Critical Weekend

June 22, 2010

Qualifiers Round One – Armagh v Donegal Saturday June 26th 3.30pm Crossmaglen

Walk-outs, fall-outs, dust-ups, bust -ups, talking points , walking points, performances, non-performances, grins, groans, highs, lows, panellists, analysts, win, lose, welcome to the championship. That mixed bag of ingredients from an Armagh point of view is now down to one of the latest additions to the dictionary-bouncebackability.

The fairytale start to Paddy O’Rourke’s tenure as Armagh manager, which yielded a division two league title and promotion to division one, was suddenly turned into a nightmare by Monaghan following their Ulster championship quarter-final clash in a grim day for Armagh football at Casement Park. Monaghan were overwhelming 1-18 to 0-9 winners and suddenly the knives are out for the Down native as he faces one of the toughest draws in the first round qualifiers, Donegal.

Donegal lost to Down in extra-time in the Ulster championship with both teams being back to back league opponents for Armagh before the Orchard men dismissed Derry at Celtic Park in the Preliminary Round of the Ulster championship. For Armagh or Donegal Saturday is the end of the road as far as championship action for 2010 is concerned.

The news ahead of Saturday’s televised, all-ticket encounter at St Oliver Plunkett Park is that Ronan Clarke has been ruled out of action for a lengthy spell because of injury which has plagued the Pearse Og talisman all year. The loss of Clarke is a huge blow to Armagh who needed an injection like the availability of the former All-Star to bolster a dysfunctional one piston firing Orchard attack.

Donegal manager, John Joe Doherty has been dealt a double blow with the news that Leo McLoone and Fergal McNulty have quit the Donegal football squad. Naomh Conaill attacker McLoone, who was one of the stars of Donegal’s run to this year’s All-Ireland under 21 final, informed manager John Joe Doherty last week of his decision to leave the panel. Urney clubman McNulty has also withdrawn his services in frustration at a lack of opportunities since he was drafted into the panel at the start of the year. This is a major blow to Doherty who in a recent interview said that he was glad that his team had drawn Armagh in the qualifiers” Even though we have been handed a very difficult assignment, I would rather have a tough test against a decent side than a meaningless encounter against a poor one. Doherty believes that the best way to bring his team on is to play against quality opposition. It’s probably the biggest of all the first-round ties. Last year we had two Division Four teams at home in Carlow and Clare and it was painful stuff to watch us at times.

It took a big draw in Derry and a good win to get us going and we’re facing a similar game now. It should be no problem motivating ourselves. Donegal teams have plenty of motivation for all those defeats against Armagh for the last decade or so.”

The league encounter between Donegal and Armagh in Letterkenny, won convincingly by the visitors, 2-16 to 0-6 will have no baring on Saturday’s match-upp where it’s a winner takes all prize with no U-21 All-Ireland final acting as a distraction or whether division one was the place to be heading for. Donegal got two early goals against Down but could not press on for victory as their short passing game across the forty saw them squander a lot of scoring chances with their main threat, Michael Murphy, well contained.

It is all to plain to see for both teams that if their respective number 14’s, Murphy and McDonnell, are deprived of the ball the scores dry up. Armagh went a full half hour against Monaghan without registering a score which is not good enough to win any championship match. James Lavery should be available for the starting 15 having missed out the last day through injury but impressed when coming on at half-time. Vincie Martin and Malachy Mackin were withdrawn at the mid-point in that Monaghan defeat but in truth you could have picked another half dozen to go with them as only Paul Duffy played to any standard in an orange jersey that day at Casement.

