ULSTER SENIOR FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP SEMI-FINAL
Armagh v Donegal
Sunday, Kingspan Breffni, 1.15pm
By Niall McCoy
BACK in June 2015, a quiet confidence started to sweep over the county of Armagh ahead of their Ulster Championship quarter-final with Donegal.
The season before, a loss to Donegal had dropped Paul Grimley’s side back into Division Three, but the period after suggested that revenge could be on the cards when they met at the Athletic Grounds in an early Sunday fixture.
Firstly, Armagh had went on a fine run in the championship and came so close to earning extra-time against Jim McGuinness’s side in the All-Ireland quarter-final with Tony Kernan’s late long-range free dropping short.
Then in early 2015, under new manager Kieran McGeeney, they had eased to the Division Three title.
There was a genuine feeling that Armagh could earn a win in front of a fervent home support, but the home side were simply crushed.
With just three minutes on the clock, Paddy McBreaty scrambled home a goal and the gap was out to 10 points by half time. The second half was played at challenge match pace. Men against boys.
Now Armagh prepare to meet Donegal again, and like 2015, the Tir Chonaill side are coming off the back of a narrow win over Tyrone in the previous round.
There is one big difference though, that quiet confidence will not exist. The mood amongst Orchard county fans is most definitely back to hope over expectation.
Aidan Forker played in both of those 2014 and ’15 championship games, so he has experienced both sides of the coin. The Armagh defender believes that hope over expectation may just suit the side better ahead of Saturday’s Ulster semi-final.
“Yeah, that’s the way we like it, nobody’s really gonna give us a chance against Donegal,” said the Maghery man.
“We’ll have a bit of belief in ourselves and know that we’re a completely different team to 2015. If you look at the teamsheet I’d say there aren’t too many players still there. This is a new team Kieran has built.
“We were very naïve that day, I remember on the pitch it was happening all around you and you couldn’t get hands on anyone. I was there that day and we’ll learn from it. Football’s different again from what it was in 2015, and we’ll make sure the boys that got joy that day hopefully won’t get joy.”
As was the case five years ago, Armagh’s Ulster campaign comes on the back of promotion, this time to Division One.
This weekend’s clash in Cavan is a quick look at what life will be like at the top table next season, although Forker said that they aren’t thinking about what’s coming down the line for this emerging team.
“We’ve sort of put that (promotion) to bed,” he said.
“It was a big, important step for us to get over the line. There was a bit of relief in getting over the line, but we discussed it and said ‘let’s not go soft on it and get caught on the hop.’”
They were nearly caught by Derry in their quarter-final tie at Celtic Park before McGeeney’s men showed good composure in the final minutes to secure a 0-17 to 0-15 win.
Forker was excellent once again and has emerged as one of the team’s most important players having seamlessly transitioned to an unfamiliar defensive role last season.
The side had conceded four goals in their two National League games post lockdown, but they kept a clean sheet against Derry and limited the Oakleafers to one half-chance early in the game.
“Defensively, if you looked at our record pre-Covid, it wasn’t too bad,” Forker continued.
“Across the divisions, it was pretty good.
“When they came back we were a wee bit sloppy with our tackle, even towards the end leaving the hand in a wee bit. Jim (McCorry) and Kieran coach that as much as they can, but you don’t get loads of time training because you’re trying to recover between games.
“To be fair to Kieran, he’s really trying to make us play on the front foot. We work as a defensive unit and chat about it ourselves with Jim, but you can’t be giving away silly frees at this level or you’ll be punished.
“There’s loads for us to brush up on there. It’s reassuring but Donegal will be a different kettle of fish, running at us with pace and quality players. I’m sure when we look at the video there’ll be gaps there we’ve spotted they didn’t exploit.”