Sparks expected to fly

All-Ireland SFC Round 2


Saturday, O’Neill’s Healy Park, 7pm
(Live on RTÉ)

By Niall Gartland

ARMAGH dumped reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone out of the race for Sam with surprising ease this time last year, but the feeling is that the gap between the two teams has been not just narrowed but been completely eliminated in the intervening period.

Indeed, Tyrone are slight favourites to take the spoils in Saturday evening’s home tie against Armagh this weekend – even though the Orchard men were a couple of scuffed penalties away from claiming their first Ulster title since 2008.

The bookies have probably been swayed by their respective performances in the first round of the All-Ireland group stages. Kieran McGeeney’s side stuttered past rank outsiders Westmeath thanks to a fortuitous late goal (time will tell whether they were nursing a post-Ulster final hangover) whereas their neighbours produced a spirited display in adverse circumstances against Galway in Salthill.

The Red Hands found themselves down to 14 men when Frank Burns was sent to the line midway through the first half. For a spell they had 13 players on the pitch when goalkeeper Niall Morgan was sin-binned, but they didn’t capitulate and kept Galway honest until the final whistle.

Brian Dooher – a hard man to please – said after the game that he couldn’t fault the application of his players and while work-rate alone won’t win any All-Ireland titles, their full-back line was discipline personified while Darren McCurry and Mattie Donnelly were highly influential figures up front.

Those of the glass half-full variety will point to the fact that it was Tyrone’s fourth championship defeat on the trot while they failed to manufacture even so much as a half-chance at goal at any juncture.

The half-forward line is a bit of a conundrum as well – without going into any great depth it’s fair to say that it’s not fully functioning at the moment and players of the calibre of Kieran McGeary and Niall Sludden didn’t accrue any game-time whatsoever against Galway. Frank Burns’ absence this weekend would see a slot open up for one of the pair, but don’t rule out young Seanie O’Donnell being handed a starting berth after an eye-catching second-half cameo against Galway.

Cathal McShane is still sidelined with injury while Darragh Canavan didn’t look to be fully match fit against the Tribesmen, so there are, it’s fair to say, a few question marks hanging over the Tyrone forward unit at the moment.

As for their opponents Armagh, there seemed to be a bit of despondency amongst the Orchard faithful regards their laboured showing against Westmeath.

While we predicted a comfortable Armagh victory in these here pages a week ago, you can understand why it wasn’t their best work: Ulster final defeat, particularly the manner of it, must have been devastating for players who has poured so much of their energies into getting their hands on the Anglo Celt Cup.

While Kieran McGeeney said that “Rian [O’Neill] carried us on his back” after the game, he acknowledged that it wasn’t all doom and gloom and that Andrew Murnin, Conor Turbitt and Ross McQuillan also made a strong contribution to an otherwise forgettable performance.

On the flipside, their shot selection in the first half was way below par, they struggled big-time whenever Westmeath played keep-ball for prolonged spells in the second half, and while some of Ethan Rafferty’s outfield play was exquisite, for the second game in a row some of his kick-outs when the game was in the melting pot went astray, but you have to question the movement of the Armagh players in the middle sector as well.

It’s hard to envision Armagh being quite so flat this weekend, especially against one of their fiercest rivals. They played each other on the last day of the league in late March, Tyrone consigning Armagh to relegation with a hard-fought 0-18 to 0-16 victory. The injured O’Neill didn’t see action that day due to injury, and they certainly picked up a head of steam in the provincial championship before being nipped by penalties in the Ulster final.

It’s hard to see Saturday’s contest being any less hard-fought than their league encounter – Tyrone are in decent enough form all things considered albeit their half-forward line is yet to gel and they don’t have a steady presence at centre-half back. Armagh surely haven’t become a bad team overnight but if they can’t get themselves up for a rattle at Tyrone, their season is unlikely to last much longer. A hesitant nod for Tyrone but it won’t be simple.

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