Terrific intense local rivalry adds to the occasion
● USFC Down v Armagh @ 2pm in Pairc Esler, Sunday June 4th
From the moment the 2017 draw for the Ulster Senior football championship was made the stand out fixture was the Pairc Esler meeting of Down and Armagh. There is a mouth watering attraction to this fixture which stirs up a terrific intense local rivalry months before the match which adds immensely to the occasion, more especially once it is in Newry at Pairc Esler.
With Newry a mecca for work, shopping and entertainment for a lot of Armagh people this GAA championship clash between the two neighbors is probably the biggest and most important rivalries of the Ulster championship. All known form coming into a Down and Armagh game goes out the window, and the fact that the host team retained their Division Two League status and Armagh failed to gain promotion out of Division Three of the league will count for nothing come Sunday.
In terms of the Ulster championship statistics between the two teams Armagh are well ahead having won 21 of the 34 meetings between the teams with one draw and a dozen wins for Down. The Orchard County have won the last 5 championship matches with Down but the Mournemen and their supporters will have very fond memories of the sides last Newry meeting. The year was 1991 and Down with current manager Eamon Burns at midfield beat Armagh 1-7 to 0-8 before going on to win Ulster and the All-Ireland. Down also won the 1973 game at Newry by a point and one has to go back as far as 1956 for an Armagh win in Newry 2-5 to 0-6.
It is 2008 since Armagh last reached the Ulster final where they needed a replay to overcome Fermanagh 1-11 to 0-8 (2-8 t0 1-11 draw scoreline) with Down losing out 2-18 to 0-13 to Donegal in the 2012 final. The bookies have it even money apiece for Sunday with the draw priced at 15/2 and if you think that either county can win Ulster Armagh are 12/1 with Down available at 16/1. The healthy prices for Ulster glory shows how much both have slipped down the pecking order in the Province, very much overtaken by Tyrone (3), Donegal (3) and Monaghan (2) who have won the last 8 Provincial titles between them.
In the last 10 years the championship records of both Armagh and Down does not make impressive reading. 2 All-Ireland quarter final losses, 3 Qualifier Round 3 losses, 1 qualifier Round 2 loss and 4 Qualifier Round 1 losses for Armagh with Down fairing slightly better with an All-Ireland Final loss, a quarter final loss, 1 Qualifier Round 4 loss, 3 Qualifier Round 3 losses, 1 qualifier Round 2 loss and 3 Qualifier Round 1.
Sunday is all that matters
But as previously mentioned those stats and facts are all in the past, Sunday is a new beginning, a new challenge and a chance for them both to make their own history. In a lot of supporters eyes, from whichever county, a win on Sunday will keep them satisfied as it gives them the local bragging rights which for them can be paramount. Rival managers Eamon Burns and Kieran McGeeney, who is banned after a 12 week suspension for an incident during the league win over Antrim are in the spotlight for this derby clash. Over the course of the league campaigns both managers were in experimental mood with an awful lot of players getting some game time with Sunday’s game always in mind.
Rumours of discontent among the panel abounded during Down’s league campaign especially following the defeat away to Clare but Burns remained steadfast and saw his team finish the league in fine style. Down were favourites for relegation from division two following a winless league and championship the previous year, which was Burns’s first in charge of the team. Championship in 2016 resulted in an Ulster championship defeat by Monaghan 2-22 to 0-9 and an extra-time home defeat by Longford 2-24 to 3-17 in round one of the qualifiers.
Down went to Cork in the last game of the league with wins over Meath and Derry under their belts coupled with defeats to Fermanagh, Clare, Kildare and Galway and in the relegation zone until the draw kept them in Division two. It is worth noting that the Down team that began the league with a loss to Fermanagh only 8 of them started the last league game against Cork. Down scored 3-85 and conceded 10-82 in the league giving an average of 0-13 for and 1-13 against. The Mournemen had goalkeeper Michael Cunningham among their 16 different scorers over the course of the league with their top 4 marksmen being Darragh O’Hanlon (0-23), Barry O’Hagan (1-10), Ryan Johnston (1-8) and Caolan Mooney (0-9).
Kieran McGeeney took over Manager of Armagh in 2015 after being in the backroom team the previous year which saw the county defeated by a point in the All-Ireland quarter-final. An Orchard return to the glory days was highly expected but thus far has failed to materialize and as he enters his third year of championship action, the former Kildare manager is under severe pressure to improve his championship statistics. In 6 championship outings under the Mullaghbawn native Armagh have one win, a 2-17 to 2-7 qualifier win over Wicklow after an Ulster dismissal by Donegal 2-11 to 0-8 and followed by a qualifier defeat by Galway 1-12 to 0-12, with all 3 games taking place in the Athletic Grounds in 2015. The following year a 2-16 to 0-14 defeat by Cavan in Ulster saw a little history made as a qualifier defeat by Laois was ordered to be replayed but the Queen’s County side still won the re-match against a struggling with injuries depleted Armagh squad.
