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Daunting Donegal

June 8, 2015

● USF Championship Armagh v Donegal

The last time Armagh played Donegal in the Ulster championship current Orchard County manager Kieran McGeeney, who is making his championship debut, was a player in a 1-9 to 1-8 loss at Ballybofey in 2007. But it is the most recent championship meeting between the teams, last year’s All-Ireland quarter final clash at Croke Park won by Donegal 1-12 to 1-11 which has added the hype to Sunday’s quarter-final at the Athletic Grounds.

Donegal went on to lose the All-Ireland final to Kerry, won three and drew one of their 7 Division One League games this year and more importantly and more pertinent towards Sunday’s game was their Preliminary Ulster Championship 1-13 to 1-10 victory over Tyrone at Ballybofey on May 17. The Donegal team that defeated Tyrone a month ago showed 2 changes from the team that started against Armagh in Croke Park last year with Martin McElhinney and Martin O’Reilly on in place of Anthony Thompson and Leo McLoone.

Indeed midfielder McElhinney was to finish top scorer against Tyrone with 1-2 whilst the full forward line of Patrick McBrearty (0-2), Michael Murphy (0-3) and Colm McFadden (0-2) contributed 7 points with Christy Toye weighing in with 2 points and one each from attacking half-backs Frank McGlynn and Karl Lacey. Murphy (0-5), McFadden (0-3) and McBrearty (0-2) accounted for 10 points against Armagh with Odhran McNiallais nabbing 1-1 and full back Neil McGee adding to their winning total of 1-12 in their quarter-final win over the Orchard County.

Selection Poser?

Armagh under McGeeney have satisfied the early season requirements by securing promotion to Division Two as champions of Division Three. In achieving that feat Armagh used the League to give game time to a lot of players and have tried out various combinations and tactics. For Sunday Armagh have a full complement of players to select from which will be a difficult decision for the manager and his backroom team. There will be at least three guaranteed changes in the Orchard side from that quarter final clash in that goalkeeper Philip McvEvoy and half back Aaron Kernan have retired from county duty and Kyle Carragher has also left the squad. Brian Mallon a used substitute in that game has also retired from duty.  With the number one jersey up for grabs three different goalkeepers Niall Geoghegan, Paddy Morrison and Tim Harney have been used with Geoghegan starting the last competitive game played, the 0-16 to 0-11 League final victory over Fermanagh.

Andy Mallon, Charlie Vernon and Finnian Moriarty did a great job in the full back line last August. Mark Shields, Brendan Donaghy and Aaron Kernan formed the half back line. Mickey Murray, James Morgan, team Captain Ciaran McKeever are a few of the contenders for defensive positions. Stephen Harold and Aaron Findon were the starting midfielders with Aidan Forker, Stefan Campbell, Tony Kernan, Jamie Clarke and Kevin Dyas in the forward line. The 5 named forwards all fully fit would no doubt get the start next Sunday but the likes of Campbell and Stefan Forker have been short of game time through injury. Here is where it gets tricky for management in terms of team selection as Ciaran O’Hanlon, Andrew Murnin, Miceal McKenna, Ethan and Caolan Rafferty, Eugene McVerry, Gavin McParland have all made telling contributions to the campaign to date when given the opportunity.

DONEGAL AT THE TOP

Whatever team selection Armagh opt for they will have to be at the top of their game to defeat the defending Ulster champions. From that low day in Crossmaglen for Donegal they have risen to the top of the pile in the national standings and are currently one of the top three teams in the country. The Armagh graph has gone in the opposite direction with a good run in the qualifiers last year masking over what has been a lean spell for the Orchard with regards to the Ulster championship. In 2006 a 1-9 to 0-9 Ulster final victory over Donegal was Armagh’s last win over Donegal and completed a 3 in a row sequence for the Orchard County. Two years later a replay win over Fermanagh 1-11 to 0-8 was to be Armagh’s last appearance in the Ulster final. Donegal have won three of the last four Ulster titles.

If anyone was at the recent Ulster minor championship match between Armagh and Donegal at the Athletic Grounds the chasm between the two counties was never more evident. Armagh came with a very talented squad of players; Donegal came with a squad who had lost the All-Ireland final but had a system and style of play in force to run out very comfortable 2-14 to 0-7 winners. Donegal have adapted to a style of play that suits their needs. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it’s certainly getting results with a lot of counties following their example in the execution of the game.

Against Tyrone I thought that Donegal came equipped with a lot more attacking options to their game. True they defended in numbers but they also attacked in numbers with their defenders given the freedom to go forward at will. Tyrone as we know are no easy team to play against and with their “main man” Michael Murphy being well curtailed Donegal still fashioned a way to victory.

Armagh goes into Sunday’s game with the advantage of having seen how Donegal perform but is that a good thing or a bad thing? Armagh needs to bring their own gameplan to the table, they need to play the game they want to play and impose their style of play on proceedings. At Croke Park, Armagh surprised everyone with their display, they had a right go and had they brought their shooting boots could have opened up a telling gap between the teams in the opening half. Donegal being Donegal edged out a tight finish to progress to the semi-final.

Make no mistake about it Donegal are a very daunting task for Armagh. They are a huge step above the level of opponents Armagh has come up against in the League. Armagh got a good run in last year’s qualifiers against lowly opponents and when Donegal came along they failed albeit very narrowly which has given the home support optimism for a shock. Armagh has the personnel to spring the first real surprise of the 2015 championship, the real question is have they developed as a squad to be able to cope with the Donegal style of play. Sunday will tell the tale but like in the previous Preliminary round game the loser will not have gone away and can still have a championship run. Victory for Armagh would be a terrific result and not beyond their capabilities. I, like a lot of people, would be satisfied to see progress on the building front, with a solid display of promise in keeping with the momentum gained from the league. For me Sunday is a lot about seeing if the foundation stones on which to build upon are solid, as progress from Division Three to top of the pile in Ulster takes time, just ask Monaghan.

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