Ulster SFC Final
Derry v Armagh
Sunday, Clones, 4pm (Live on RTÉ and BBC)
By Michael McMullan
THE last time these two jostled in the championship, it was the Covid year and Armagh’s 0-6 to 0-2 lead at the first water break had Derry chasing a game a second half gale wasn’t able to help them catch.
Shane McGuigan did peg it back to a one-point game before Rian O’Neill’s insurance free, right at the end, in front of an empty Celtic Park for Rory Gallagher’s first championship game as Derry manager.
Only players, management, officials and media were granted entry, but you’ll not be able to a turn a sweet in your mouth on Sunday in Clones.
If the sun pokes its head out it will help warm up what has the ingredients of a classic. A side who ended their 24-year Anglo Celt famine against one of the best supported teams in the land.
For Derry, so much has changed.
Gallagher handed out eight of his championship debuts that night before rolling up the sleeves on a Division Three promotion campaign the following year that has since yielded an Ulster title and top flight league fare for 2024.
And it changed again on Friday when Gallagher stepped back from his role as Derry manager, with Ciaran Meenagh now leading the management team.
Of the 17 Armagh players to see game time that night, 10 would’ve be on Kieran McGeeney’s page as the management pondered over their starting team this week.
Armagh have put relegation behind them to book a first Ulster final since their 2008 replay win over Fermanagh. Aside from losing seven of their long second half kick-outs to fuel a Cavan comeback, their road to Sunday has been a comfortable one.
In saying that, a more composed Down in front of the posts in the first half could’ve given Armagh’s underbelly a greater test.
Armagh have made one change with Stefan Campbell listed to start with Jemar Hall – who featured in every game bar the win over Donegal – dropping from the matchday 26.
With Tiernan Kelly and Niall Grimley both still out, Armagh’s bumper panel had a further cloud over it. Ben Crealey’s tweaked hamstring will have curtailed his preparations after trotting off against Down after the meagre combined 145 minutes of competitive action across the three championship outings.
Ciaran Mackin had to be helped to his feet in the technical area after being replaced with what appeared to be concussion against Down. Armagh will need his boundless energy in Sunday’s cauldron.
The biggest concern was Andrew Murnin. Of the 46 contested kick-outs lofted out from Ethan Rafferty in the Ulster Championship, Armagh won only 17. Murnin missed the Antrim game, but still won half a dozen of those kick-outs before landing on his ankle in the process of winning the sixth that led to a replacement against Down and an immediate icepack.
It’s hard to make a case for a more influential Armagh player this season. A cross between a ball winner inside and a kick-out target, he has still managed to post 1-10.
Barry McCambridge has been a virtual ever-present until his injury at the wrong time, but he was on the bench the last day with James Morgan also back to full fitness. McCambridge has been listed on the bench, but it will be interesting to see if he is a late inclusion to pick up Shane McGuigan.
It’s impossible to delve into this game without a mention of the eight goals Derry have shipped in the last three games. Add in the other four Dublin could’ve added with Conor Glass denying Conor Leonard a third Monaghan goal in stoppage time.
That’s 13 goal chances in three games. But, of that tally, only four chances – of which three were scored – came from the route one threat. But’s that’s where Armagh will aim to go to town.
A look at their wins over Cavan and Down point to their use of the kick. Of almost 60 attacks across both games, a kick was the main tool of transition on 30 occasions. Of those, there was an almost even split between the dinked ball and the ‘launch ‘er in long’ sort.
Just ask Down’s defence. Armagh went long for four of their first five attacks. The source was mainly Rian O’Neill or the outside of Shane McPartlan’s left boot. The perfect case study was the first goal. McPartlan’s flighted ball was just asking the majestically hung in the air Murnin to flick it past Niall Kane.
For Derry, Conor Glass must sit deeper more often. A concession of more than two goals will leave them frantically chasing their scoring average of 1-14 against an Armagh defence that closed Cavan out of the scoring zone
But Derry are not Cavan. They have the pace of Rogers, Paul Cassidy, Conor McCluskey and Ethan Doherty cutting through on their trademark backdoor cut. Armagh have Jarly Óg Burns, Ciaran Mackin, Ethan Rafferty and Conor O’Neill as their ball carriers. That’s the avenue they need to keep hammering.
Derry know exactly what a famine is like. The pitch invasion after last year’s final said it all. Armagh’s need for silverware is seismic. Progress is only progress until you get there.
It has been a week of uncertainty in the Oakleaf County which took another turn on Friday with Gallagher taking a step back.
The champions need to regroup quickly and match Armagh’s need if they have any designs of backing up last year’s breakthrough win.
LAST FIVE CHAMPIONSHIP MEETINGS
2005 Armagh 1-11 Derry 0-10 – Ulster SFC semi-final
2007 Derry 0-11 Armagh 0-10 – SFC Qualifier
2010 Armagh 1-10 Derry 0-7 – Ulster SFC quarter-final
2011 Derry 3-14 Armagh 1-11 – Ulster SFC semi-final
2020 Derry 0-15 Armagh 0-17 – Ulster SFC quarter-final
THE ROAD TO CLONES
Armagh 0-20 Antrim 1-8
Armagh 1-14 Cavan 0-12
Armagh 4-10 Down 0-12
Derry 3-17 Fermanagh 2-8
Derry 1-21 Monaghan 2-10
ARMAGH Conor Turbitt 1-27 (7f, 4m), Rian O’Neill 1-25 (14f, 3m, 2 ’45), Rory Grugan 0-11 (11f)
DERRY Shane McGuigan 5-73 (3 pens, 35f, 2m, 1 ’45), Niall Toner 3-25 (10f), Paul Cassidy 1-17
READ MORE – Derry v Armagh – the key matchups. Click here…