Armagh can master the Mourne men again

Down v Armagh
Saturday, 5.15pm, Clones

By Shaun Casey

A LOT can change inside 12 months, especially in the world of Gaelic football – and it’s been one whole year since Down and Armagh renewed their age-old rivalry that spans back much longer than any of us can remember.

The two great foes meet once again at the same juncture as last year, at the same venue, with the dangling prize of a spot in the Ulster final up for grabs when the two lock horns in Clones this weekend.

Armagh came out on top in 2023 thanks to four goals from Andrew Murnin, Shane McPartlan, Ciaran Mackin and Rian O’Neill to contest their first Ulster decider in 15 long years.

Things didn’t quite work out on the day against Derry, with a penalty shootout proving Armagh’s undoing once again, but the experience of the big day, how close Armagh were to claiming the Anglo Celt, will perhaps only push them on.

And 12 months on, Armagh are arguably in a better position than they were last year with an all-round stronger squad. Peter McGrane and Oisin Conaty both emerged in the league as guaranteed starters.

Oisin O’Neill is back fit although his role has been very much limited to that of an impact sub. Rory Grugan is in the form of his life and has been Armagh’s best player while Blaine Hughes has been magnificent between the sticks.

Armagh easily dealt with their Division Two final defeat as they blew Fermanagh out of the water in devastating fashion at Brewster Park two weeks ago. They looked like a team primed for a real tilt at an Ulster title.

The black card early on for Ultan Kelm didn’t help the home side’s hopes, but Armagh ruthlessly took control of the contest, rattling off two goals in the 10-minute period when they had the extra man.

While everyone left the Enniskillen venue questioning the relevance of the provincial championships and bemoaning the difference in quality between the two teams, you couldn’t help but be impressed with the Orchard County.

Just the previous night, Down had secured their spot in the Ulster semi-final, but their victory over Antrim didn’t attract the same attention. Even manager Conor Laverty wasn’t happy with how his side performed.

Down looked sluggish but had a few bursts of bright periods that was enough to wrestle their way past a depleted Antrim team, but what
they showed that night certainly won’t be good enough this Saturday evening.

That’s two games in a row now that Down have failed to live up to the hype, that devastating Division Three final loss to Westmeath perhaps still lingering in the back of their minds. A chance to win a trophy in Croke Park was an opportunity too good to pass up.

But Dessie Dolan’s maroon men have drawn out the blueprint of how to quell this Down team. Halt their goalscoring ratio and you have a chance. Down, who struck 14 goals in six league games, haven’t hit the net in their last two outings.

But looking back at last season and on paper, the Mourne men have improved and look in better shape to have a real go at their near neighbours this time around, given the personnel they have available.

They achieved promotion from Division Three this season, which was surely their number one objective at the start of the year, and while the league final didn’t go to plan, they’ve still ticked one off the to-do list.

Barry O’Hagan has returned from a nightmare injury picked up in a league game against Antrim last year while Caolan Mooney is back in the squad, although he didn’t feature at Páirc Esler two weeks ago.

Odhrán Murdock will be available for selection this time having missed out last year due to his involvement with the Down u-20s and he’ll be a major boost for the men in red and black at centerfield.

Ceilum Doherty was at wing half-forward against Armagh and has been one of their standout performers so far this campaign. He has mixed up his roles, between being a man-marking defender or goal-scoring corner-back.

Laverty’s match ups will be key this weekend but the problem for the Kilcoo native is deciding which fires he wants to put out. Of Armagh’s six forwards that started the last day, only Conaty didn’t score.

Stefan Campbell, Conor Turbitt and Jarly Óg Burns all claimed majors, Grugan gave a man of the match performance and Murnin is Armagh’s best ball winner inside. Rian O’Neill played at midfield but drifted in and out of the forward line.

It looks like Kieran McGeeney’s team is further down the track and while Down need to win to keep their dreams of competing for the Sam Maguire alive, Armagh need a place in the Ulster final more and they look best placed to achieve that.

Last meeting

2023 – Armagh 4-10 Down 0-12

Armagh: E Rafferty, C O’Neill (0-1), A McKay, A Forker (0-1), Ciaran Mackin, G McCabe, J Burns (1-0) B Crealey, S McPartlan (1-0), J Duffy (0-2), J Hall (0-1), R O’Neill (1-0), R Grugan (0-1 1f), A Murnin (1-1), C Turbitt.
Subs: Connaire Mackin for B Crealey, R McQuillan for J Hall, S Campbell (0-1), for S McPartlan, A Nugent (0-1) for C Turbitt, O Conaty for A Murnin, C Cumiskey (0-1) for Ciaran Mackin.

Down: N Kane, P Laverty, S Annett, M Rooney, D Magill, N McParland, D Guinness, C Poland, R McEvoy (0-2 2f), C Doherty, R Johnston (0-1), L Kerr (0-1), P Branagan (0-1), P Havern (0-6 5f), E Branagan.
Subs: A Gilmore (0-1) for E Branagan, S Johnston for S Annett, D McAleenan for C Doherty, R Carr for P Branagan, E Brown for C Poland.

Last five meetings
2023 – Armagh 4-10 Down 0-12 – Ulster SFC
2019 – Down 3-13 Armagh 2-17 – Ulster SFC
2018 – Down 0-13 Armagh 2-12 – McKenna Cup
2017 – Down 0-15 Armagh 2-7 – Ulster SFC
2017 – Armagh 1-15 Down 2-8 – McKenna Cup

Season so far


McKenna Cup
Derry 0-13 Down 0-10
Down 2-15 Cavan 1-15

Wicklow 0-13 Down 0-18
Down 3-16 Limerick 0-9
Antrim 1-6 Down 1-15
Down 4-12 Offaly 2-14
Down 2-17 Sligo 1-8
Westmeath 0-13 Down 1-10
Down 3-15 Clare 1-10
Down 0-13 Westmeath 2-10

Down 0-13 Antrim 0-9


McKenna Cup
Donegal 3-16 Armagh 1-6
Armagh 1-14 Tyrone 2-10
Armagh 2-7 Derry 0-17

Armagh 0-12 Louth 0-11
Armagh 2-16 Meath 0-10
Kildare 0-8 Armagh 2-16
Armagh 1-9 Donegal 0-12
Fermanagh 0-11 Armagh 0-15
Armagh 2-21 Cavan 0-12
Cork 2-16 Armagh 2-16
Armagh 0-15 Donegal 0-16

Fermanagh 0-11 Armagh 3-9

Top Scorers

Pat Havern 0-54 (36f, 1m)
Odhrán Murdock 5-11 (3-0 pen)
Liam Kerr 2-18 (3f, 1m)

Conor Turbitt 3-33 (21f, 1-0pen, 1m)
Rory Grugan 2-21 (10f)
Oisin Conaty 0-19

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