Kicking Out: Constant tinkering making life difficult for Armagh's attack

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

Stefan Campbell's role in the Armagh team is one of those constantly changing. Picture by Philip Walsh
Stefan Campbell's role in the Armagh team is one of those constantly changing. Picture by Philip Walsh Stefan Campbell's role in the Armagh team is one of those constantly changing. Picture by Philip Walsh

WHEN Tyrone come out in Healy Park on Sunday, their team will look a lot like this.

Niall Morgan in nets.

Michael McKernan, Padraig Hampsey and Cormac Quinn.

Conor Meyler and Peter Harte in the wing-back slots, with Frank Burns sweeping.

Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick at midfield.

Kieran McGeary and Joe Oguz on the wings, Mattie Donnelly and Darragh Canavan roaming around centre-forward, Darren McCurry holding his position up top.

One of Nathan McCarron, Niall Devlin or Michael O’Neill will play at six, an area of uncertainty.

Maybe Ronan McNamee is fit and he comes back in, or there’s a surprise start for Ruairi Canavan, but the bones of it are the bones we know they’ll be.

But what of Armagh?

Only three times in their last 32 games has Kieran McGeeney gone with an unchanged line-up from their previous outing.

And it’s rarely just the odd tweak here and there.

Since the start of 2020, their starting line-up averages almost three changes per game. That’s before you start into positional switches.

Speaking last February, McGeeney said that competition for places was “better than any coaching method you can get”.

There are two options when it comes to keeping 35 men happy.

The first is to repeatedly win All-Irelands. That only exists for Kerry and Dublin.

The second is to give them all game time based on what they’re doing on the training field.

One of the great strengths of his time in charge of Armagh has been the lack of player turnover from his panel. Almost nobody leaves.

If Armagh had spent the last decade stepping up to the managerial stall every third autumn, trying to land themselves a big fish from a small pond, would they be playing Division One football at all now? Possibly not.

It was pretty bleak for most of a decade after their noughties team moved on. Progress has been slow and steady, but it’s still been progress.

They were a penalty shootout away from a winnable All-Ireland semi-final last year.

Perception doesn’t always line up to reality with them. We’re hearing a lot from all quarters about this new, ultra-defensive approach that they ‘had to take’ after all their swashbuckling football of last year.

Kerry’s defensive displays in last year’s league were taken as evidence of their credentials that would eventually present itself in summer. They conceded just three goals in the league.

Armagh also conceded only three goals in last year’s league.

The Galway game was crazy but it was Padraic Joyce’s side that leaked three goals, to Armagh’s two.

In all, Armagh have conceded just 10 goals in their last 17 games.

They’re not struggling because of getting bodies back. They’re struggling because of the lack of cohesion in their attack.

From that end, it feels like the time has come where competition must be trumped by consistency.

Armagh at the minute would bring you to mind of when Claudio Ranieri was Chelsea manager some twenty years ago.

The Italian earned the nickname ‘The Tinkerman’.

Chelsea almost never fielded the same team under him. Ranieri could never quite decide what to do with the riches at his disposal.

By the time he won a remarkable league title with Leicester more than a decade after leaving Stamford Bridge, the lesson had been well and truly learned.

Leicester made fewer changes to their starting line-up (27) than any other team that year.

"I am the Thinkerman, not Tinkerman!” he declared triumphantly.

Their starting line-up was wholly predictable. Their opponents knew how they would play.

Leicester didn’t have the best team on paper but such was the level of understanding and refinement of their counter-attacking game that they couldn’t be stopped anyway.

The relationship between Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy bordered on telepathic.

That level of understanding is what you see when you look at Derry at the minute.

When they go to Croke Park for the league final in two weeks’ time, it will be the same team as it’s been right through the league.

Lynch, McKaigue, McEvoy, McCluskey, Conor Doherty, McGrogan, McKinless, Glass, Rogers, Toner, Paul Cassidy, Ethan Doherty, Heron, McGuigan, Loughlin.

You might get Padraig Cassidy if McKinless’ injury troubles flare up. That’s all the change there would be.

When Brendan Rogers or Padraig McGrogan or Gareth McKinless are driving with the ball, they know to hold it that extra split-second to see which angle Ethan Doherty or Shane McGuigan are putting to their run. They know exactly where to give it to.

How often does the ball break down in their attack without getting a shot away? Very seldom.

Their manager Rory Gallagher was Donegal’s All-Ireland winning coach in 2012 under Jim McGuinness. They virtually never altered their team.

Jack Barry missed Kerry’s All-Ireland quarter-final win over Mayo last year. He was back for the semi-final, replacing Dara Moynihan. That was the champions’ only change to their starting team across their three big games.

Even at their best, with a ridiculous bench, you could have named 13 of Dublin’s starting team for just about any big game.

When Armagh won the All-Ireland in 2002, thirteen of the team that started against Kerry had started against Tyrone in their drawn Ulster opener.

You aren’t seeing that with their current crop.

Ethan Rafferty will be in nets. Aaron McKay is somewhere, but where?

Greg McCabe gets spells in the team.

Aidan Forker will wear three but might not always play there. He was their best playmaker against Donegal, the only one prepared to lift his head and kick to Murnin, despite the Lurgan man absolutely lording the place.

They put Barry McCambridge on David Clifford in Tralee. He did superbly, but his appointment for the task came out of nowhere.

James Morgan was their go-to man last year. It was Ryan Kennedy for a while before that.

Neither is available, and perhaps that’s having an impact. But you’re never sure what their defence will look like and what anyone’s role within it will be.

Study them all you want – the best you’ll ever do with Armagh’s match-ups is an educated guess.

Despite that, their defence is functioning. The numbers speak for that claim.

But their attack is not.

What, for instance, is Rian O’Neill’s role? Such a naturally gifted operator, a worker bee whose late goalmouth fetches in moments of pressure attest to his leadership qualities.

But he’s trying to do too much of everything and spreading himself too thin.

It appears that he has a copy of the licence Donegal gave Michael Murphy all his years, but O’Neill is yet to master the art of running games.

Will he be that player for Armagh, or are they actually wasting a generational scoring forward that they really can’t afford to waste?

Stefan Campbell’s position changes on a weekly basis. He’s played everything from centre-back through midfield to full-forward in the last 18 months alone.

Jason Duffy and Rory Grugan will start more often than not, but who else?

Conor Turbitt is in the team one week, out the next.

Jemar Hall, Niall Grimley, Tiernan Kelly, Callum Cumiskey, Joe McElroy, Conor O’Neill and others bounce in and out.

Ross McQuillan comes on every week but is yet to start. It would surprise nobody if he’s thrown in on Sunday.

It just feels like the manifestation of it is their attacking struggles right now. That cohesion and telepathy that other teams are finding, Armagh just aren’t.

Consistency has to get its place ahead of competition soon, or Armagh won’t get to the next level.