Plenty of attacking flair
A win over the “Auld Enemy” will certainly relieve the pressure off either manager for the time being as they both go into Sunday’s match with plenty of attacking flair with their respective defenses giving both Eamon and Kieran the most cause for concern.
Armagh’s defensive lapses in the league ultimately cost them promotion as they surrendered leads from winning positions in their two home defeats at the hands of Laois and Tipperary and on the opening day in Sligo, when a late penalty grabbed the hosts an undeserved share of the spoils. Armagh management must rue those defensive lapses as they had seen their forwards excel, returning 15-103 for the 7 games with 22 different players making the scoresheet, with a very impressive top four headed by Stefan Campbell (2-18), Jamie Clarke (2-13), Rory Grugan (1-14) and Niall Grimley (1-10). Safe to say that the respective full-forward lines are their most potent weapons.
Contrasting news on the injury front for the rival managers. Armagh will have a fully fit and focused Jamie Clarke available after the Crossmaglen man revealed that his recent “Moon Boot” was precautionary and he is raring to go. Goalkeeper Paddy Morrison is also back fit and looking for his number one spot back from Blaine Hughes who showed well in the last 3 league games between the sticks. There are still Armagh concerns surrounding the “veterans “as defenders Charlie Vernon, Brendan Donaghy and Ciaran McKeever are all fighting to be fit. Armagh will be without another very seasoned campaigner in Andy Mallon who has retired following years of great service.
Down have fitness worries over forwards Ryan and Jerome Johnston scoring heroes of the drawn encounter with Cork with a hamstring problem likely to keep Ryan from starting but there is confidence that Jerome will be fit to start. Absent for Down will be full back Benny McArdle with fellow defender Ryan McAleenan recently joining the casualty list.
Starting places up for grabs
Normally come championship time there are maybe 2 or 3 places up for grabs from the team that started in the counties last championship match. Given the amount of players used by both teams during the league, and the impressive performances put in by a number of newcomers, there is a lot of uncertainty amongst both set, of supporters as to what the respective line-out will be. Will the youth be given their fling like the Cork hurling management did to telling effect or will the tried and trusted seasoned campaigners be given another chance to rekindle former glories? Getting the blend right and getting the right pegs for the holes shown up in the league is part and parcel of management.
Goalkeeper Blaine Hughes, Gregory McCabe, Aaron McKay, Niall Rowland Ben Crealey, Conor White, Ciaran Higgins will be in the mix pushing for starting berths on the Armagh team.
Down will have Ryan McAleenan, Conaill McGovern, Caolan Mooney, Johnny Flynn, Shay Millar Sean Dornan and Alan Davidson will be pushing manager Burns and his selectors for their place in the starting team.
A packed to capacity Pairc Esler will be hoping that these two great rivals can kick-start what so far has been a one sided Ulster championship with the winning favourites in the 3 games played Monaghan, Donegal and Tyrone showing that there is a big gulf between them and the remainder of the field. It will be up to Armagh, Down and Cavan to show that they are capable of challenging Ulster’s “Big guns”
The key to Sunday’s encounter will be the team that has improved the most defensively since the league campaign has ended. Both sides have shown the ability to self destruct when carrying out their defensive duties. Armagh will also be looking to add a “killer streak “ to their game by being able to put the game to bed when in the ascendency and not falter in the final-quarter which they have done.
In the way the modern game has developed it is the goalkeeping position which has become of paramount importance as to how teams play the game with his ball distribution far more important than his shot stopping ability.
The game on Sunday is so important for so many reasons to both teams as it carries with it a far greater significance than just a place in an Ulster semi-final. When the teams last met in the Marshes the game was that poor a quality that a combination of both teams would not have been expected to win the next round of Ulster but the direct opposite happened. The result gave Down the confidence and belief to go on and win the All-Ireland. With both teams at a low and below the radar the win on Sunday could once again be the springboard to greater success and instill the confidence and cockiness that both counties had in abundance when they got on a roll.
Who will win what many percieve as a toss-up? There is so little to go on or between the teams. I think that Armagh are a bit further down the line in terms of team development and experience in the key areas which tips things in their favour. Cool heads in what will be a cauldron atmosphere will be a thing that both managements will want, with so much at stake. For me Armagh have the better scoring forwards and have much better bench options ,which will get them over the line and set up a semi-final meeting with the winner of the Cavan v Monaghan quarter-final.