Using Ciaran McKeever in a sweeping role is a total waste as he has proven in the past to be one of the best man markers in the game and taking him out of general play is like asking Paul Galvin to go out and play and not get involved. I have expressed before that Aaron Kernan on the “forty as an attacker” is not for me and if you weigh up his performances in both roles it is quite clear that his defensive position is the better option. Winning “dirty ball” in the oppositions half has for me been the main reason why Armagh have not added a second Sam to their haul. You would need an abacus to count the numerous amount of players and combinations that were tried without success in this sector. Players who have not worked in the past are still being used in a failed role. Prior to 2002 there was widespread criticism that the Armagh goalkeeper, Benny Tierney, could not kick the ball far enough. Now we have a keeper with one of the longest kicks in the game but the ball is continually going into an area where it is not being won. Tierney was not long but was accurate and cute with most of his kick-outs ending up in a fellow teammates hands. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Gaining championship success is an art of getting the square pegs to fit into the round holes to get the right combination. A lot of the time this happens for teams by chance rather than design. In the Tyrone v Down semi-final it was the loss of Stephen O’Neill through injury and the subsequent re-shuffle forced upon Mickey Harte that brought Tyrone from a testing position to a winning one. Paddy O’Rourke will have to come up with something different if Armagh are to overcome a Donegal side who reached the quarter finals last year using the back door system.

Armagh deployed an extra man in the full-back line against Monaghan, yet Andy Mallon, given a torrid time by Freeman, saw none of that extra cover in front of him where most of the danger came from. The be fair to all concerned with Armagh no one could have foreseen that Casement Park performance after such a promising one at Celtic Park when disposing of Derry. All eyes will now be on Paddy and his management team, who were clearly less active on the sidelines against Monaghan than their counterparts, to see if the can conjure up a winning formula.

Armagh have already shown their bouncebackability following the league defeat at the marshes against Down where they, like in Casement, were numerically reduced. Saturday against Donegal is where the real championship begins for Armagh as there is closure with defeat. The rumour mill has left question marks hanging over the behaviour of both panel of players since their championship defeats. It seems the World Cup is not the only competition where ‘clear the air’ talks between management and players are necessary. But at the end of the day it is on the playing field where the talking has really to be done.

I am still in the camp which believes that Armagh are nowhere near as bad as they were against Monaghan. Over the course of the league and championship Armagh has produced some Jekyll and Hyde football mixing the good with the bad. At times Armagh have looked super and at other times clueless and lacking in self belief. Saturday at Crossmaglen is last chance hotel where I expect the Orchard County to remain open for business with a narrow win. Defensively Armagh have enough to contain a more limited Donegal attack than that of Armagh’s which should ultimately lead to victory. You cannot assemble a squad of players without there being some dissention or dissatisfaction but players leaving the panel at this stage of the campaign is never a good sign giving out all the wrong signals.The honeymoon for the new Armagh boss is well and truely over. Paddy knew from the outset that he would be judged on championship performance and it will take ” two out of three ain’t bad” to keep his detractors from having a field day.


Paul McShane will take his defending All-Ireland and Ulster champions Armagh to Kingspan Breffni Park on Sunday 1-45 to take on Cavan for a place in the Ulster final on July 18 against Tyrone. Armagh have already recorded two wins with Paul McGeown the goalscoring hero in both games. Armagh defeated Derry in the Preliminary round 2-9 to 2-8 before going on to beat Monaghan 1-13 to 1-8.

The main concern going into the game centres around team captain and midfielder Peter Carragher. Peter went off injured in the win over Monaghan but is expected to be ready to face Cavan. The performances of substitutes Ryan Conlon and Caolan Trainor has put them in contention for starts against Cavan 2-16 to 1-10 winners over Fermanagh in the last round in which all 6 starting forwards scored a total of 2-10. Armagh have been showing steady improvement with every outing but have failed to put the opposition to the sword when they have them on the rack. The goal scoring touch of the All-Ireland winning side is all that this current squad seems to lack as their workrate,commitment, desire and passion is in keeping with their predecessors and the winning etiquette instilled in them by management. The champions should carry their favourites tag to victory in what will be no easy task and will need all the vocal support possible from the travelling Orchard faithful, regardless how the Senior qualifier goes the previous day.