Steven Poacher

Mirror image: The tactical breakdown of what to expect at Clones

By Steven Poacher

THIS Sunday we have an Ulster final that is a repeat of the Division Two National League final that saw Donegal defeat Armagh 0-15 to 0-14 in a passive enough encounter that only sprung to life with 15 minutes to go.

It had looked as if Donegal were going to canter to victory before Armagh reeled off five points in a row to take the lead. It was nearly as if Armagh needed the game to become manic for them to play their best football. Donegal eventually won the game with the penultimate attack.

It will be two different teams this Sunday. On the day of that National League final Donegal started without Patrick McBrearty, Jamie Brennan, Hugh McFadden, Ryan McHugh and Brendan McCole to name a few.

Armagh obviously started without talisman Rian O’Neill and Stefan Campbell. It was probably only when Armagh introduced those two along with Oisin O’Neill that the Orchard men came alive.

Sunday will be fascinating to see what both teams do on each other’s restart. I was at the league game in the Athletic Grounds that ended in a draw, and it was evident that Donegal were trying to press hard on Blaine Hughes’ kick-outs, a strategy they will 100 per cent adopt again this Sunday.

They will feel their size around the middle third could see them gain a slight edge on Armagh by disrupting the flow to Hughes’ kick-outs, but to be fair to the Carrickcruppen player, he has dramatically improved the flexibility of his kick-outs and has added a few more strings to his bow with his ability to go short hugely impressive.

On the other side of the pitch, Armagh’s strategy on the Donegal kick-out will depend a lot on the fitness of Shaun Patton.

His long-range kicking is a joy to watch at times and obviously the three goals scored against Derry will have been a huge warning shot for teams moving forward, but like Hughes, Patton does possess a range of mid-range kick-outs that cause problems for teams and provide a platform to launch attacks from.

Defensively, both teams will 100 per cent mirror image each other, particularly early in the game. It would be a huge shock if either team did anything differently.

Earlier in the year the Jimmy hype brigade would have you believe Donegal had invented a new strategy called the ‘high press’ because they decided, for one half of football against Cork with a gale force wind at their backs, to press high and hard like every single team would have done in similar circumstances. So be under no illusion, on Sunday we will see what we have seen from Donegal in both championship games to date, the low zonal block with one or two key match-ups.

Offensively it will be interesting. Armagh have scar tissue from previously meetings with Donegal, particularly the one in Kingpsan Breffni a number of years ago when Donegal’s offensive width, depth and hard sideline running tore Armagh apart.

Armagh are a much more solid unit now and have also developed the offensive end of their game. Armagh couldn’t have asked for better preparation for Sunday than their Ulster semi-final win over Down.

Down came and literally parked the bus for 75-plus minutes and, fittingly, it was a long slow bout of controlled possession that led to the winning score for Jason Duffy. On Sunday Armagh will need to be equally as patient.

Personally I would like to see Kieran McGeeney get that long elusive title. Armagh fans have been quite critical of their team and management in recent years, but despite the fact there has been no trophies, I still feel this is a golden era for Armagh and with that touch of luck that every team needs, they could have easily had an Ulster title or two along with a couple of All-Ireland semi-finals.

Donegal, on the other hand, have proven how fickle a group of players can be. This is the same group who downed tools last year on Paddy Carr, were comprehensively defeated by Down in the first round of Ulster last year and were relegated to Division Two with a hammering away to Roscommon.

Ulster finals are always a colourful occasion and Armagh fans will certainly come in huge numbers hoping their team can reward their long-serving manager with that title his legacy deserves.

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