An All Too Familiar Foe

There was a certain inevitability about this pairing.  Maybe RTE and Sky were on to something when they were insisting that Donegal would play either Armagh or Meath even though it looked like we were in for an open draw for long enough periods last Saturday evening. But, Monaghan got their act together and many of us got what we wanted.

I would hate to lose to Armagh, but for me, a victory on Saturday is just a step to a semi final and nothing more, although I would take a good deal more satisfaction from beating Armagh than most other teams. But, in no way will it make up for anything that happened in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 or 2006. That was then and this is now.  The ship has sailed for many of the fine players on those sides who toiled under the orange yoke without Ulster Championship success in those years.

This year’s Armagh are a hard enough team to get a read on, and not just because of their ridiculously paranoid meeja ban.  During the league, they were relegated to Division Three, with the final blow delivered by ourselves at the Athletic Grounds.  But, as they prepare to face us on Saturday, they have won four Championship games, losing only to Monaghan and that after a replay.

As I watched the current Armagh team easily account for Meath, I did see some similarity with the sides of years gone by. You could sense the swagger, the bravado.  They are a confident bunch who appear to play without fear.  However, for me, they do not have the big characters of the 00s teams.  There are no Francie Bellews, Kieran McGeeneys (on the pitch at least), Paul McGranes, McEntees, McDonnells or McConvilles.  There are some ghosts of the past still knocking around – although McKeever is out, Aaron Kernan will take his place.  Andy Mallon is certain to start and his namesake (but no relation…) Brian will likely feature at some point.

From their most recent game, 16 points from play and 10 balls dropped short are stats that stood out to me.  So too was the fact that Meath ‘won’ 30 kick outs to Armagh’s 17 and yet had less possession, fewer shots from play and had 12 unforced errors.  Armagh were impressive, especially considering the conditions, but let’s not pretend that they weren’t aided by a poor enough Meath performance.  Speaking of conditions on Saturday, Armagh played Roscommon in similarly poor conditions and still racked up 1-17 (against a so called blanket defence).  There’s more rain forecast for this Saturday.  For the Championship to date, Armagh’s scoring average is 16 points a game, conceding on average 14 points.

Armagh will likely set up fairly similarly to Donegal, with lots of men dropping back and a tendency to take scores breaking from defence.  A key difference is that they seem to like to get the ball into their forwards via long kick passes rather than the hard running and hand passing favoured by Donegal.  Jamie Clarke is nominally their marquee/star forward, but in truth, they don’t rely much on him for scoring recently (no more than Donegal have been reliant on Murphy/McFadden).  He acts more like a playmaker but still draws plenty of attention from opposition defences.  His positioning might not suit the match up, but I’d like to see Karl Lacey take responsibility for Clarke on Saturday evening.

Colm McFadden could well find himself matched up with Andy Mallon, who he probably knows too well at this stage.  Mallon is having a new lease of life whereas Colm is having a relatively subpar season, so I’m not counting on much from him on Sunday, outside of the usual quota of frees.  I’m not writing him off, but I think he will be well marked again, especially if Michael plays deeper.  As ever, as long as we get enough scores to win the game, it hardly matters where or how they arrive.

Team selection should be fairly straightforward again.  Unless there are injuries, defence will be as you were.  Neil Gallagher survived 70 minutes against Monaghan and so I would expect him to start at midfield.  It remains to be seen how fit Rory Kavanagh is, I would be surprised if he plays 70 minutes or even starts.  If Rory isn’t fit enough to start, then I guess at this stage it would be no surprise to see either MacNiallais or Toye alongside Big Neil at the throw in, with Michael Murphy helping out as required.  On Michael, expect to see him on the edge of the square on occasion – Donegal scored a very simple but well executed goal against Armagh in the league, in a move not too dissimilar to the start of the second half against Monaghan, where Michael won a free in front of the posts.  But, if it’s obvious to me, I am sure Armagh will be expecting it too.  For me, once again, the big selection question is whether or not to start Paddy McBrearty.  Jigger was seemingly out of his depth in the Ulster Final, but this could be a different game.  It was from the bench that Paddy has looked more effective and focused this year.

Donegal have not faced an Ulster team outside of the Ulster Championship since 2010 and it’s the only provincial match up of this year’s Quarter Finals so this is a novel enough pairing at this stage.  Of course, it was a heavy Championship defeat to Armagh in Crossmaglen in 2010 that finally ushered in the McGuinness era.   I sure hope that another loss to the same opposition doesn’t bookend it. Given we have two Ulster teams, two defensive teams and two incredibly intense mentors in McGuinness and McGeeney, I expect this to be a war of attrition, certainly for the first half.  I do hope that we establish the control we have enjoyed in each Championship game so far this year, and I expect us to do so unless Armagh do something drastic, like take the game to us from the throw in.  Thankfully there is no parade.

Let’s be honest however, for Armagh to win, they will need to play very well, better than they have played at any stage up until now, and Donegal will probably need to underestimate them.  The latter just doesn’t happen to a Jim McGuinness team, so I expect us to win on Saturday.  None of our quarter final victories since 2011 (Kildare, Kerry) have been exactly comfortable and I’m expecting a battle on Saturday.  Armagh are in bonus territory and have nothing to lose whereas Donegal may well have their sights set on a bigger prize.  We won’t be caught looking ahead and we’ll need to play well to win, but we’ll prevail.

Until Victory, Always

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