GAA Football

No quarter given as Armagh and Galway do battle in Croke Park epic

Armagh's Rian O'Neill on the attack against Donegal at Clones. Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Armagh v Galway (tomorrow, Croke Park, 1.45pm, live on RTE2)

THIS only happens every quarter-of-a-century or so. Once in a generation Armagh produce a team capable of going to Croke Park and competing with this country’s best. The proud history that continues tomorrow began with the men of 1953, then there was Gerry O’Neill’s ’77 side and they were followed by the Sam Maguire-winning stars of 2002.

Kieran McGeeney captained them of course and, two decades on, the challenge is there for his class of 2022 to show the quality, maturity and composure needed to post their names beside the men who wore the orange jersey before them.

Armagh will bring massive support, in-form forwards, a solid defence and the tidal wave of momentum their season-transforming wins over Tyrone and Donegal has given them.

Meanwhile, Galway, managed by McGeeney’s old sparring partner Padraic Joyce, are the Connacht champions. They have history on their side with three wins out of three in previous Championship clashes between the counties and they’ll deploy the latest in their county’s line of slick, skilful forwards all of whom are capable of pooping the Orchard party.

With the winners of Derry versus Clare to come in the semi-final, the door to the All-Ireland showpiece may not be open, but it is ajar. However, neither of these up-and-coming counties can afford to look any further than this game.

In sport there’s the old cliché that ‘you don’t become a bad team overnight’. You could flip that here and ask: Have Armagh become a good team overnight? Well yes, and no, is the answer. Armagh have always had talent, they just couldn’t manage the breakthrough win that gave them the confidence and momentum to match their ability. They have it now.

It seems light years ago now that the Orchardmen were written off after their loss against Donegal in the Ulster Championship and apparently the Armagh management did discuss giving the players a week’s break afterwards.

But they decided against it and on the Tuesday night – just a couple of days after the loss in Ballybofey – Dublin arrived at the Athletic Grounds for a challenge game. That was a signal of intent that said: ‘We’re not finished yet’ or, better still, ‘We haven’t started yet’.

The block of training Armagh undertook after that has turned their season around and the born-again Orchardmen have routed Tyrone and turned the tables on Donegal in Clones. The most impressive thing about that win was that at one stage Donegal looked a point or two away from killing Armagh off. But McGeeney’s men didn’t panic, they forced their way back into it and managed the game brilliantly in the second half to canter home.

The only reservation you could have about the Herculean efforts Armagh have made is that they may catch up with them at some stage. Yes, they have momentum but has it taken something out of them, particularly with the injury issues they’ve had to deal with?

While Armagh were tangling with Tyrone and Donegal, Galway have had time to rest and recover.

Joyce’s Tribesmen won the Connacht final on May 29 so they will have had four weeks’ to prepare for this quarter-final so they’re well rested.

Maybe that's too long out of action but they’ve also been well tested.

Mayo, who had beaten them in the previous two Connacht finals, were out-manoeuvred at the quarter-final stage and, after brushing aside Leitrim, Galway avenged a Division Two final loss to Roscommon with a three-point victory in the provincial decider that was more comfortable than the final score, 2-19 to 2-16, suggests.

They’ll have trained hard since then and the prospect of taking on Armagh – another county straining to force their way into the Sam Maguire mix – will not intimidate them.

Joyce’s side includes Corofin All-Ireland winners and men who played in All-Ireland minor and U20 finals so Croke Park won’t scare them and it won’t scare Armagh who will have fond memories of beating Dublin handsomely there in the first round of the League.

Both sides are laden with high-calibre forward power so, without being the complete shoot-out some are predicting, a game that is beautifully poised should live up to its billing. With Paul Conroy in terrific form, Galway have the edge at midfield and in Shane Walsh and Damian Comer in particular and Rob Finnerty and Patrick Kelly too, they have match-winning forwards.

Armagh have them too. Rian O’Neill is the leader of an in-form pack that includes Stefan Campbell, who is playing terrific football, Rory Grugan, Jason Duffy and Aidan Nugent.

The winning and losing of the game boils down to which defence copes best under pressure and Armagh’s rearguard has looked confident and well-drilled over the last month.

That gives Armagh a head start and, in a game of small margins that should be enough to get them over the line.

Tactical Take

Galway

ARMAGH are all about pace and power and Padraic Joyce has to throw a spanner into the works of an engine that has purred so sweetly in the Orchard county’s last two games.

Against Mayo, Joyce set up his team with a double sweeper to stifle the westerners’ running power. Against Roscommon’s dangerous front six, Joyce went with a plus-one who covered in front of full-back Sean Kelly. That has to be the set-up he uses tomorrow in a zonal marking system.

Galway will want to frustrate Armagh and slow them down so they may give Armagh short kick-outs and get men back to cut out accurate long ball into the full-forward line. If Galway push Armagh backwards and sideways and force turnovers, the key will be the transition from defence to attack and in Walsh, Conroy and Finnerty they have the finishers to shade this game.

Armagh

RIAN O’Neill will be in midfield for the throw-in and, if he wins the ball as he did against Donegal, expect him to drive it forward to Rory Grugan, as he did against Donegal.

Armagh have to start on the front foot tomorrow. They tried for years to win ugly under McGeeney and couldn’t do it. Grinding it out doesn’t suit them - they need quick ball up to their forwards but that doesn’t mean they have to be reckless.

Armagh will be aggressive and attack and if they get their noses in front and draw Galway out, they have the kicking game and the running power to win.

But Galway have so many talented players that they will always be a threat. Armagh have to man-mark Damian Comer and Shane Walsh but the defensive cover has to be in place when either man gets the ball because both thrive on one-on-one situations.

Key Battle

Shane Walsh (Galway) v James Morgan (Armagh)

THE Armagh forwards have got the headlines but their defensive solidity over the last two games has been mighty impressive. Crossmaglen clubman Morgan has been in superb form. Outstanding against Tyrone, he brought that form into the Donegal win. Experience has smoothed the reckless edge off him and he is a disciplined, reliable defender these days.

Galway talisman Walsh will test every element of his game tomorrow. All dummies and slick skills, if he gets on the ball in space, the Kilkerrin-Clonberne magician has the pace and two-footed brilliance to unlock the Armagh defence for others or conjure up the scores that could win the game for the Tribesmen.

Rian O’Neill (Armagh) v Sean Kelly (Galway)

IF Walsh is Galway’s most likely match-winner, O’Neill is Armagh’s. He’ll start at midfield, switch up to full-forward and you could see him at full-back as well. His kick-passing has been breath-taking at times this year and he set the tone for victory over Donegal with his ball to Rory Grugan from the throw-in. Alongside his playmaking, he registered 1-7 in that game.

Galway full-back Kelly was better known as a half-back so if O’Neill goes out the field that will suit him but he’ll really earn his corn at the edge of his own square.

A sea of orange

WHERE are they going to park? They don’t know but they’re going anyway. A special train was laid on but the booking site crashed such was the demand. Of course it sold out. The Orchard legions in Croke Park tomorrow will be a sight to behold.

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GAA Football