship success for the Orchardmen. Armagh began their campaign with a resounding ‘bang' when beating Dublin in Croke Park and they were no less convincing as red mist descended at the Athletic Grounds in a six-point success against All-Ireland champions Tyrone the following weekend. Having, as Kieran McGeeney said, “poked the bear” Armagh took just a point from their next two outings.

First dogged Monaghan put the brakes on their charge by forcing a draw on a terrible night in Armagh and then Mayo came from three points behind to win by two as the Orchardmen lost their way on the home straight at Dr Hyde Park.

There were Kerry eyes watching from the stands that day in Roscommon but Armagh bounced back impressively to restrict a capable Kildare side to just 10 points last Sunday and their 1-12 was enough to clinch the two points.

Pound-for-pound, Armagh have been as good as anyone this year, particularly in attack and they are learning lessons in game-management and composure that are only taught at this level.

Manager McGeeney has shown a willingness to adapt and innovate and newcomers Tiarnan Kelly and Ciaran Mackin have repaid his faith with energetic displays in the middle third along with wing-back Jarly Og Burns. After Blaine Hughes had a difficult night with his kickouts against Monaghan, McGeeney installed former full-forward Ethan Rafferty as a swashbuckling sweeper/keeper over the last two games and elsewhere, former skipper Stefan Campbell – a certain starter when fit before this season - has been used as an impact sub in four games this year and he revelled in the second half space against Kildare last Sunday.

Rian O'Neill has been superb at full-forward but Armagh's success has come from a one-in, all-in gameplan. With a defensive screen in front of their full-back line, they have proved difficult to break down and broken with in numbers with pace and the creativity in their kick passing has been a joy to watch.

Kerry, the top-scorers in Division One with 7-64 so far, will expect a battle and they'll test every facet of Armagh's set-up. A 100 per cent record in three home games has left them perched at the top of the table and Jack O'Connor's men also won in Monaghan.

The pace of Diarmuid O'Connor in midfield caught the eye that day. O'Connor has formed a good partnership with Jack Barry but it's the attacking quality of this side that stands out. David Clifford is a potential match-winner every time he takes the field and Dr Croke's clubman Tony Brosnan made up for the absence of Sean O'Shea against Mayo with a superb goal last weekend.

The forward line-ups on both sides get the headlines but these counties have conceded two goals (Dublin got an own goal against Armagh and Monaghan a penalty against Kerry) between them.

A couple tomorrow will make a huge difference in what should be an entertaining affair. Armagh have the firepower to win this but Kerry's extra experience means they start as favourites tomorrow.

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GAA Football