Armagh Ferm Favourites

May 14, 2018

 ● USFC Fermanagh v Armagh at Brester Park Enniskillen Saturday 19th May at 7pm

According to pundits and bookies Armagh are ferm favourites to emerge victorious from their Saturday night visit to Brewster Park, Enniskillen next Saturday May 19 @ 7pm in the opening quarter final of the Ulster Championship 2018.

The teams have already met twice this year in the Allianz National Football League with Armagh drawing 0-7 apiece at Saturday night’s venue and then winning the Division 3 League final against the Ernesmen at Croke Park 1-16 to 0-17. The sides last championship meeting followed a disastrous Ulster campaign for both with Fermanagh losing a Preliminary Round contest to Monaghan 1-20 to 1-11 with Armagh losing in Pairc Esler to Down 0-15 to 2-7.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge for both counties since that Athletic Ground championship contest last June not least both sides gaining promotion back to Division Two and both sides showing key personnel changes at both management and squad levels. Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney has welcomed on board as his assistant former Armagh and Down manager Jim McCorry as his assistant. Fermanagh have former Donegal manager Rory Gallagher back at the helm of his native county and as a surprise to many names Ryan McMenamin in his backroom squad. With those due at the helm for Ferrmanagh there will be no easy pickings for the Orchard boys at Brewster come Saturday night.

The 2018 Ulster championship is bonus territory for both Armagh and Fermanagh as realistically both teams have achieved their season’s goal and priority -promotion to Division Two- what ever extra the championship brings will be the added extra. A place in the “New Super 8” looks a long way off for both at present with both team’s prospects of an Ulster title already written off in most quarters. Perm any 2 from Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal seems to be all the rage for an Ulster final appearance on June 24. The winner of the Armagh v Fermanagh game will face the winner of the quarter final between Tyrone v Monaghan May 20th match in the semi-finals on June 3.

Both teams in transition 

There are some interesting stats when one examines the starting 15 on both teams in last year’s Championship in comparison to the teams that played in the League final on March 31. Armagh had 8 survivors from their championship 15 Blaine Hughes, Aaron McKay, Stephen Sheridan, Charlie Vernon, Aidan Forker, Niall Grimley, Rory Grugan and Andrew Murnin all started in Croke Park. Fermanagh had even more changes from their Championship team to that in the League Final with only 6 players featuring Che Cullen, Micky Jones, Barry Mulrone, Aiden Breen, Eoin Donnelly and Declan McCusker. So it’s fair to say that both management teams have given opportunities to a lot of previous fringe players or new panel members plenty of opportunity to stake a claim for Championship inclusion. 

The real proof that Armagh are in transition can be gauged by the fact that only Hughes, Vernon, Sheridan, Grugan, Grimley and Forker who all started for Armagh in their last Championship outing the 3-17 to 0-8 loss to Tyrone were on the starting team in the League final. The 9 Armagh players who completed the starting 15 last time out against Fermanagh were a mixture of some seasoned campaigners any new recruits namely Brendan Donaghy, Aaron McKay, Conor Mackin; Patrick Burns, Niall Rowland, Gregory McCabe; Ben Crealey, Andrew Murnin, Ethan Rafferty and throw-in used substitutes Ryan McShane, Gavin McParland, Kevin Dyas, Oisin MacIomhar, Ryan Owens. During the course of the Division Three League campaign Armagh management also gave some game time to Oisin Lappin, Ronan Lappin, Patrick Morrison, Aaron Findon, Anto Duffy, Mark Shields, Paul Hughes, Colm Watters, Michael Stevenson, Joe McElroy, Eoghan McDonnell, Jamie Cosgrove, Ryan Kennedy and Eddie English. The open ended ever evolving Armagh squad og players at McGeeney’s disposal changes all the time so there is huge competition in all positions to see who will survive the Championship squad cull.

McGeeney’s managerial counterpart Gallagher added goalkeeper Patrick Cadden; Eamon McHugh; James McMahon, Tom Clarke, Conor McGee, Ryan Jones, Sean Quigley, Conall Jones, Seamus Quigley to the surviving Championship sextet for the League final as well as using substitutes Ciaran Corrigan, Kane Connor, Ruairi Corrigan, Daniel Teague, Tomas Corrigan , Eamon Maguire during the course of that League loss, which in reality will have little bearing on Saturday nights championship encounter.

Tough hard hitting encounter

Rather than the relatively open football match put on by both teams in the League final I expect this Championship clash to be a tough, tight, hard hitting encounter akin to what we saw in the group stage League meeting at the same venue that ended all square with just 7 points apiece on the scoreboard.

