Test of Strength

June 23, 2014

Ulster SFC Semi-Final Armagh v Monaghan in Clones at 7pm Saturday 28th June

The road to Clones may have changed a little since Armagh last paid a double visit to contest Minor and Senior Ulster Football Championship semi-finals. The Saturday journey takes on added interest as the Orchard County face defending Ulster Champions, Monaghan, in both games Minor at 5pm and Senior at 7pm Ref Joe McQuillan (Cavan).

Respective victories in both grades over Cavan have led to this rare fixture with the Senior game being broadcast live on Sky. For Armagh Seniors the game will test the strength, depth and quality of their squad following the suspensions arising from the “Parade Row” prior to the start of the Cavan match. Andy Mallon, Brendan Donaghy and Kieran Toner had appeals heard by the GAA’s Central Hearings Committee on Friday but were unsuccessful in their attempt to get their one match bans overturned. However, Armagh manager Paul Grimley has indicated that the county will launch a further appeal to the Disputes Resolution Authority. To add further  woe to the Armagh cause they are also likely to be without Caolan Rafferty in the Monaghan game after he sustained a suspected broken hand in training on Thursday evening.

While the row and the subsequent consequences have grabbed all the headlines, lost is the fact that Armagh produced their best championship performance for ages. Armagh management and team had their research done on Cavan and produced a gameplan and style of play that blew the Breffni men away. The defence was very solid with midfielders Toner and Findon holding their own Eugene McVerry was a revelation with all 15 starters and  four used substitutes especially Aaron Kernan making huge contributions.

The big poser for team management is how to fill the gaps left by the absence of  very experienced defenders Donaghy and Mallon, midfielder Toner and forward Rafferty who helped out as a third midfielder. Aaron Kernan will take up one of the defensive positions Gary McCooey, Michael Murray, Finian Moriarty, Paul Hughes and Michael McKenna will all be vying for that other spot. Stephen Harold looks a direct midfield replacement for Toner although Feidhlim O’Neill gives another option. Forwards Tony Kernan, Kyle Carragher, Brian Mallon, Rory Grugan and Aiden Forker will be in contention for a starting berth. Given the midfield strength of Monaghan through Dick Clerkin and Darren Hughes Armagh might opt for a midfield trio and change tactics now that they are forced to re shuffle anyways.

The Monaghan full back line of Colin Walsh, Drew Wylie and Fintan Kelly were very impressive against Tyrone and gave very little away. Dessie Mone was outstanding at half back for the Ulster Champions. Full forward Kieran Hughes will prove a handful for Charlie Vernon whilst Paul Finlay will punish any indiscretions by Armagh from placed ball. But for all their power and strength the champions had to gamble with the fitness of ace attacker Conor McManus to get the better of Tyrone. A ring rusty injured McManus (likely to be man marked by Morgan) top scored for the Farneymen the last day out with 6 points which underlines his importance to the team.

Armagh surprised a lot of people with their display against Cavan in that it has been a long time since an Orchard County team looked so solid, organized and played as a unit rather than depending on individuals. The sense of aggression and purpose displayed against Cavan will be re-enforced at the sense of injustice following the suspensions. To be fair to the champions Monaghan they probably did not get enough credit for what they achieved last year under Malachy O’Rourke and are out to show that they are not mere one hit wonders. Monaghan will rightly and deservingly start as warm favorites to set up a repeat of last year’s Ulster final with Donegal. Armagh are best served when carrying the underdog tag and given their personnel losses will be even longer outsiders to cause an upset. From an Armagh viewpoint it is a question as to can they adapt to the enforced changes and get at the champions from the off to put them under pressure. With confidence high and keen competition for places within the squad those sprung from the Orchard bench have a point to prove. At Clones on Saturday night under the watchful eye of sky and thousands of rejuvenated Armagh followers is the place to do it. A tall order but not an impossible task awaits.

Armagh supporters are urged to be in attendance early to support Paul Doyle’s minor side who take on Monaghan. Armagh beat Cavan at Clones 1-13 to 0-6 in a game played in a torrential downpour and produced some terrific passages of football. Conor Cullen scored 1-3 when introduced as a second half substitute so will be seeking a starting spot. Jarly Og Burns, Conor O’Neill, Fergal Quinn, Kyle Mallon, captain Caolan McConville and Paul Quinn are key components of a very useful Armagh squad. Monaghan with 3 first half goals and a 10 point interval lead held on to defeat competition favourites Tyrone by a point 3-8 to 0-16. Armagh with a little help from the stands and a rub of the green which has deserted them the previous 2 years in the championship can claim their place in the final against Donegal.