Championship season on the line
● All-Ireland Qualifers Round 2 Monaghan v Armagh Saturday 22nd June at 7pm in Clones
Pre the start of the championship, if you told any Armagh supporter that they would play 3 matches in Clones before the end of June they would have expected to be in the Ulster Final, not so, instead their third match at the Monaghan venue in 4 weeks in now all about championship survival for 2019.
Following their Ulster semi-final replay defeat at the hands of Cavan the draw that neither sets of team managements, players or supporters wanted occurs as Armagh were second out of the hat in the Round 2 Qualifiers draw and a trip back to Clones to face Monaghan. Both Monaghan and Armagh will feel that they are still engaged in the Ulster championship as fourth championship match for Armagh might seem like a fifth following 2 periods of extra-time for the Orchard boys against Down & Cavan whilst Monaghan, following their shock Ulster quarter-final defeat to Cavan, have drawn fellow Ulster sides Fermanagh and now Armagh. So, defeat on Saturday night 7pm @ Clones will signal the end of the line for one of the two teams who both would have harboured Super 8 qualification.
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney has given game time to 24 players over the course of the 3 games played to date. Kieran will be able to avail of the services of defender Brendan Donaghy back after suspension and dynamic midfielder Jarly Og Burns who was given the all clear following hospitalisation after the Cavan replay loss.
The Orchard manager will be worried that his team have shown a lot of defensive frailty over the course of their 3 games as they conceded a total of 3-53 and twice could not hold onto the lead down the closing stretch.
It is changed times for the Armagh rear-guard as they look to be found wanting in physicality and very exposed by runners right through the centre of defence. Goalkeeper Blaine Hughes , Paul Hughes, Ryan Kennedy and Aidan Forker are the only defenders who have started all the championship matches thus far and are joined by midfielder Jarly Og, forwards Aidan Nugent, Jamar Hall, Jamie Clarke and Rian O’Neill making it 9 players in total who have started against Down and Cavan twice.
A surprising feature of the defence is how regular league defenders Shane O’Neill’s duo Connaire Mackin and Gregory McCabe have fallen down the selection pecking order. McCabe made a second period of extra -time cameo appearance against Down whilst Mackin has been absent from match day squads. McCabe started 6 out of 7 league games with Mackin also in the half-back line with him on 5 of those 6 matches. Given some of the enforced defensive changes which had to be made, it is a wonder as to why they have not featured more prominently.
Cavan caused the first shock of the championship by beating Monaghan 1-13 to 0-12 at Kingspan Breffni, a feature of the game being that Cavan held Conor McManus scoreless from play. Which Armagh player will be given the McManus man marking duties come Saturday night with Cathal McCarthy and Jack McCarron another lively duo that will need watching. Monaghan’s display their loss to Cavan and in their struggling 1-10 to 1-6 qualifier win over Fermanagh has cast doubts over Malachy O Rourke’s ageing charges who lost out 0-15 to 1-13 to Tyrone in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.
The Farneymen have been struggling to put scores on the board thus far in the championship notching just 12 & 11 scores in their two outings to date their lowest totals since their 7 game run took them to that semi-final defeat in 2018. It is worth noting that Conor McManus with 2-47 in 9 games (avg 5.89) was the overall top scorer in the 2018 championship.
Cross Duo prominent for Armagh
From a scoring perspective, goals aside, Armagh have fared well with 3-48 under their belts. Championship debutante Rian O’Neill the May Player of the Month has amassed 0-18 which is 8 points more than his fellow Crossmaglen Rangers player Jamie Clarke has accumulated leaving a further 3-20 shared between 12 other different Armagh scorers. Midfielder Jarly Og has helped himself to 1-2 with the other 2 goals coming from Mark Shields and Andrew Murnin with both contributing 1-1. One start and 2 substitute appearances has seen Stefan Campbell weigh in with 0-5 with 0-3 from Aidan Nugent, 0-2 from Ryan Kennedy and points apiece for Paul Hughes, James Morgan, Jamar Hall, Aidan Forker, Rory Grugan and Joe McElroy.
Outside of extra-time substitute Murnin’s flicked goal against Down the Armagh forwards have failed to raise a green flag, spurning some great goal scoring opportunities which has deprived them of a possible Ulster Final appearance. A repeat performance in front of goals come Saturday night will possibly bring the curtain down on the season.
Trying to name the Armagh starting 15 for Saturday night is a tricky mission given the number of players that have been used thus far and the different contributions that players have made coming off the bench. It is hard not to see Brendan Donaghy being restored to the starting line out and the performance of Stefan Campbell when introduced gave Armagh an added dimension in an attack that had been up until then two-tone courtesy of O’Neill and Clarke. Will team skipper Rory Grugan regain his starting berth the answer to that will not be known until about 6-50pm on Saturday night. To be fair to the Orchard management they have been shuffling their pack in a bid to come up with the right winning formula as they have watched their players mix the good with the bad, throw away leads, show great character in getting back into games that had looked beyond them and with a wee rub of the green and a few crucial refereeing decisions going against them at vital stages of games it would be the next day Sunday rather than Saturday night that they would be preparing for.
The respective managers O’Rourke and McGeeney will be keen to get their match ups right but both will be trying to encourage their teams to go out and play fast attacking football. Given that this is last chance hotel for both we should be treated to another entertaining contest that will go right down to the wire. There must be a winner on Saturday night because if it is a draw, there will be 2 periods of 10 minutes each way extra-time and if the teams are still level after that it’s a penalty shoot-out to decide who advances to Round 3 of the qualifiers.
A fourth Armagh game in a row that will go right down to the wire but I expect that it is Armagh who will come out on the right side of the result. Armagh carry a better scoring threat and have more options off the bench than their opponents which could be the telling factor by the end of yet another pulsating evenings football.