Armagh and Donegal lock horns again - for better or for worse

For the first time in many seasons, the latest meeting feels like anyone’s game

Like magnets, Armagh and Donegal tore through delicacies like probability and luck to find each other in the All-Ireland qualifying draw.

Supporters from both counties groaned. And, at the thought of another austere Ulster arm-wrestle, the country groaned also. But there could be no other way. It will be their third engagement since April and each game has been more bitter than sweet.

But it feels like a milestone occasion in a curious, fluctuating rivalry which has flared intermittently since the turn of the century. They’ve met only three times since the infamous day in Crossmaglen when Armagh tore Donegal asunder in the sunshine. That was in 2010.

Since then, Donegal have won all four championship encounters – in 2014, 2015 (2-11 to 0-8) 2020 and earlier this year. But there was a time when Armagh and Donegal bumped into each other like neighbours over the hedge.

“We seemed to be playing them every turn about,” says former goalkeeper Tony Blake.

“And even though things mightn’t have gone well, you were always looking for them. Especially in championship.”

Damien Eagers of Sportsfile caught a riveting moment featuring Blake and Steven McDonnell, the scintillating Armagh forward, in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final. The goalkeeper is laughing and has his arms thrown around McDonnell, who is grinning back at the Donegal man. But there is no joke.

Almost 20 years later, the tension has not ebbed from the image. Armagh were the All-Ireland champions that summer while Donegal were a force in mystification. They had been relegated in the league for the first time in 15 years in the top division.

Returning manager Brian McEniff, who took the team because nobody else would, would later say that he was stunned by what the transformation in physical profile and attitude of Armagh when they met in the league in Ballybofey that spring. Somehow, McEniff guided his team through the qualifiers and when they met Armagh again in late August, it went to the wire.

“The sheer physical size of them was the first thing that hit you – pardon the pun,” agrees Blake.

“I think even . . .see the orange jerseys? They were one of the first teams that got those tight fitting sculpted jerseys that made them look even bigger. And they brought it right to the edge in the physical aspect of the game – wee bits off the ball and late tackles just to unsettle you. And refereeing was a bit looser then and they didn’t try and stamp it out.”

Donegal were closer to making the All-Ireland final in 2003 than is recalled; a taut game hinged on the dubious sending-off of defender Ray Sweeney. But in the following years, Armagh’s aura of invincibility deepened. They destroyed Donegal (3-15 to 0-11) in front of 60,000 people in Croke Park in the 2004 Ulster final, won a berserk Ulster quarter-final in Clones a year later and repeated their Ulster final medicine in 2006. They were the nut that Donegal couldn’t crack. But frustrating as those experiences were, they may have aided a gradual change in approach in Donegal.

“I think they did,” says Blake.

“Armagh showed all teams what could be done. And from ‘03 and ‘04 on, I think the tide began to turn then with regards to Donegal. We said: hold on. That whole party boys reputation . . .it made people realise there is more to this and I think that hammering in Croke Park in particular made everyone sit up. Even the county board got a bit more involved.”

It was no coincidence that Donegal won their first and only Division One league title in 2007. Then, they capitalised by finally beating Armagh in the championship that summer, albeit miraculously, when Brendan Devenney’s Hail Mary delivery from midfield somehow evaded everyone, including Paul Hearty to travel directly into the Armagh net to secure a one-point win.

“What a finish,” Devenney laughs now. As it happened, that season petered out for Donegal: Tyrone made short work of them in the semi-final and they exited the championship tamely against Monaghan. In retrospect, Devenney does not believe the explanation for those subpar performances lay in any obsession with Armagh.

“No, what happened that summer was we peaked in the league. We were on the way down even playing Armagh. We had a crazy scenario where we had five championship games in a row, between club and county, before we played Monaghan.

“But that January in Healy Park we played Armagh in the McKenna Cup. We were beating the chest and talking about laying down a marker. We nearly took the door off the hinges. But where did we end up in the summer? Back in Healy Park, against Monaghan. We weren’t a bad team at all. But we lost that energy.

“When Brian McIver left we had a couple of years where nothing really happened for us. Then Jim came in. But the basis of that team that won the All-Ireland in 2012 was already in place. It needed someone with a plan.”

Armagh’s punishing defeat of Donegal in 2010 seemed to leave the northwestern county at a crossroads. Jim McGuinness was clear in which road he wanted to take: they re-emerged a year later as a radically different proposition.

