Ulster rivals put unbeaten records on the line

By Shaun Casey

AFTER seven rounds of NFL action, Armagh and Donegal have yet to taste defeat, but somebody’s record will be shattered on Sunday as the two lock horns in the Division Two final (Croke Park 1.45pm).

Both sides know each other inside out at this stage having met so regularly in the past and they’ve built up quite a strong rivalry. Since Kieran McGeeney took over the Armagh reins in 2015, he’s set his team up against Donegal 12 times in a decade.

This has all taken place – until this year – in between Jim McGuinness’ two stints as Donegal boss and even though his first tenure lasted just four seasons, four gloriously successful seasons at that, Armagh played a huge role in his story.

It was the hammering dished out by the Orchard County in that now infamous Qualifier clash in 2010 at Crossmaglen that finally landed McGuinness the job, on his third attempt, in the first place.

In his four-year tenure over his native county, from 2011-2014, McGuinness took them to new, unimaginable heights, winning three Ulster titles in four final appearances. They lifted Sam Maguire in 2012, ending a 20-year wait and reached the decider again in 2014.

Donegal’s dreams of landing a second All-Ireland title in three years were dashed by Kerry in the final when a certain Kieran Donaghy, now in the Armagh management team, claimed the all-important second half goal.

One of McGuinness’ greatest achievements during that time was their heroic victory over Jim Gavin’s ‘unbeatable’ Dublin. A tactical masterclass from the Donegal boss downed the Dubs and sent his side through to the All-Ireland final.

And it very nearly didn’t happen. On another day, it would have been Armagh that faced the might of Gavin’s men. Armagh’s clash with Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final was immensely intense and the winner wasn’t quite known until the final moments.

It was Donegal who progressed, and Armagh have failed to live up to the expectations that performances promised. Kieran McGeeney took charge in 2015 and now, 10 years on, he may now finally have the team to compete at the top level.

Even this season, McGuinness’ first competitive game on the sideline as the new Donegal manager came against the Orchard County in the first round of the McKenna Cup, although Armagh fielded an experimental lineout and Donegal won comprehensively.

McGuinness played his full hand in that preseason tie on a cold and wintery night in early January and a lot of the big names that featured have been ever-present throughout the entire league campaign.

But the Tir Chonaill men look set to plan without skipper Paddy McBrearty while Ryan McHugh is doubtful, the only two links to McGuinness’ previous era in charge, as both picked up injuries against Meath last weekend.

In a dead rubber tie that meant very little to either side, Donegal played a strong team, and their preparations continue not only for a league final but for an exciting championship opener against Ulster kingpins Derry in a few short weeks.

Armagh took a similar approach when they headed to Cork in the final round of the league, although they did rest the likes of Aidan Forker and Andrew Murnin while Stefan Campbell only came on.

It was a chance to get some much-needed game time into Rian O’Neill, who has been a bit-part player at best so far, while Tiernan Kelly got a full 70 minutes of action into his legs.

Armagh didn’t avoid a few casualties though. Joe McElroy was replaced at the interval having picked up a first-half hand injury while midfielder Connaire Mackin didn’t even make it to the break.

The Shane O’Neill’s man collided with his own player, Aaron McKay, and although he was replaced, he should be fit for Sunday. His younger brother Ciaran, however, looks set to miss out this weekend.

Mackin suffered a knock in the final few minutes of Armagh’s round five clash with Fermanagh and hasn’t togged out since.

Armagh also lost their run of clean sheets in Supervalu Páirc Uí Chaoimh with two lapses in concentration at the back handing the Rebels two goals and it’s the first goals Blaine Hughes has conceded since lining out against Donegal in that early round McKenna Cup tie.

Majors haven’t been all that essential to Donegal’s success this season as they’ve only raised five green flags in seven games, two of which came in their one-sided victory over Fermanagh in round three.

That’s not to say they haven’t been scoring freely and both sides have the potential to light up Croke Park with their attacking firepower. But even though there’s a trophy on the line, will McGuinness and McGeeney still want to hold something back for the championship?

The last meeting was entertaining as both teams coughed up unnecessary turnovers and unforced errors, but they’ll both have their acts cleaned up for Sunday.

It’s impossible to call at this stage and it could take more than 70 minutes to decide a winner -and with Armagh involved who could rule out penalties?


Armagh 0-12 Louth 0-11
Armagh 2-16 Meath 0-10
Kildare 0-8 Armagh 2-16
Armagh 1-9 Donegal 0-12
Fermanagh 0-11 Armagh 0-15
Armagh 2-21 Cavan 0-12
Cork 2-16 Armagh 2-16

Donegal 1-20 Cork 2-6
Cavan 0-12 Donegal 0-13
Donegal 2-16 Fermanagh 0-8
Armagh 1-9 Donegal 0-12
Donegal 1-17 Louth 0-15
Kildare 1-8 Donegal 0-17
Donegal 1-18 Meath 1-10

TOP SCORERS (All competitions)

Conor Turbitt 2-27 (17f, 1-0pen, 1m)
Rory Grugan 2-17 (8f)
Oisin Conaty 0-17

Oisín Gallen 3-34 (11f, 4m, 1-0 pen)
Patrick McBrearty 1-33 (25f)
Dáire Ó Baoill 2-8



Conor Turbitt
Turbitt mightn’t have the same name recognition as the Rian O’Neill, Rory Grugan and Stefan Campbells of this world but he has been tearing it up in front of the posts for the Orchard County in this year’s league campaign. He’s the team’s top-scorer and is proving himself in the clutch moments as well.


Oisin Gallen
There’s a fair bit of responsibility on his young shoulders this weekend with captain Paddy McBrearty set to miss out with injury but he’s had an excellent season to date. Gallen has come through a tough time with injury and looks determined to grasp his opportunity in county colours.

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