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Danny Hughes: Armagh leading a pack of contenders from Ulster in a very open season

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney and Rory Grugan after their side's victory over Galway.
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney and Rory Grugan after their side's victory over Galway. Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney and Rory Grugan after their side's victory over Galway.

In the words of the singer Prince, Armagh partied like it was 1999.

Galway lost by a point in the best way you can beat any team, in the dying minutes.

Uncharacteristically Shane Walsh opted to hit the free from his hands and given the angle and conditions I would have thought it within his capabilities to score from a ground kick.

Armagh finish top, guaranteed a quarter-final berth and Galway head off to play their great rivals Mayo.

That win for the Orchardmen in Carrick-on-Shannon was more than just about topping the group.

It was about beating a contender.

Galway won’t be far away when the Sam Maguire is eventually handed over so they are a statement team for any opposition.

In the same way, so too is Kerry and previously Dublin, albeit their star factor has fallen quite a bit under Dessie Farrell.

I am certain the Armagh players gathered themselves Sunday evening after the game and re-focused on two weeks' time.

On my mum’s side, family are giddily preparing themselves to head to Croker; they are a hard bunch to listen to at the best of times.

They are not yet at the scale of 2002, nonetheless we will stay away from them for a while until normality returns.

Armagh are a very good team and they have scores throughout the team. They are also good to watch.

Sure, like most teams, you get the odd poor spectacle.

By and large though, you can’t say they are overly negative – I have heard it said they are. However, if they are, perhaps I need to question my understanding of the game.

The way the game is now, you all attack and you all defend.

Armagh are not inventing this style, they are simply following and adapting to it.

The very best teams now are those who are keeping possession best while avoiding running into a two or three man ‘sandwich’.

The best teams are isolating individual players in areas of the field where you can get over-lapping runs and secure a shot on target.

Ironically, Derry’s style is, to a large extent, being plagiarised by a great many county and club teams.

Normally teams when seeking to become champions will look to their rivals for inspiration in terms of tactical nous.

The best example is the transformation of John Stones from a central defender to a holding / attacking midfielder under Pep Guardiola.

On the back of that, Jurgen Klopp re-positioned (thankfully) Trent Alexander Arnold into midfield akin to Stones in order to gain a better foothold at midfield.

Derry are not All-Ireland champions but their playing performances are extremely consistent.

Many coaches and managers will see this consistency in how they play as success and importantly value their approach towards non-reliance on any one single player.

While Shane McGuigan is their star forward, the Derry team have been coached and prepared to be successful as a sum total of all their parts.

They don’t, for example, have the same reliance on a player as Kerry have toward David Clifford.

If the Kingdom were to lose Clifford, they are unlikely to win an All-Ireland title.

This is what makes this year’s championship the most important in recent years.

Gone are the days when Dublin steam-rolled all in front of them. The great six-in-a-row Dublin side were a freakishly brilliant squad.

When Bernard Brogan had an off-day, another player picked up the slack.

That’s why they stand apart from the current teams.

Derry, like Armagh, will patiently await the preliminary quarter-final winners, safely guaranteed their quarter-final spot.

Tyrone go again, thankful for another week of championship action.

In a game of inches, Tyrone made their own fans sweat profusely last weekend.

Westmeath are no bad side – they won the Tailteann Cup last year and their performances against both Armagh and Galway in the group stages were phenomenal.

Dessie Dolan deserves huge credit.

I am not sure why or how, but it was almost predictable that Donegal and Tyrone would meet each other in last Monday’s draw for the next stage.

The term ‘sick of seeing one another’ is probably apt in this regard.

Donegal have turned their season around and credit must go to the management and players post their Ulster championship exit to Down.

Had you presented the opportunity (in a preliminary quarter-final to be pitted against Tyrone in Ballybofey) to Aidan O’Rourke in Newry in April, he would have snapped your hand off.

For Logan and Dooher it has been a horrible two seasons since their inaugural All-Ireland championship title in 2021.

For the most part, perhaps Red Hand fans assumed, with the Dublin domination of the championship then gone, Tyrone could build on their four All-Ireland titles.

However Brian Dooher, as a player, would have understood that you may be a winner in one season or two out of 10 but you can’t take those winning seasons for granted.

Dooher also played long enough to know that you fail more than you win at inter-county level.

While I do not think Tyrone can win the title this year, there is a case for optimism with Darragh Canavan, his brother Ruairi, McGleenan and a number of U-20 stars being blooded for the future.

Time and patience is par for the course.

No one team epitomises this more than Monaghan.

And they are quietly going about their business with a brilliant opportunity against Kildare this weekend.

The Farney will make a quarter-final and are a match for anyone in the wide open spaces of Croke Park.

Vinny Corey has done a very good job since taking over.

As has Conor Laverty, who heads into Croke Park this weekend with Down facing Laois in the Tailteann Cup semi-finals.

Down were much the better side against Cavan last weekend and are genuinely confident of winning the competition outright.

They won’t fear either Laois or the winners of Meath and Antrim.

Antrim will take a similar approach and should Colm O’Rourke’s men be complacent, the Saffrons have enough quality to send them back to the Tara Hill with their tails between their legs.

Odds are a Meath vs Down final, like 1991, but in a much different century, competition and circumstance.