It has been 14 years since Armagh won the Anglo Celt Cup as Ulster champions. In fact, the province’s last repeat win over Fermanagh was Orchard County’s last appearance in a decider – a poor record for a county that had been one of the game’s flag-bearers for the past decade.
They set out on the championship road this weekend, emboldened by their success this week in the GAA legal chambers – a win that cleared Aidan Nugent and Stefan Campbell to face Donegal in Ballybofey.
Add Rian O’Neill, who has already successfully appealed his one-match ban resulting from the scuffle in the NFL fight with Donegal in Letterkenny, and Kieran McGeeney’s men will be confident they can get there this year able to go where they haven’t been before during his tenure as manager.
While McGeeney has overseen their rise through the league’s divisions, their championship record — assuming they compete in by far the most competitive province — is disappointing.
This is his eighth season in charge and they have just three Ulster Championship victories – one in each of the last three campaigns – to their credit to their efforts. So will this summer be different?
The availability of O’Neill, Nugent and Campbell is certainly a huge boost to their chances – all three have had promising league campaigns. O’Neill finished the league program as the top scorer in seven games, hitting 1-24, and his ability to capture the ball, movement and eye for the post will be central to their quest.
Nugent drew 6-1 in the league encounter with Donegal at Letterkenny, while Campbell made meaningful contributions both in the starting XI and from the substitutes’ bench as Armagh finished their league campaign in third place after three wins, one draw and three losses. Coincidentally, the same return as this weekend’s opponents, Donegal.
Armagh has not beaten Donegal at Ulster SFC since 2010, having lost the three meetings since then. They also meet a side who have an excellent record at MacCumhaill Park.
Donegal’s loss to Monaghan in Round 5 of this year’s league was the first at Ballybofey since losing in a Super 8 round robin game to Tyrone in 2018. Before that you have to go back to a loss to Down in the Ulster area in 2010 -Final.
That has to count for something on Sunday. The sides last met at Ulster SFC in 2020 when Donegal mauled Armagh and downgraded them 1-22 to 0-13 and many observers, myself included, expressed the opinion that Declan Bonner’s side were ready, Dublin to push to the limit and stop six-in-a-row charge.
The balance with her team looked right – solid defense and a quick transition into offense mode. Their ability to score points and swap the game up front was their greatest strength.
Fast forward a few weeks and the wheels broke up against Cavan, where they were physically overrun in the middle third. Tactically, Cavan won the sidelines as they contained the influence of Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh and the in-form Jamie Brennan. Donegal haven’t looked like the same team since that loss.
A lot of the same staff will be on duty on Sunday so in theory you can never rule out a great performance with the quality of players they have and that’s why they remain contenders for Ulster.
However, there are question marks over Donegal’s mental toughness in the big game. Last-round Super 8 losses to Tyrone in 2018 and Mayo in 2019, combined with the collapse to Cavan, have hurt their steadfastness.
No new leaders have emerged and they still rely too heavily on Murphy’s leadership. Players like Michael Langan, Jason McGee and Eoghan Bán Gallagher really need to step up and inspire their county.
Without Murphy, they can look disoriented and disorganized. Last year his dismissal was a key factor in the loss to Tyrone and while they remained competitive after his dismissal, there was always a feeling that Tyrone had a different kit when needed.
Murphy is one of the best footballers of his generation, but if you still hear people saying, “You could use two Michael Murphys” – one playing in midfield and delivering a good ball, and one playing right up front to get the Winning the main ball – then that’s a concern.
Donegal’s league form has been erratic where they mixed the truly terrible with patches of good football. They will be better off Sunday afternoon in terrain where they have such a good track record.
With players like Langan and Caolan McGonagle returning from injury this will give them a boost in key sectors. The emergence of Brendan McCole as a quality full-back, with Conor O’Donnell and Shane O’Donnell at the helm, will add to their strength.
Armagh starts this game better than in previous years, but also with a much higher expectation after the league campaign.
If McGeeney is to deliver as a manager, they need to make a mark this year. In recent years, Armagh have been an exciting team to watch, but while they attacked with great pace and adventure, they were left vulnerable at the back.
There is no doubt that Armagh were ahead of most teams in terms of fitness last February but they have evolved their game plan this year.
They look solid defensively and the conceding of just three goals in their seven games in the league suggests they will put up a tougher resistance this summer.
It was clear that with the influence of Kieran Donaghy, McGeeney was building a defensive team structure that would protect the goal zone from their own goals.
The aftermath of the melee in Letterkenny will certainly add spice to Sunday’s occasion. Donegal will be saddened that Armagh can call O’Neill, Campbell and Nugent. All these factors should create a tense atmosphere and give us an exciting spectacle.
It’s a tough call. It’s hard to trust Donegal who lack consistency but who also have the ability to put on a great performance. Armagh may feel under more pressure to make a meaningful breakthrough and this will be their chance.
Armagh wins by a narrow margin.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/gaelic-games/gaelic-football/if-kieran-mcgeeney-is-to-deliver-as-manager-armagh-must-lay-down-a-marker-this-year-41575531.html Ciarán Whelan: If Kieran McGeeney is going to deliver as manager, Armagh has to make a mark this year