Bonus for both Counties

April 20, 2010

NFL Div Two Final- ARMAGH v DOWN Croke Park 2pm April 25

Timing they say is everything and next week’s National Football League Division Two Final between Armagh and Down could not be more appropriate. It’s fifty years since Down made the historic breakthrough by bringing Sam across the border for the first time which sent shockwaves throughout the GAA world and plenty of aftershocks thereafter in the half century that followed.

The managerial merry-go-round at the end of 2009 which brought about new men at the helm in both Down and Armagh also brought a fall out in both counties that makes the current “Ash clouds” dominating the skylines seem but a storm in a teacup. Down snubbed their most successful manager, Pete McGrath, in the process of appointing James McCartan as their new boss. Armagh County Board were again embroiled in “Grimleygate” before committing high treason in some supporters eyes by appointing McCartan’s former team captain and Down manager, Paddy O’Rourke. The stormclouds extended from the shores of Lough Neagh to the Montains of Mourne, die hard supporters vowed not to travel or go near their beloved teams as they threatened mutiny.

By the time March 20 2010 came round the storm clouds had abated and the supporters, despite the attraction of it live on TV, packed into Pairc Esler to see unbeaten table topping Down take on Armagh in round five of the league. Down won comfortable 1-13 to 1-6 and were well on their way to promotion to Division One. Three weeks later a 2-16 to 0-6 win in Letterkenny over Donegal and Armagh were joining Down in Division One for next season. Now try tell those said same supporters that this match on Sunday does not matter. Down v Armagh has always been the derby.

Sunday for both counties and managers is the “Brucie Bonus” with an outing in Croke Park , a National League title up for grabs and an ideal match as championship preperations begin in earnest. Before a ball was kicked in this league campaign an Armagh v Down final was beyond even the wildest dreams of either set of supporters. Down dropped just one point in the league drawing at home to Tipperary but Armagh lost on the road to Meath and Down but won their other 5 games.

Back in 1983 Down beat Armagh 1-8 to 0-8 in the league final but the Mourne men have a far more impressive league pedigree as follows 1960-Down 0-12 Cavan 0-9, 1963-Kerry 0-9 Down 1-5, 1968-Down 2-14 Kildare 2-11, 1970-Mayo 4-7 Down 0-10,1990- Meath 2-7 Down 0-11 compared to their rivals 1994-Meath 2-11 Armagh 0-8, 2005-Armagh 1-21 Wexford 1-14

We are only in the month of April and the fortunes of the two newly appointed rival county managers can receive a huge boost by winning on Sunday. Paddy and James certainly used the leagues to good effect by using large numbers of players throughout the campaign. Both managers will have selection headaches for Sunday with injury doubts surrounding Benny Coulter and Armagh’s Ronan Austin definitely out after sustaining a broken jaw in a club match. The good news on the Down front is the return to the squad of Dan Gordon while Armagh fans will be delighted to have seen Ronan Clarke appear late on against Donegal.

Clarke was absent from that Pairc Escler defeat which saw Armagh get off to a disasterous start recovered before the short whistle but then lost a man for the whole of the second half. Down can say that talisman Martin Clarke went off injured midway through the first half and they still ran out 1-13 to 1-6 winners. Interestingly from an Armagh point of view is the team which strated the last match with Donegal sported a half dozen changes from the team which started in the Down defeat. Paul Hearty, Barry Shannon, James Lavery, Charlie Vernon, Brian Mallon and Tony Kernan were those changes.

The last meeting between the teams will have little bearing on Sunday’s all ticket encounter which is part of a double header as Cork take on Mayo at 4pm in the Division One Final. The rival managers will be playing down the importance of Sunday but will be using it as a yardstick with the championship a mere month away. The pieces of the puzzle have been painstakinly put in place this last few months and I would say that both sides have overachieved in terms of early expectations. Some 30 panel members from either team have been given the opportunity to stake a claim in the championship squad. Unfortunatley for some Sunday may be their last involvement before the annual championship cull and what better way to leave than with a league medal in your pocket.

Down were out of the traps and away before Armagh settled in their last meeting it should be a different kettle of fish this time round. Still, if Armagh afford Down the room thay got in Newry to play, the wide expances of Croke Park will see their potent attackers, who have bags of pace, lead Armagh another merry dance. Down have answered all the questions which have been asked of them thus far in the league. An Armagh side seeking revenge will undoubtably be their biggest hurdle to date. With a bit more on offer than just a brace of league points the game has to be a lot better and more competetive than the last encounter. Armagh notched 2-16 last time out and there was a more balanced contribution of scores throughout the team cutting down on the over dependance of Stevie McDonnell. Clarke back in the frame will gave Armagh that bit more potency and keep a yet to be fully tested Down full back line the perfect scrutiny to see if they are to scratch. A jittery opening from the Armagh full back line did the harm in Newry, it will not be repeated this time out and should provide the stepping stone to an Armagh victory. While the expectancy prior to the league match of a classic failed to materalise the Croke Park pitch will lead to open flowing football which both teams are capable of and play which both managers advocate.

Which ever way the result goes the respective managers have gotton the monkey off their backs by getting their teams to Division One. But as previously written, GAA supporters only demand one prize nowadays and it is not given out till September. But credit where credit is due Paddy and James have set a base upon which to build, it is just a case of how solid and quick the building will progress.