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Players Responsibility

June 19, 2017

Having finished off my Ulster Senior Championship loss to Down at Pairc Esler with the quote “The facts, the facts you cannot dispute the facts” which aptly comes from a book called Hard Times, a thing which Armagh football has fallen into over the last decade or so. This may be a fact that has bypassed some Armagh supporters that I have encountered since the loss to Down as they still live in the golden decade of Ulster Championship glory and will not face the reality that those heady days are in the distant past. Armagh are a team fluctuating between Division Two and Three and have now gone 3 years without an Ulster Championship win.

After the Pairc Esler debacle the supporters I have encountered had their knives out for team manager Kieran McGeeney, “There was no game plan, No plan A, let alone Plan B”. Are supporters really that naive to think that Armagh had not worked on a game plan. Kieran McGeeney could have worked on plans from A to Z but for any plan to work it must be executed by the players on the field. Clearly that did not happen against Down as the players “took stage fright and fluffed their lines from the off” as Down raced into a four point lead inside the opening 9 minutes. Following that poor start Armagh managed 2-4 in that opening half despite not scoring for the opening 13 minutes to lead at the interval by the minimum 2-4 to 0-9 and should have bagged a few more goals.

If Down were good going forward in the opening half they were wide open at the back, conceding 2 goals and allowing a few more goal chances to be created. Down manager Eamon Burns reacted by adopting a defensive approach and hitting Armagh on the break for the second half which proved very effective as his charges held Armagh to a single point in normal time for the entire second half as the hosts added four unanswered points at the beginning of the half in a carbon copy of the first half.

Armagh’s response to the defensive Down set-up was to try and continue to carry the ball at them and create goal chances which was just not on. Armagh’s first half lead point, just before the short whistle, came from midfielder Stephen Sheridan from 60 meters out yet Armagh did not spread the play into the corners or shoot from distance against the blanket Down defence. When Armagh needed leaders on the pitch none were forthcoming which resulted in just a 3 point second half return on the scoreboard and ultimately defeat. When Armagh were pressing for an equalizing goal, a clearly injured Kevin McKernan had the presence of mind to take one for the team “a Black Card” by hauling down an Armagh player that allowed him to be replaced. Wind the clock back to the last Armagh League game at home to Tipperary. Armagh had their hands on promotion and a place in the League final in their grasp as they led by 2 points at the death, yet a Tipperary defender was allowed carry the ball over 50 yards to set-up the match winning goal. While all of us outside of Down might like to condone what McKernan did, in the heat of battle he had the presence of mind to make the right decision for his team.

Armagh players decision making was very poor in the Marshes as it was in some of the National League games which cost them promotion. As the qualifier door opens with a home game against Fermanagh, for me the onus is on the Armagh players to relieve the pressure on their manager, they owe him big time to produce a winning performance. Armagh’s much vaunted attack was far too easily dismantled by Down and I would love to know on what grounds (it has to be the training ground) how a prominent player can describe Armagh as a “sleeping Giant” given their actual run of results in recent years. If the Giant is to awaken, the players must step up to the mark and let their performances on the field do the talking.

While the suspended sidelined manager Kieran McGeeney was let down by his players he should not escape the Pairc Esler defeat without criticism. Having positively given 5 Championship debuts in his starting 15, goalkeeper Blaine Hughes, corner-back Paul Hughes, half-back Aaron McKay, midfielder Niall Grimley and centre-forward Oisin O Neill, there was a late change before throw-in with Joe McElroy replacing Grimley, the team lacked the urgency, passion and physicality associated with Championship fare. The second half, which lasted 48 minutes and saw 6 Armagh substitutes introduced, still failed to see the Orchard County players rise to the level of intensity associated with a local derby Championship encounter. It was no co-incidence that 5 of the substitutions made came in the miss-firing forward line, albeit 2 of them made too late to have any impact on the game. Anto Duffy and Gavin McParland did score points when introduced.

When Charlie Vernon, no longer operating at full-back, was forced off injured he was replaced by Niall Grimley who was obviously demoted from taking his allocated starting berth for tactical reasons. With Down running straight at the heart of the Armagh defence paying huge dividends (this also happened in the League) why was this matter not addressed before or during the game? Niall Rowland saw an awful lot of League game time at 6 yet a match starved Brendan Donaghy got the start. My biggest gripe is the treatment of Ciaran McKeever who was called into action far too late to make any impact on the game.

A central defender all his life he was given league action as a full-forward and proved his versatility in that position as well as having an eye for goal. With Armagh’s problems at both 6 & 14 it is surprising that McKeever saw so little game time, as he certainly would have brought that missing ingredient to the Armagh cause- passion and who knows might have got the equalizing goal.

But that Down defeat is water under the bridge and the focus now is on Fermanagh who were condemned to the qualifiers by Monaghan 1-20 to 1-11.

FERMANAGH WILL BE NO PUSHOVER

The Ernesmen had a very good opening half against Monaghan after which they trailed 1-8 to 1-6 but after keeping it tight early in the second half Monaghan inspired by substitute Owen Duffy hit 10 unanswered points in a row to win with a bit to spare. All though manager Pete McGrath has lost a lot of his regular squad players he still was able to keep his team competitive and with a fitter Seamus Quigley on board for Sunday he will be hoping that his charges can pull off the shock victory given that Armagh are playing in their own back yard. Fermanagh beat Down and Clare in the league on their way to suffering relegation from Division Two and will once again team up with the Orchard County in next year’s League.

Experienced quartet Aidan Breen, Ryan McCluskey, Tomas Corrigan and Quigley will once again be at the forefront for Fermanagh but will need a few more to step up to the plate if they are to defeat Armagh. Some 13 different players featured on the Monaghan scoresheet the last day which tells you that they will need to tighten up defensively if they are to contain an Armagh attack that will be keen to show that the game in the Marches was just a blip.

From an Armagh point of view the pressure is really on for the players to deliver. Defenders Paul Hughes, James Morgan, Aaron McKay and Mark Shields can be happy with their performances. Goalkeeper Blaine Hughes was out quickly to snub out Down’s only real goal chance and his only blemish was being caught in possession once which led to a point. In the forwards in the first half Jamie Clarke and Andrew Murnin both played well but were well curtailed the the second half. Down debutante Andrew Doherty dominated at midfield until retiring injured leaving Armagh with another sector of the field that will need reviewing. Niall Grimley caught the eye when introduced as a sub.

Armagh will need a fast start against Fermanagh just to instill a bit of confidence that will naturally be lacking following the Down defeat. The Orchard boys cannot afford to let the clock reach double digits before registering a score if they are to be successful. Whilst I think that Armagh are far from a sleeping giant I do believe that they are a lot better than their Pairc Eslar showing and will have too much in the tank (provided that they empty it) to see off a limited Fermanagh. Armagh are given the nod to redeem themselves and get their name in the hat for the second round draw on Monday morning.

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