NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE DIVISION ONE NORTH
MONAGHAN V ARMAGH
Sunday, Brewster Park, 3pm
By Niall McCoy
MONAGHAN and Armagh have already been consigned to the relegation play-offs by many observers, but the winner here will feel that they can confound the critics over the coming weeks.
This may be the season opener, but there feels like there is a lot riding on this fixture in Enniskillen. Not least the chance to ram home a message that Tyrone and Donegal won’t have it all their own way in this mini Ulster Championship.
That said though, with the Red Hands and the Tir Chonaill awaiting both after this weekend’s clash, it will look grim for the losing side.
Séamus McEnaney’s Oriel outfit have warmed up for the match with two games in quick succession against Dublin and Derry. ‘Banty’, as expected, gave plenty of minutes to fringe players. In the latter, the Oakleaf county played extremely defensive football, so it was a good test in concentration for the Monaghan players.
The style they’re likely to face at Brewster Park will be more Dublin that Derry though. Kieran McGeeney does try to play an attractive brand of football with Armagh’s strengths absolutely lying in their attacking options.
The question marks surround their defence and there are two big queries for the Orchard county, who met Meath last weekend – have they anyone who can possibly contain Conor McManus and how do they plug the centre of the defence?
In 2020, manager McGeeney favoured Stephen Sheridan at centre half-back and he started eight of the side’s nine games last year. However, a broken jaw suffered at training recently has wrecked his season.
Aidan Forker may be the man to sit there this Sunday depending on how they decide to deal with the McManus conundrum. James Morgan is the side’s noted man-marker, although he has had a few tricky days on the Clontibret ace in the past.
Ryan Kennedy is another option. The Ballymacnab man has quietly drifted into the ‘key player’ category for Armagh over the last couple of seasons. Darren Hughes didn’t play against Derry, but if he lines out at full-forward then Kennedy may be handed that particular task.
McEnaney has flooded his panel with promising youngsters since taking over at the start of the 2020 season, and it will be interesting to see if one of those, Andrew Woods, starts this weekend.
The Inniskeen man was superb in the club championship and while he can play in the full-forward line, he has the look of a combative midfielder.
They’ll need some physicality in there anyway with Oisin O’Neill and Niall Grimley set to give Armagh a hard edge around the centre. Both are super strong and very good in the air, and with Rian O’Neill drifting out at times too it should be an old-school war of attrition.
It will be their job to load the gun, because Armagh have the firepower to cause real problems. Jemar Hall and Aidan Nugent are likely to miss out, but the two O’Neills will spend time inside while Rory Grugan and Stefan Campbell are natural shooters.
It will be interesting to see if the other Grugan, Jack, is involved. The player took himself off the panel due to a lack of game-time during the 2019 season but is back on board. He has arguably been the best club forward in Armagh over the last three seasons. He has had a couple weeks’ coaching from Kieran Donaghy though, and that can only improve his game.
Game one and so much on the line. There will be no soft landing in 2021, and this may not be the last meeting of the counties this season as they are on the same side of the draw in Ulster.
Expect a very small winning margin, but Monaghan probably have that slight bit more knowhow – even if they had to give up home advantage for breaking the Covid-19 training restrictions.