By Shaun Casey
A LOT of GAA commentary usually looks backwards instead of forwards and when it comes to Galway and Armagh, it’s impossible to preview this weekend’s tie without reflecting on last summer’s epic encounter.
Goals, last minute equalisers, fights, red cards, heroic comebacks, penalties. You name it, last year’s quarter-final had it. Croke Park was hopping with the enthralling excitement that both counties served up.
Fast forward to this weekend, and the venue for the repeat of 2022’s Game of the Season is Carrick-on-Shannon, a stadium that holds just under 10k and despite appeals from both counties, the GAA weren’t bowing to the possibility of another Croke Park showdown.
Both camps won’t care of course, they’d play the game in the carpark if they had to. Their sole focus will be on the result as an All-Ireland quarter-final, and perhaps more importantly an extra week’s break, is at stake.
The last time Armagh played in Páirc Sean Mác Diarmada, they bagged eight goals and put Leitrim to the sword as they eased to the next round of the qualifiers with an 8-13 to 0-10 victory.
Their summer ended in the next round however as a Danny Cummins goal led Galway to a 1-11 to 0-9 win over Paul Grimley’s men in 2014. The omens aren’t good for the Orchard County as they prepare for another battle with the Tribesmen.
They’ve never beaten Galway in the championship after four meetings and to buck that trend, they may have to do so without their talisman Rian O’Neill.
O’Neill picked up a red card, and a one-match ban, in Armagh’s two-point defeat to arch-rivals Tyrone in round two and his absence will have a huge impact on the Orchard County’s chances of toppling Galway and topping Group Two.
The Crossmaglen sharpshooter – who is appealing his ban – chipped in with 0-4 in last year’s Croke Park classic including the monster effort in the final minute that capped Armagh’s comeback, having trailed by six points at a stage, and forced extra-time.
Armagh’s form has been fairly jaded in the All-Ireland group stages, with the effect of the Ulster final defeat still lingering. The agony of losing out on the Anglo Celt, once again on penalties, has taken its toll on Kieran McGeeney’s charges.
They limped past Westmeath in the opening round with Conor Turbitt nabbing a late goal to drag his side over the line by the minimum of margins while Tyrone, with an extra man after O’Neill’s dismissal, controlled most of round two.
Armagh did battle back in the final quarter when their backs were against the wall to narrow the deficit to just two points, but it was much too little too late. Outside of Andrew Murnin, who has been in brilliant form this season, no Armagh player performed to their potential.
The Galway camp is in a much different zone at present, however. Since reaching the All-Ireland final last season, losing out to Kerry, Padraic Joyce’s men have really stepped on and are one of the leading contenders for the Sam Maguire.
They’ve strengthened the squad this year as well, so much so that the absence of Kieran Molloy (injured) and Liam Silke (travelling) is scarcely mentioned. Ian Burke and Peter Cooke returned having missed out last year while John Maher has been an incredible addition to the starting line-up.
Then you have the tried and trusted that are still doing the business for the men in maroon, with the likes of Damian Comer hitting form at just the right time.
The Galway wrecking ball came off the bench against Westmeath when his side were struggling to shake off Dessie Dolan’s determined side and fired over three points in the final 15 minutes to seal an eight-point win for Galway.
Comer is one of a number of outstanding talents that Joyce has at his disposal and the day that Comer, Shane Walsh, Matthew Tierney and Rob Finnerty all hit top form at the same time has the potential to destroy any defence.
James Morgan picked up Walsh last season but missed Armagh’s meeting with Tyrone through injury, so Conor O’Neill could possibly take that job, with Aidan Forker picking up Comer on the edge of the square.
If there is no Rian O’Neill for Galway to worry about, their captain and defensive rock Sean Kelly may focus all of his attentions on Andrew Murnin with Jack Glynn going toe-to-toe with Conor Turbitt.
Outside of those key match ups, numbers will mean little as both sides flood the defence and aim to break at pace when they turn possession over, just like their Division One league meeting back in March, which was nothing like last year’s grandstand clash.
Matthew Tierney bagged a late goal as the Connacht champions won 1-8 to 1-6 in the Athletic Grounds. So, those travelling to Leitrim won’t really know what to expect but going on recent history, they only certainty seems to be a Galway victory.