All-Ireland SFC quarter-final
Armagh v Monaghan
Saturday, Croke Park, 6pm. Live on GAAGO
By Niall McCoy
NICE neighbours, Monaghan and Armagh – but expect such friendliness to exit stage left when they meet in Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park.
There is a spark there when these two meet, of course, but the rivalry doesn’t mean nearly as much to Orchard fans as their clashes with Tyrone and Down. Likewise, Monaghan fans circle the calendar when they’re due to face Cavan, not Armagh.
Rarely though have the stakes been as high with an All-Ireland semi-final on the line, a prize that is very much achievable for both in what could prove to be the tightest encounter of the weekend.
The last time Armagh and Monaghan met in an Ulster final was in 1938, so this is undoubtedly the biggest clash between them of modern times.
Both have endured difficult stages during this campaign, a more acceptable situation for Monaghan given that they were anticipated to be entering a period of transition.
Vinny Corey was a late enough appointment and veterans Drew Wylie and Colin Walshe called time on their inter-county careers a few months later. The news that Ryan McAnespie – since returned – and Niall Kearns were heading on their travels and that Inniskeen’s Andrew Woods was focussing on club commitments only pointed further to big holes that needed filling.
Their early season form looked like a side that was set for a rebuild. In the McKenna Cup, Down danced through them in ‘Blayney while four losses in their first six league games left them on the brink of relegation to Division Two for the first time since 2014.
Then came the first of three season highlights. In round seven of the league, they headed to Mayo knowing a loss would see them drop down, even a win wouldn’t be enough if Armagh took at least a point in Tyrone. Both results went their way and they stayed up.
Then came moment number two – Ryan O’Toole’s match-winning Ulster Championship goal against Tyrone.
The Red Hands were dominant in the first half, wiping out Monaghan at midfield to lead 1-10 to 0-7. Whatever Corey said at the break, and the introduction of steadying influence Kieran Hughes, worked a treat as the Farney got back to within a point with seconds remaining.
Monaghan had one last play and O’Toole was clear through to fist over and force extra-time, only the young corner-back went for broke, surprising Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan and driving low to the net.
Highlight number three, and the moment that should give them real positive momentum heading into this game, was Conor McCarthy’s winning score against Kildare last week. Monaghan weren’t at their best and required two brilliant Rory Beggan saves, but knock-out games are about the result. The image of McCarthy and Corey screaming into each other’s faces after the full-time whistle was a combination of relief and belief.
And they will believe they can beat Armagh, undoubtedly the team every preliminary quarter-finalist wanted in Monday’s draw.
The likes of Darren Hughes should give them superiority at midfield, livewires like Stephen O’Hanlon should enjoy the Croke Park space and given that they brought in Shane Carey, Conor McManus, Ryan Wylie, Kieran Hughes and Sean Jones last week, they have a considerably stronger bench than Armagh’s.
Against Galway, Armagh brought on Jarly Óg Burns, Justin Kiernan, Ross McQuillan and Joe McElroy – all fine players but you choose Monaghan’s options all day long.
Burns could find himself restored to the Armagh team this week while Rian O’Neill is a wonderful addition to have after the Crossmaglen ace served a one-game suspension against Galway.
That win was notable for a number of reasons, not least that it sent them through to the quarter-final and gave them a weekend off in a cramped calendar.
They answered two charges that had been filed against them – 1) that they can’t beat a big team and 2) they can’t win tight games.
The fact that they also managed it without O’Neill is significant. Andrew Murnin has been Armagh’s main forward by a distance this season while Rory Grugan is also enjoying a renaissance, but O’Neill remains the name that strikes fear into the opposition’s defence.
Monster free aside, O’Neill didn’t hit his usual heights in last year’s quarter-final penalty shoot-out loss to Galway. He will be driven to deliver that big game performance on Saturday.
There still remains uncertainty about the side though. Their midfield, not helped by long-term injuries to Niall Grimley and Oisin O’Neill, is one of the weakest left in the competition while Ciaran Higgins and Conor O’Neill remain low on experience for such battles. Ethan Rafferty, denied an obvious All-Star in 2022, has struggled to hit such heights this year and you can be certain that Monaghan will be pressurising him every opportunity they get.
Kieran McGeeney’s side may be warm favourites with the bookies, but it’s very hard to escape the notion that this is the clichéd 50-50 game.
Small factors will be the difference here. A misplaced pass, a stupid foul, a referring error. Expect it to go the distance and Monaghan may just have another moment to add to the highlight reel.