ULSTER SENIOR FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP SEMI-FINAL
Armagh v Donegal
Sunday, Kingspan Breffni, 1.15pm
SATURDAY’S meeting of Donegal and Armagh is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the gap, or lack thereof, of top Division One teams and Division One teams.
Next season Armagh will take their place in the top eight teams in the country but Kieran McGeeney’s side are still rank outsiders to cause a shock against the Tir Chonaill county in this weekend’s Ulster semi-final.
Since ‘Geezer’ took over in 2015, the following counties have earned promotion from Division Two, some more than once. Down, Roscommon, Tyrone, Cavan, Galway, Kildare, Meath, Donegal and Armagh.
In the same period, only Tyrone and Donegal from that group have made it to an All-Ireland semi-final – two counties, it must be noted, who were already considered members of that elite top group.
Throw in your Dublin, Kerry (even after the weekend) and Mayo – and possibly Galway – and you have a coalition with a very hard border around them.
Further proof comes in the championship performances of that top six since that 2015 season.
Dublin completed the five in-a-row and of the other five, their championship exits (including losses that saw them finish outside the top two in their ‘Super Eights’ group) have come at the hands of other ‘top six’ counties 24 times out of 27. Tipperary (2016 v Galway), Kildare (2018 v Mayo) and Cork (2020 v Kerry) are the three exceptions.
The Rebels will perhaps inspire McGeeney’s men. Their dramatic win against the Kingdom in lashing rain last weekend was, of course, a Division Three side defeating one of those so-called top Division One sides.
Rain seems to be viewed as a leveller and the forecast for Kingspan Breffni is also for precipitation, but if there is one team that has experience of playing in wet and windy conditions then it’s Donegal.
Declan Bonner’s side are likely to dominate possession so while much has been made of Armagh’s attack, their chance of a surprise success is likely to depend on how effective the defensive effort is.
Callum Cumiskey has played the sweeper role post lockdown, although injury curtailed his involvement against Derry. When he did come on, he was a bit sloppy with his tackling and those sort of mistakes simply can’t happen. He may not have played a minute post-lockdown, but McGeeney must surely be tempted by the unmatched experience that Brendan Donaghy can offer, and the Clonmore man’s inclusion would not necessarily mean Cumiskey’s exclusion.
It’s not just Cumiskey that has been guilty of giving away soft frees, it is an issue that has crept back into the Armagh team as a whole – and the one thing that really infuriates their loyal supporter base. It has blighted their time under McGeeney, but they had made big improvements at the start of this season. They’ve lost that cleanness in the tackle and Derry scored 10 frees against them.
Donegal, by contrast, conceded just six frees in their defensive third against Tyrone, and that was on a day when keeping your feet planted to stand a man up proved massively difficult due to the rain.
There is more to come from Armagh from that quarter-final win. The O’Neill brothers, particularly Rian, were quiet by their extremely lofty standards, although when the game needed winning in the final 10 minutes both came to the fore.
Armagh also looked better in that period because Niall Grimley had come on and he caught three kicks around the centre. The Madden man’s fitness is crucial. Donegal won almost half of Tyrone’s kickouts and if Grimley isn’t there, it’s hard to see the likes of Michael Murphy, Hugh McFadden and co. not being the dominant party in the midfield battlefield.
Some observers felt that Murphy had a quiet day against Tyrone, but his second-half display was absolutely key to Donegal’s 1-13 to 1-11 win.
The Glenswilly man played almost as a half-back and while he was on the ball a lot less than usual, he put in a monster shift organising the defence, filling holes and tracking Tyrone runners through the middle channel. His bad miss in the 40th minute can be excused, as it’s very rare that he passes up a gift like that.
He wasn’t the only player to stand out in Ballybofey for Donegal.
Ciaran Thompson was one of just a few players who showed well against Kerry the week before, and he backed that up with another massive display. McFadden was another example of a player doing monster work and perhaps not getting the credit due.
Worries are few and far between for Bonner, but one area of concern is the full-back line. Jeaic Mac Ceallbhuí, who had been picking up Peter Harte mostly, was replaced after 24 minutes. Neil McGee was pulled at half-time due to injury and if he is absent then Armagh’s potent attack will smell blood.
Shaun Patton’s kick-outs haven’t be at their usual best post lockdown, but his restart that led to Michael Langan’s goal was superb with Tyrone caught out pushing too high.
Interestingly when Derry pushed up high on the Armagh kick-outs, Blaine Hughes – for the first time in county colours – attempted to bypass midfield altogether and hit Jamie Clarke or Rian O’Neill in space on the opposition 40-metre line.
Hughes will have a big say on proceedings. Donegal were very vocal as Niall Morgan took his kick-outs and the Carrickcruppen man can expect more of the same. He must keep calm.
That goes for the whole team, and McGeeney has a big task of getting the balance right between intensity and rashness.
It’s a line they have struggled to locate at times, but as their experience grows so should their ability to be smarter on the pitch.
At the end of the day though, Armagh may be a Division One team but Donegal are a top Division One team. The Tir Chonaill men should have five or six points to spare.