Tough Task

May 11, 2010


During the closed season for inter county football before Christmas, followers of the game were submerged in the goings on in the various counties with regards to managerial appointments, and assessments as to how the last championship had gone. There was little to look forward to except for one night you had to gather round the TV and watch RTE to see what fate befell your county as the draw for the 2010 championships were made. When all was over and the four Provinces had decided their fate, there was one fixture which stood head and shoulders above the rest, it was the Preliminary Round of the Ulster Championship which gave Derry a home game against Armagh.

The Oak Leaf last Ulster title was back in 1998 when they beat Donegal in the final 1-7 to 0-8 and since then they had to stand back and see Armagh and Tyrone share the next 11 titles between them, 7 to Armagh and 4 to current holders Tyrone. The home patch of Derry that is Celtic Park always has been regarded as one of the toughest venues to go and get a result. With Sunday’s rivals having already passed each other like ships in the night in swapping places in the National League divisions, the already stand out fixture has garnered even further interest and anticipation.

On paper Derry had a dismal Division One Allianz National Football League campaign which ended in relegation. Given that manager Damien Cassidy had to contend with an awful lot of injuries to key personel throughout the 7 games the picture is not as bad as what it paints. Derry got off to a winning start to the league beating Tyrone 1-18 to 1-12 but lost the next five matches to Dublin, Kerry, Mayo , Monaghan and Cork before finishing on a winning note against Joe Kernan’s Galway 2-13 to 1-12. Prior to the Galway win Derry were pipped by a point by eventual league winners Cork 2-9 to 0-14. Depleted Derry managed to score 5-85 in their 7 league games, a little over 14 points a game without a number of their regular talismen who contribute regularly to the scoresheet. League form or importance is certainly a matter of personal preference.

New Armagh manager Paddy O’Rourke had a league campaign you could only dream about culminating in promotion and the beating of his native county Down in the league final in Croke Park. The former Down manager and All-Ireland winner has already walked on water only a few months into the job with the way he has revived the flagging moral and fortunes of the Orchard County but the Burran man knows full well that he could just as well be submerged and drowned in that said same water if things go awry on Sunday. The half converted masses could revert to the baying mob that were very boisterous in their condemnation of his appointment in the first place.

The Ulster championship is a minefield each and every year with all 9 contesting counties now able to put one over on their rivals on any given occassion. One of the magnificent 7 will be hoping to end the Armagh/ Tyrone recent domination of the competition. In the run up to Sunday’s Ulster Provincial opener it is the players who could be missing rather than those who will be playing that are grabbing the media headlines.

Armagh’s main injury concern is Ronan Clarke with his manager stating that a place on the bench is about the height of the Pearse Og mans participation on Sunday. Armagh management have given a raft of new players a lot of playing time and the opportunity to gel which thus far has proven successful. Barry Shannon part of last year’s championship campaign has come back onto the starting 15 and has done himself no harm for inclusion on Sunday. Andy Mallon and Brendan Donaghy are the other two players who have formed a very formidable full back line.

Paul Duffy was used as a half forward last year but has been a revelation as a defender especially since moved to wing back where he looks more at home. The other regular wing back Aaron Kernan has been moved to the forwards in a playmaking role. Kieran McKeever is back to his best at number 6 while goalscoring Finnian Moriarty as his other flanker has been in super form. The midfield pairing of James Lavery and Kieran have worked their socks off to get good ball for Armagh covering every inch of the field.  While James and Kieran may not give you total domination at midfield they bring honest endeavour and hard graft which enables them to more than hold their own up against some formidable opposition to date. It is in the sextet of attackers where Armagh have done the most experimenting especially with the loss of Clarke for the majority of the campaign. Player of the month for April team Captain Steven McDonnell has been a revelation for his team. A man who was suppository contemplating retirement following last year has certainly got the bit between his teeth this year and has been as good as ever. Paddy and his backroom team stuck with Charlie Vernon and Gareth Swift and they rewarded them with improving performances with every outing. Ryan Henderson had a very good opening half against Down at full forward in Croke Park and Brian Mallon is another to benefit from more game time. Aaron Kernan, McDonnell, Vernon and Swift will occupy four of the 6 attacking places. Mallon and Henderson will be put under the cosh by impressive Croke Park substitutes match winner Malachy Mackin, Jamie Clarke and Stefabn Forker.

News from an injury plagued Derry camp is mixed. Manager Damian Cassidy has lost Christy Kielt to injury but like his counterpart is hopeful that one of his stars Enda Muldoon will be fit for a starting place on the bench. The Bradley brothers Paddy and Eoin have recoverd from injury and will pose their usual big threat. Cassidy has recalled Dungiven midfielder Cathal McKeever and also brought in a trio from the u-21 side Brian Doyle, Emmett McGuckin and Oisin Duffy to the championship squad as the inclusion of Barry McGolderick and Declan Mullan look highly improbable. Patsy Bradley and Fergal Dochert form a very strong midfield. Kevin McGuckian and team captain Gerard O’Kane are rarely found wanting. James Kielt stood up to the mark in the scoring stakes when the other marksmen were missing and he too is an emerging star.

Nobody over the last few years has ever doubted that Derry have not got the talent. The big question which constantly hangs over Derry footbal is which Derry turns up to play. Dire against Monaghan last year in Cassidy’s first year in charge he will be hoping for a lot better this time round.

Armagh go to Celtic Park with a pep in their step, high on confidence and looking decidedly fit and sharp. If you are to get out of Celtic Park with a result you have to grab the bull by the horns and take the game to Derry. Armagh will do that and we could be in for a very early bonanza with the Ulster championship getting off to a cracking start. Armagh definitely have the capabilities and capacity to cause an upset. It is still only May and it will be performance more than result which will be in the back of both managers minds. Defeat and the back door might not be too severe. A blow to either side who have the panels to figure at the latter stages of the championship. Wheather a tough Ulster championship or the pitfalls of a back door minefield is the better option will only become clear after 70 minurtes on Sunday. Armagh are on a roll and can continue to roll onto a June 6 date with Monaghan with a narrow win.