By Niall McCoy
TWO wins in Ulster, that’s Kieran McGeeney’s lot since taking on the Armagh manager’s job ahead of the 2015 season.
As the side prepare to host Antrim at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday, the annual statistics are rolled out to remind us of how much of a bogey competition this has been for ‘Geezer’.
The numbers back that up. Their league win percentage lies at 55 per cent under McGeeney, their Qualifier record jumps to 64 per cent. Ulster though? It’s a miserly 22 per cent.
This year’s draw has been kind to them, there is a clear route to the Ulster final but pitfalls are present.
The first of those arrive this weekend when they host Enda McGinley’s Saffrons. No matter how complimentary, how respectful McGeeney and his coach Kieran Donaghy have been to their opponents in pre-match interviews, anything other than a relatively comfortable Armagh win will raise eyebrows.
As one media pundit put it this week, “when are they going to get an epidemiologist on to talk about the contagiousness of all this hype around Armagh?”
Generally the side hasn’t performed too well when they have been built up. In 2017 they were expected to march to Newry and leave with a spot in the Ulster semi-final but despite a fine first-half display, they ran out of ideas after the break as Down frustrated them.
The following season they headed to Croke Park buoyant after an excellent Qualifier win against Kildare only to be torn to shreds by Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Losing promotion to Tipperary in the finals seconds of the 2017 National League season also pointed to a team that doesn’t deal particularly well with pressure.
But for all that, there has been something about their performances this season that suggest that they have moved onto the next level. They did not kowtow on their return to Division One football for the first time since 2012, they embraced it and performed very well.
They started in good fashion with a win over Monaghan, even if they made it harder than they needed to, and if Stefan Campbell had converted a second-half penalty against Tyrone they would have had a four-point cushion. They were quite clearly the better team against Donegal in round three and were left dejected with the draw.
That left a relegation play-off against Roscommon, who were promoted alongside Armagh last season. For 15 minutes the Orchard looked nervy and weighed down by the occasion. They also trailed 0-5 to 0-1. From the first water-break on though, they dismantled their opponents and the 1-17 to 0-11 scoreline in no way flattered them.
The aforementioned Campbell had a starring role that day, as he did against Donegal. The Orchard captain had what they call in the industry a ‘stinker’ against Tyrone. At times it looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him up but with Armagh players falling to injury constantly, he didn’t even have the saviour of being substituted.
His reaction was two brilliant performances. At one stage against Roscommon, he broke a ball above an opponent in his own full-back line with all the poise of Seamus Moynihan in his pomp. There has been a perception that Campbell can be a streaky player, but the good days have vastly outweighed the bad in recent seasons.
Oisin O’Neill is the in-form player in the team while younger brother Rian continues to kick scores with a seriously impressive nonchalance.
Rory Grugan’s intelligent passing and running, Jemar Hall’s selfless work-rate and the unorthodox impact of Andy Murnin ensures that this is one of the best attacks in the country.
So, enough about Armagh, how are Antrim going to counter that?
No matter how well McGinley has his side set up – and he will – they are unlikely to stop Armagh from posting a big tally, so their best chance comes from exposing the frailties that still exist in defence for Armagh.
It would be criminal if the Saffrons stood off Blaine Hughes’s kick-outs. The evidence has shown that Armagh, even with big men like the O’Neills and Niall Grimley around the middle, struggle when pressed high on kick-outs.
The first kick-out of the McGinley era, in the sixth minute against Louth, probably gave an insight into what we can expect from Antrim early on. They kept lots of bodies in the Louth half, their players were vocal with plenty of pointing and Louth were forced to go long, and Antrim broke it.
McGinley and his coaches will also have noted how many problems Armagh have had dealing with direct running. We can trace it back to that 2017 surprise loss to Down when Caolan Mooney and Darragh O’Hanlon went at them and caused mayhem. The response since has been to foul in scoreable positions or, as we saw against Donegal, don’t engage and be duly punished by Paddy McBreaty and Michael Langan who ran right at their heart.
That’s why players like Marc Jordan, Ryan Murray and Paddy McBride will be so vital to Antrim’s hopes. They are three players who like to get the ball, put the head down and run. Jordan in particular has been making good ground with his forward breaks.
Odhran Eastwood is also a diamond in the rough in attack. From the first outing against Louth to the win over Waterford to secure promotion to Division Three, when he scored 1-5, the Naomh Éanna man has looked very sharp. Ryan Kennedy, if fit, looks the most likely to pick him up.
Conor Murray and Dermot McAleese are doubts for the game, but Antrim do have the strength and depth that maybe has been missing in recent times. Paddy Cunningham’s cameos from the bench have been viral hits, but others to come on this year have included Eunan Walsh, Tomás McCann, Adam Loughran, Justin Crozier, McBride and Niall Delargy. It’s clear the Saffrons have options.
Armagh will win this game. The margin of victory will be the more interesting tale. Antrim most definitely can make it a difficult day’s work. Armagh by five and McGeeney to boost his Ulster numbers.