Nobody who watched those mid-Noughties duels between the counties could have guessed at such divergent paths. During that period, Armagh were serial Ulster-title gatherers, winning seven of their 14 titles between 1999 and 2007 – McDonnell was among the bunch who finished with seven provincial medals. That well dried abruptly. Armagh have not even appeared in an Ulster final since 2008.

And the pendulum swung. Donegal have won five of their 10 Ulster titles since 2011. They have appeared in 10 of the last 12 finals. They became the standard setters in the North. The last big national occasion between the pair was the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2014 in Croke Park: predictably bruising, nerve-wracking and right to the wire. But unlike the Ulster final of a decade earlier, Donegal had the surplus of steel and resolve and edged through that day. Both teams will field several veterans of that match on Sunday.

Whatever frustration and envy Donegal might have harboured towards Armagh just flipped. Devenney was one of the most instinctive individualists in Ulster football through the noughties and Armagh put a prison watch on him every time they met. He reckons the current set of Donegal forwards just did not see Armagh as key rivals before this summer.

“I wouldn’t say so. If they are not your neighbours or a lot of coming together in games – like Tyrone and Donegal have been – then that sense of rivalry doesn’t really happen. Also, the joined-up nature of the game means you don’t have the same one-on-one battles that you had before. Its more the entire team falling back and swarming forward. An awful lot of players are scarifying their own game. Armagh are certainly improving now, but I would add a note of caution about the way Tyrone’s form was this year. Whether Armagh have corrected everything in one game, I am not too sure. But they put the work in and got the reward.”

It has been slow coming. In the pandemic championship of 2020, Armagh arrived in Breffni Park for a November closed-doors Ulster semi-final against Donegal. Hopes were high. And they were crushed, 1-22 to 0-13. It had echoes of the lectures in austerity and truth which the Joe Kernan-era Armagh team enjoyed delivering to Donegal. It set Kieran McGeeney’s team back.

This year, Donegal have already kept Armagh at arm’s length twice, winning a spiteful league game 1-14 to 1-13 and controlling their championship meeting with a substantive 1-16 to 0-12 victory. The brouhaha after the final whistle of the league match and the war of words between both camps afterwards have left relations far from cordial. If they lost sight of one another for a while, then they are very much reacquainted. The old edge, spiced by the memory of games from the lost generation, has returned.

“I think it is getting to that stage,” says Blake.

“It has come full circle now. Armagh are starting to blossom now. They are the same sort of team we used to play against. If Armagh have that bit of confidence in themselves they could get something out of it. I think in the games against Donegal in the league and championship, they didn’t cover themselves in glory. But they have the fuel now of a good win over Tyrone.”

Armagh’s exuberant win over the All-Ireland champions leaves them perfectly placed to return to Clones in a mood to set the world to rights. Donegal, meantime will find themselves back at the venue where they were edged by Derry in a controversially cagey Ulster final a fortnight ago.

“There are a lot of question marks about Donegal,” says Devenney.

“A lot of people are getting fed up of the game in general; the club game is terrible and the county game is hit and miss. But I am not totally blaming Donegal for that; everyone is playing the same fecking way. A team like Derry was obviously going to go full blanket and there was no doubt that Donegal was going to mirror them. And even playing poorly they could have won that game. So there is a thin line between success and inquest.”

For the first time in many seasons, the latest version of Armagh-Donegal feels like anyone’s game. Armagh have been pushing hard for a big scalp in recent years; Donegal have become that. Meanwhile, Donegal supporters will return to Clones after that fretful performance against Derry in the hope of seeing a bolder expression of their ability, if nothing else. Once again, whether they play Michael Murphy in a more advanced, full forward role will be the clearest signal of their intent.

“Michael certainly wasn’t moving as well against Derry as he was against Armagh [in the Ulster quarter-final] which makes me think he had a bit of a niggle,” Devenney says.

“I think he feels he needs to be involved out the field when the team is under pressure. But he is so devastating in there. Sometimes he needs to make that call himself and he played that role really well against Armagh.

“People went on about the 45s he missed against Derry. But they aren’t a given and the two scores he got were really brilliant. From the position he was in, those scores were top drawer. So things can be reviewed harshly in the cold light of day. But yeah, the whole county in Donegal are looking for us to go and have a cut. Not just the whole county, the whole country.”

It’s familiar terrain. A Sunday in Clones, old voices – and a place in the All-Ireland quarter finals on offer. Two into one won’t go. Not for the first time, Armagh and Donegal will bring out the best and worst in each other. Sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference. And that’s just the way it is.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a sports writer with The Irish Times