ULSTER CHAMPIONSHIP SEMI-FINAL
Armagh v Down
Sunday, Clones, 4pm
By Niall Gartland
THEY say that a week is a long time in politics and the very same maxim could be applied to the dog-eat-dog world of inter-county football.
It wasn’t long ago that Armagh were being written off as a contender to the big prizes on offer this year. Relegation from Division One was a major disappointment, and the less said about the fanciful rumours that circulated in the build-up to their final day clash against Tyrone, the better.
A convincing preliminary round victory over Antrim assuaged some of the criticism, and then came something of a breakthrough as they claimed a very impressive victory over Cavan last weekend. And there you have it, all of a sudden Armagh are contenders again and the hype machine is rolling.
Standing in their way of a first Ulster Championship final appearance since 2008 are Conor Laverty’s Down team. We’d labour on the fact these two teams are the keenest of rivals but it would seem to miss the point – an Ulster final for either of these teams would be a significant milestone for both Down and Armagh, regardless of the circumstances.
One of the running themes in this year’s championship, regardless of the province, is the apparent gulf in glass between Division One and Three teams and the rest of the country.
The Mourne men bucked that particular trend with victory over Donegal last Sunday, and Sunday will go a long way to show if that game was the exception to the rule. Donegal have had a torrid time of it this season, so even the Down diehards probably aren’t getting too carried away with that one.
That said, it’d be foolish to discount them from springing an upset. Conor Laverty is sharp as a tack – a trait that is complemented by his obvious passion for the game – and is doing a sterling job in his first season in charge. They scored 11 goals across their league campaign, narrowly missing out on promotion to Division Two, and found the net twice in their championship opener against Donegal.
There’s a Kilcoo tint to proceedings, both in terms of their style of play and personnel – six of Laverty’s club colleagues started against Donegal and they aren’t the type of men to waive away their chance at reaching a final. Then there’s the likes of Danny Magill, who enjoyed a championship debut to remember against Donegal with his brilliant runs from deep leading to vital scores, Daniel Guinness and their pace-blessed attacker Liam Kerr. On the injury front there were concerns about Ryan Johnston (one of the Kilcoo contingent) but it’s been confirmed that he was taken off ahead of the final whistle as a mere precaution.
The question is whether they can land sufficient blows on an Armagh team who are probably better than their league form suggested. Prior to the Ulster Championship throwing in, their coach Ciaran McKeever made comments to the effect that they didn’t really care about the provincial series this year. Well the proof is in the pudding and their players certainly seemed to derive considerable satisfaction from their five-point victory over Cavan at Kingspan Breffni last weekend.
It was a good day out in every respect – the Orchard came through the game unscathed, Rian O’Neill, injured in recent weeks, returned to do his Gordon Banks impression to prevent a certain Cavan goal, and the game was close enough that they’re unlikely to let complacency seep in ahead of their date with Down.
Hailed for their adventurous attacking play last season and sometimes criticised for their perceived negativity in this year’s campaign, Armagh may yet be a work-in-progress but they seem to have found a healthy balance if their 1-14 to 0-12 victory over Cavan was any indication.
They limited Mickey Graham’s side to pot-shots for large portions of the contest, something that didn’t go unnoticed in the post-match analysis, and they’re also in good form up front. Conor Turbitt has been a revelation, scoring 15 points across their two championship matches to date – he’s an absolute handful and on current form is one of the most dangerous forward players in the country.
Added into that is the recovery from injury of Andrew Murnin and O’Neill and it’s fair to say that the Down defenders will need to keep their wits about them. And even if they do, Armagh’s physicality is possibly a step above a Down side still in the beginning stages of their journey under Laverty.
So can Down pull off a shock this weekend? They have serious pace in their team and some fine individual talents, but perhaps their most positive omen is that they are playing together as a unit and devoid of ego. So don’t be surprised if they make a serious fist of this, but the smart money is on Armagh to bridge a 15-year gap and induce Ulster final fever among the Orchard County supporters– whatever about McKeever’s protestations just a few short weeks ago.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2019 Down 3-13 Armagh 2-17 – Ulster SFC
2017 Down 0-15 Armagh 2-7 – UIster SFC
2014 Armagh 2-5 Down 2-7 – NFL Div 2
2012 Armagh 1-14 Down 0-16 – NFL Div 1
2011 Armagh 1-15 Down 1-10 – Ulster SFC
ARMAGH Conor Turbitt 1-27 (7f, 4m), Rian O’Neill 0-25 (14f, 3m, 2 ’45), Rory Grugan 0-16 (10f)
DOWN Pat Havern 3-37 (14f, 1m), Andrew Gilmore 2-19 (11f), Liam Kerr 4-10 (4f, 1 pen)
ARMAGH – Conor Turbitt
Few would’ve predicted at the outset of the season that Conor Turbitt would make such a big impact this season. He hasn’t just been in good form in this year’s championship – instead, he’s absolutely shot the lights out, scoring 15 points in their two matches to date and looks borderline unmarkable.
DOWN – Ryan Johnston
THE Kilcoo star was named on the GAA’s official team of the week following an eye-catching performance against Donegal. He scored three points and was fouled for their second-half penalty, and his pace and intelligence on the ball could be absolutely crucial if Down are to pull of an upset here.