Fermanagh’s League Final plans went up in smoke after only 5 minutes following the black card to Sean Quigley who had started alongside his prolific scoring brother Seamus. The re-united brothers in the Fermanagh colours will pose the biggest threat to Armagh’s chances, more especially, if they gift Seamus, the soft frees that their defenders gave away the last time out, which kept Fermanagh in touch throughout the duration of the game.

Tactical Fermanagh like to defend in numbers and break from deep, very quickly in numbers, right down the middle of the park. They also have the option of using Seamus Quigley as their target man if they decide on a long ball outlet. Seamus will be hoping that his on field reunion with his brother will last a lot longer this time to help double the pressure on this new look Armagh defence. Seasoned campaigners Tomas Corrigan and Eamon Maguire will be hoping to get a starting berth in attack as manager Gallagher will be looking to improve his teams scoring ratio which has been the counties downfall on many occasions despite some very impressive performances

James McMahon is Fermanagh’s main injury concern. The half back who impressed against Armagh especially as an attacking outlet, should recover from a 12 stitch head injury received in a club game in time to take his place. With Gallagher and Ricey in the dressing room motivation and belief will not be lacking in this Fermanagh outfit as they try and reach the heights of 3 years ago when the got to the All-Ireland quarter finals.

It is exactly 10 years since Armagh won their 14th and last Ulster title following a replay win over Fermanagh 1-11 to 0-8 following a 2-8 to 1-11 draw. That Armagh victory also marks the last Ulster final appearance for both counties with the Orchard counties decline measured against 7 wins in the previous 10 years. Armagh can feel relaxed ahead of this year’s championship as expectations following the demolition of a far more experienced outfit by Tyrone has given supporters a reality check in this department. Armagh have moved off the bottom rung of the expectation ladder following their League win and promotion back to a higher playing level Division Two. Armagh’s current position is a fair reflection of where the county is at in the overall pecking order. Armagh and Fermanagh are amongst a group of about 12 counties who are seen to by vying for the last two available slots in the Super 8. 

Kieran McGeeney’s 2017 Championship campaign hit the road running following their qualifier win over Fermanagh which was followed up by wins over Westmeath1-12 to 1-7, Tipperary away in Thurles 1-17 to 1-15 and Kildare in Croke Park 1-17 to 0-17 before having a complete off day against Tyrone which brought an end to the Championship journey. All Armagh would gladly take a similar path for 2018 as it would leave Armagh in the top 8. 

Tough start

When it comes to the Ulster Championship unlike in some of the other provinces there is no such thing as an easy contest no matter how good or poor form a team has displayed prior to their Championship opener. All 9 teams in Ulster firmly believe on any given day that they can beat whoever is in front of them which is why the Championship is so competitive and hard fought.

Armagh will know well that their 4/7 bookie price heralds a false reality and if they can come away from Enniskillen still in the Ulster Championship that will be a result. In the modern game goalkeepers have become the focus of attention not for their shot stopping ability but for their prowess at being the initiator of attacks. Kick-outs, pin point accuracy, point taking from placed balls are all in the mix for the modern day keeper.

Blaine Hughes and his Fermanagh opposite Paddy Cadden both fill the necessary requirements and will be key players for their respective teams. The handling of the respective target men Seamus Quigley and Armagh’s Andrew Murnin will be one of the main issues giving McGeeney and Gallagher sleepless night’s. Both of these players have been very important cogs in their respective teams promotions and it will be interesting to see how the managers deal with them in terms of man marking.

Armagh should be boosted by being able to select from a fully fit squad as Grugan, Rafferty and long term absentee Dyas are all expected to be available for selection. The tactical battle will be very interesting. How will Armagh find space and scores against a packed home defence? Will Armagh be able to stop the Fermanagh runners? Intrigue, speculation all part of Championship preparation but with so many new faces in both squads, naming the starting teams by supporters, is an added novelty. Of old there used to be just one or two places not pinned down when it came to Championship selection, but that is no more.

Following a titanic, often dour struggle at times, I expect Armagh to reach the last 4 in Ulster with a narrow victory in which scores might be at a premium. The logic in going for an Armagh win is based on the fact that the bench options for the Orchard County looks far more influential and potent than that of their counterparts. Fermanagh have the more tried and tested squad in terms of experience but is now time for the likes of Rafferty, Grugan, McParland, Forker and Grimley to wrestle the mantle of responsibility carried for years by the few remaining stalwarts and help guide the Championship newcomers to a victory which can herald a new dawn for Armagh football.