GAA Football

Scores to settle... No quarter given as Donegal and Armagh go head-to-head in Ulster Championship

Armagh's Rian O'Neill began the year with 1-4 against Dublin at Croke Park. Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Donegal v Armagh (today, MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey, 2pm, live on BBC NI)

THE fire in their bellies will still be smouldering. Angry men who argued and wrestled just four weeks ago get the chance to settle scores in Ballybofey’s cauldron in a no-love-lost duel that has the potential to be an Ulster Championship classic.

Since Armagh last won Ulster in 2008, Donegal have reached nine provincial deciders and won five so, as a proven Championship force, the Tir Chonaill men will see a master-versus-apprentice aspect to tomorrow’s clash.

Armagh need this victory to prove they have served their time, learned their trade and are ready to take on the masters’ mantle but they will have to scrap and battle and take the chances that come their way to best a Donegal side that has not kicked on to challenge for the Sam Maguire as many thought they would and will be determined to show they remain in the top dog bracket.

Both sides will be close to full strength. Donegal have lost luckless forward Oisin Gallen to injury and Odhran McFadden-Ferry and Neil McGee to suspension. Armagh are without Ciaran Mackin who is also suspended for his part in the one-in-all-in schemozzle that followed Donegal’s one-point win in the League meeting at Letterkenny on March 27.

It could have been much worse for the Orchardmen. At one stage – somewhere between the CCC and the DRA – it looked like Rian O’Neill, Aidan Nugent and Stefan Campbell would all be sitting tomorrow out. But they were cleared on appeal and their presence gives the Orchard bench more depth and their attack a potent cutting edge. All three were consistent scorers in the League: O’Neill led the way with 1-25, Campbell contributed in almost every game mostly as an impact sub and Nugent top-scored in Letterkenny last time out with 1-6.

That they are available is a massive boost to Armagh but it also sorts out Declan Bonner’s teamtalk. The Donegal manager described the appeals system as “a joke” while the county’s football doyen Brian McEniff claimed his county “got a raw deal” in the Croke Park boardroom.

“We have to channel that anger now and show it in Ballybofey,” said McEniff, rallying the troops.

Armagh will use Letterkenny as motivation too though because they feel they were more sinned-against than sinning and were subjected to ‘anti-northern’ abuse from some opponents and some supporters.

It seems a long time ago now but in terms of this year’s form, Armagh began Division One with eye-catching victories against Dublin in Croke Park and reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone at the Athletic Grounds. But there was just one more win, against relegated Kildare, a draw against Monaghan and three defeats.

Donegal’s League form was patchy and unconvincing. Injuries to key personnel did play a part in that but still they finished level with Armagh on seven points thanks to that round seven victory.

According to reports, Declan Bonner’s panel is in much better shape now and Bonner could start with Michael Murphy up front alongside Paddy McBrearty but Murphy will go where he pleases and the men in green and gold will look to run the ball at the Armagh defence at every opportunity.

The pace of Ryan McHugh, Peadar Mogan and Eoghan Ban Gallagher down the flanks will cause Armagh problems if Murphy, Michael Langan and Jason McGee drive through the middle and add a scoring touch and if the Orchard defence coughs up frees then Murphy and McBrearty are proven finishers from placed balls.

Armagh can run the ball too but they looked at their best in the early stages of the League when they utilised their kick-passing ability. The availability of Rian O’Neill as a targetman (and a free-taker) is a huge plus in that regard and Rory Grugan has the game to unlock the Donegal defence. O’Neill will look to pull marker Brendan McCole out of the middle and create space for the likes of Tiarnan Kelly and Jason Duffy to go on the hunt for goals.

Donegal tend to find a higher gear for this fixture. There is definite needle between these teams and although they have dominated recent meetings and haven’t lost in Ballybofey for a dozen years in the Championship, it’s hard to see any complacency creeping into the home dressingroom tomorrow.

In the other dressingroom is an improving, ambitious, aggressive Armagh side, chomping at the bit to be top dogs. They have targeted this as the year they make their Championship breakthrough and they will be absolutely desperate to win. The Orchardmen have the ability to do that but is the temperament and game management there? Year after year they have come close but haven’t been able to get over the line and for that reason Donegal have to start as favourites to win a game that could be decided by one moment of brilliance, or one mistake.

Don’t take your eyes off it for a second.

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Key Battles

Michael Murphy v Aidan Forker

MURPHY has the height advantage but Forker has speed and power and he practically marked Murphy out of the game last time these sides met in the Championship. Forker was a noisy, physical presence but although he won his battle, Armagh lost the war comprehensively. He’ll be the man to pick up Murphy again tomorrow but where will the Donegal talisman play? He could be pushed up to full-forward where he has the best chance of success. If he roams too far outfield, former forward Forker could make his own attacking skills count and test whether Murphy has the fitness and ability to track him.

Rian O’Neill v Brendan McCole

DONEGAL were in control of the recent League game in Letterkenny until O’Neill was introduced at half-time. O’Neill didn’t go to full-forward but he scored three points and caused serious headaches for the home side’s defence. McCole was a consistent presence at full-back throughout Donegal’s League campaign but he will have his hands full with the strong and mobile Crossmaglen clubman tomorrow.

The number ones

WHEN these counties met two years ago it’s fair to say that Armagh were cleaned out at midfield. Kick-out after kick-out fell into grateful Donegal hands and, with so much primary possession, the Tir Chonaill men really could not lose at Kingspan Breffni.

Both sides, particularly Donegal, are likely to use a high press tomorrow so the kick-outs will go long and will be fiercely contested. Shaun Patton’s accuracy from restarts can be breathtaking at times and Armagh will be wary of pushing too far up the field and being caught on the break and they may concede kick-outs at times tomorrow. If Patton does have a weakness it’s under the high ball.

Meanwhile, the Orchardmen have swapped a goalkeeping specialist in Blaine Hughes for former full-forward Ethan Rafferty who will make his Championship debut as a goalkeeper tomorrow. The Grange clubman will be strong under the high ball and is capable of providing an extra man outfield. Is his positional sense and shot-stopping up to the task and can he get his kick-outs away quickly enough?

The midfield battle

THE middle third will be a festival of physicality. Donegal have the edge here with Hugh McFadden, Jason McGee, fit-again Michael Langan, Ciaran Thompson and Caolan McGonagle all available. Armagh will miss Ciaran Mackin, who was outstanding in the League and Ben Crealey will be an important player for them. Niall Grimley is a capable performer and Jarly Og Burns (now utilised as a speedy ball-carrier at wing half-back) and Oisin O’Neill are also options for Kieran McGeeney.

The transition from midfield to attack will decide the game and the side that wins the battle for possession in the centre will have the platform to win.

 

Referee: Maurice Deegan

THE Laois whistler is experienced as they come and he will be well aware that he will need to keep a lid on a game that will be feisty from first whistle to last.

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